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Joe Biden confronts a leadership moment

CNN's Jeff Zeleny speaks to voters in Wisconsin about Biden's presidency compared to Trump's ahead of Biden's town hall in Milwaukee.

Posted: Feb 16, 2021 7:20 AM
Updated: Feb 16, 2021 7:20 AM

An exhausted and impatient nation needs the kind of clarity and leadership only a president can provide as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a potentially decisive stage.

President Joe Biden's responsibilities go far beyond the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan on the launchpad in Congress, a federal effort to swiftly accelerate vaccines and a push to get more relief to millions of unemployed.

There have been some signs in recent weeks that an injection of new White House urgency has improved the organization of the anti-Covid-19 effort and coordination with state governors who cried out for months for help.

But on his first official trip outside Washington on Tuesday to Wisconsin, highlighted by a presidential appearance at a CNN town hall at 9 p.m. ET, Biden faces urgent questions about how much of normal life can resume in the months to come.

After four weeks in the White House -- which his team used to understand the full scope of Donald Trump's negligence on the pandemic while Washington was consumed by the ex-President impeachment trial -- Biden is now in a position to assume responsibility and, if necessary, blame for the federal effort.

With millions of parents anguished over the plight of their kids -- many of whom haven't attended in-person classes for a year, he is under pressure to set expectations on school openings that his team has so far struggled to provide.

The country wants to know whether a swift fall in new infections after a holiday surge is the start of the end of the nightmare. Can the White House speed up its promise for sufficient vaccine doses for everyone by the end of summer? Or should we brace for yet another wave of sickness and death because of proliferating variants may challenge the effectiveness of the program?

And how do states balance political and economic pressure to lift restrictions on businesses such as restaurants as cases ease, knowing that letting up could give a mutating pathogen a new opening? Trump's irresponsible pressure for a swift reopening last year for his own political reasons helped cause a horrible summer surge across the Sun Belt. Yet with many governors from both parties desperate to restore freedoms, an attempt by Biden to counsel patience could cause further political discord.

Steeling national resolve

Biden also faces a more fundamental task that falls to presidents in times of crisis. He must craft a national narrative about the current scale of the challenge and chart a path to the light in a way that might restore morale amid the darkest winter of modern times.

With nearly half a millions citizens dead, he leads a country emotionally and mentally beaten down by nearly a year of isolation and separation. The psychological pressure is exacerbated by the fear of contracting Covid-19 experienced by anyone on an errand as simple as going to the supermarket.

It's much worse for essential and manual workers who lack the luxury of working from home.

Biden is well suited to the pastoral aspects of the presidency, after enduring a life of tragedy. But the test he faces in summoning national resolve and is more daunting than for any new president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Four weeks ago, in his inaugural address, Biden sought to steel Americans for the fight ahead, to instill hope that it would be inevitably won and to call for unity, without which he argued a rebound was impossible.

Tuesday's town hall will also give the President a first chance to publicly address the aftermath of the impeachment trial.

After keeping his distance from the drama in the Senate, Biden bought himself the room to perform a healing role in its wake. In a written statement on Saturday, he pleaded with Americans to "end this uncivil war and health the very soul of our nation."

Hope or a false dawn?

Biden does have good news to share. A total of 39 states are showing downward trends in Covid-19 infections. Compared to a month ago, the US is recording 58% fewer new cases of the coronavirus. On Sunday, the country recorded nearly 65,000 new cases. The last time that number was between 60,000 and 70,000 was at the end of October, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

While deaths are averaging a staggering 3,000 a day, those figures are expected to soon start falling as well since fatalities are a lagging indicator. Medical experts put the improving picture down to the easing of the Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year holiday spike in infections. Social distancing measures may also be having an effect, but it's probably too early to conclude that vaccinations being rolled out are a major contributor.

But there is sign of hope here as well. Daily inoculation totals are now around 1.6 million. A total of 70 million doses have been distributed. More than 53 million have been administered -- though only 4.3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Still, Biden's administration is on track to exceed his promise to get 100 million vaccines in arms by the end of his first 100 days in office.

But in a crisis this dire, every hour brings new challenges.

While Biden has restored almost daily briefings by government scientists, which were missing for many months under Trump, a proliferation of voices have sometimes caused confusion. This has increased pressure for clear and realistic messaging from the President. Biden's dialogue with the country has been complicated by the strict Covid-19 restrictions taken by his team, partly to set an example for Americans, that have curtailed his travel.

In normal times, the new president might have been expected to make an address to a Joint Session of Congress by now -- a priceless chance to put some policy meat on the more aspirational rhetoric of his inaugural address.

Confusion on schools and vaccinations

One area that still needs work is the coordination between Washington and the states. The bipartisan National Governors Association wrote to Biden asking for clarity on who can get vaccinated and when as well as broader issues related to distribution.

"Due to the anxiety created by the demand and supply of the vaccine, it is imperative that the American people fully understand the process," the letter said, and included a complaint that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting on vaccines distributed to states and administered was confusing the public.

