Free Covid Tests, Masks Should Spur New Strategy for President Biden - Rolling Stone
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The Bold Electoral Strategy That Could Save Biden’s Legacy: Give People Free Stuff

The White House took too long to offer free Covid-19 tests and masks. It shouldn’t stop there

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden holds a mask as he gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the remarks President Biden urged unvaccinated individuals to seek the vaccine and highlighted his plan to distribute free COVID-19 tests and masks to the American people. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: U.S. President Joe Biden holds a mask as he gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the remarks President Biden urged unvaccinated individuals to seek the vaccine and highlighted his plan to distribute free COVID-19 tests and masks to the American people. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden holds a mask as he gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country, from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on Jan. 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In the spring of 2020, the first pit of one of the most catastrophic years in recent American history, Donald Trump was, for lack of a better word, down bad. His approval rankings had sunk, thanks to his chaotic handling of a deadly disease that he first dismissed, then hurriedly scrambled to address as it decimated his base. The economy was in shambles. No one was at work. And then the administration had an idea: send everyone money. 

If you remember, during the first round of stimulus checks, with an election looming later in the year, Donald Trump came up with a bold plan: put his name on the money. In April, Trump insisted that the first Treasury Department disbursements of $2,000 would carry his name in the memo line, even if it meant delays in sending them to people. While it didn’t save him from eventual defeat, this was one of the smartest plays the former president made in staving off his fall from grace. People remember who pays them, and they love to get free stuff. 

Yesterday, we saw the first inclination that the Biden administration could try this since the rapidly-shrinking stimulus check program in early 2021. While it’s been clear for a while that we shouldn’t expect any new cash payments from the government – corporations are way back in the black, and the economy has stabilized to a point where only the poor are suffering again – the rollout of the government’s free at-home test delivery program and the news that the administration will give out 400 million free N95 masks could be the first steps in a revolutionary strategy to save Biden’s reputation before the midterm elections. 

The key is that they can’t stop there. Yesterday’s early rollout of the U.S. Postal Service’s free test-delivery program was just functional enough, despite its bugs, that it gave us a look at what a functional government can do for its citizens. The fact that the Biden administration had to literally be shamed into taking this step isn’t a good sign, nor is Jen Psaki’s sneering dismissal of constructive criticism and legitimate questioning. As the gridlock in Congress makes the Democrats’ electoral hopes dimmer and dimmer for the 2022 midterms, it’s clear that the party as a whole desperately needs any concrete signs of progress to market to voters. 

And even beyond 2022, it’s clear Biden could use the help. A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday morning shows Biden sinking to new lows with a 40 percent approval rating. If the administration is staring down two years of a hostile legislature after a blowout in the midterms, Biden is going to need to wring every shred of political goodwill he can get out of executive actions, presidential directives, and stimulus programs to directly change the lives of prospective voters before 2024. 

The concept is extremely simple: voters, and people in general, love getting free stuff. Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP assistance, and other benefit programs have been deliberately made into confusing, bureaucratic messes, while people who benefit from them have been systematically demonized for decades — all because the conservative movement in both parties knows that proper, functioning social welfare programs are universally popular. Imagine a system where applying for health care or food assistance is as easy as signing up for Covid tests is today.

It’s a philosophy that speaks to the fundamental concept of the government as a higher body that provides for its constituents. If the Biden administration wants to win big with people across the country, it should provide them with things. If it can’t do so through legislation, it needs to find other ways. A smart administration would double down on programs like the free Covid tests and masks, and keep them coming. Send out free stuff every month. On some level, it hardly matters what it is. Even with congressional deadlock, the president still has an enormous amount of leeway over discretionary spending and tools to make life demonstrably better for Americans. Google has sent most of its employees a device that can perform an almost-instant, self-administered PCR test whenever they want, in their own homes. Why shouldn’t the Biden administration immediately invoke the Defense Production Act to put one of these boxes in every American household?

Even at the bare minimum, it’s very easy to imagine people being far more grateful for a free pack of toilet paper shipped to their address than another speech on the vital importance of a voting rights bill that has already been completely doomed by the Democratic party’s political incompetence and the hostility of the fascists across the aisle. It’s unclear where the Democratic aversion to taking credit for things came from, but as gauche as it sounds they could stand to learn a few things from Donald Trump. If the president wants to send people a mask that could keep them safe, a test that could save a family member, or a check that pays next month’s rent, they should feel free to slap whatever star-spangled branding on it they want. That’s the reward you reap for actually doing your job, which is something that Biden seems reluctant to understand. 

Critics will reduce this strategy, as they did with Trump, to crude bribery. And so what? Maybe a little “bribery” is good, if it’s coming from a body that has a constitutional and moral duty to provide for the people it governs. In the third year of a deadly pandemic, it’s absurd that the American people haven’t gotten more out of the organization designed to provide for them. We should have had universal free masks and tests years ago. Anything we get now might be too little and too late. But the other option is promising a little and delivering nothing, which until now has been the administration’s default line. Biden’s sinking approval rating shows how well that’s worked so far. It’s clearly time to try something new.  

In This Article: Joe Biden

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