The association warned of similar uncertainty surrounding the federal government's dispatch of vaccines direct to pharmacies.

The question of school opening also remains deeply hazy. And some Republicans, eager to reverse Democratic gains in the suburbs in the 2020 elections, have seized the frustration of parents, accusing the White House of cowering before powerful teachers unions.

In the latest iteration of the White House position last week, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was committed to making sure schools are open five days a week once safety measures are in place. Earlier in the week she appeared to set the target for success at one day a week. The message from the CDC has often been difficult to understand as well. Last week, the agency released a new five step strategy to get schools back to in-person instruction -- including wearing of masks and social distancing, but insisted it was not mandating that schools should open.

A CNN analysis of federal data on Monday showed that 89% of children in the US live in a county considered a red zone for Covid-19 infection. If proper mitigation cannot be carried out in such areas, high school and middle school kids should remain in virtual learning, according to CDC guidelines. And on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that though teacher vaccinations were not a "prerequisite" for a return to school, the guidance suggested that those with high risk conditions should be prioritized or have virtual learning options.

Education is an issue that is as much the responsibility of the states and local jurisdictions as the federal government. Those local authorities badly need the tens of billions in funding included in the Covid-19 rescue plan to make schools safe.

But Biden did run for office stressing his capacity to overhaul the chaotic and neglectful approach to the pandemic of the Trump administration. Problems that others can't solve end up on the President's desk. And it is indisputable now, that there is massive confusion about how and when schools will reopen.

Schools are a totemic issue for many Americans -- and are also crucial to freeing up parents to return to the work force to ease the economic crash. If Biden can get America's kids back in class safely, he would make huge strides towards lifting the national mood -- and making a success of the early months of his administration.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 703345

Reported Deaths: 13194
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion959691716
Lake51222940
Allen38926670
Hamilton34288404
St. Joseph33770539
Elkhart27117431
Vanderburgh22034393
Tippecanoe21671212
Johnson17451374
Porter17206297
Hendricks16735310
Clark12657190
Madison12302337
Vigo12155244
Monroe11385166
LaPorte10800204
Delaware10312184
Howard9617211
Kosciusko9068113
Hancock7939139
Bartholomew7854153
Warrick7675155
Floyd7542176
Wayne6880198
Grant6773170
Boone6524100
Morgan6370138
Dubois6071117
Marshall5753108
Dearborn568075
Cass5671102
Henry5563100
Noble537983
Jackson492369
Shelby477795
Lawrence4332118
Gibson427389
Harrison426570
Montgomery416486
Clinton416053
DeKalb406684
Huntington376980
Whitley375539
Miami371465
Knox365389
Steuben362657
Putnam351960
Wabash346677
Jasper346146
Adams337652
Ripley333368
Jefferson311579
White307354
Daviess288899
Wells285180
Decatur278592
Fayette277062
Greene270385
Posey268333
Scott260553
Clay252244
LaGrange251470
Randolph234480
Washington230431
Spencer227431
Jennings224647
Fountain207745
Sullivan207342
Starke201952
Owen191856
Fulton190839
Carroll185620
Jay185529
Perry179536
Orange176553
Rush170324
Vermillion165743
Franklin165435
Tipton160943
Parke143816
Blackford132831
Pike130134
Pulaski113145
Newton102934
Brown99640
Crawford97014
Benton96213
Martin82415
Warren78915
Switzerland7698
Union69610
Ohio55511
Unassigned0405

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1048109

Reported Deaths: 18917
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1217031352
Cuyahoga1063982060
Hamilton779451165
Montgomery49883989
Summit45144907
Lucas39826760
Butler37638568
Stark31348894
Lorain24090472
Warren23835291
Mahoning20822583
Lake19915362
Clermont19397228
Delaware17972130
Licking16089206
Fairfield15646196
Trumbull15521459
Medina14815259
Greene14613236
Clark13576288
Wood12709184
Portage12313194
Allen11303229
Richland11017198
Miami10511212
Muskingum8688127
Wayne8543209
Columbiana8527226
Pickaway8421120
Marion8360135
Tuscarawas8359239
Erie7540153
Ross6692145
Hancock6683123
Geauga6527146
Ashtabula6458164
Scioto6280100
Belmont5591158
Union556247
Lawrence5458102
Jefferson5283147
Huron5270113
Darke5264121
Sandusky5164119
Seneca5093118
Washington5074107
Athens499454
Auglaize474884
Mercer470384
Shelby455089
Knox4371108
Madison421058
Putnam420298
Ashland412086
Fulton407966
Defiance399996
Crawford3858100
Brown385555
Logan372276
Preble369598
Clinton359659
Ottawa355478
Highland346059
Williams323274
Champaign318556
Jackson306951
Guernsey305848
Perry289349
Fayette276948
Morrow274439
Hardin263563
Henry263166
Coshocton258257
Holmes252699
Van Wert238662
Gallia233246
Pike232431
Adams227552
Wyandot226353
Hocking208958
Carroll188947
Paulding168538
Meigs141438
Noble132737
Monroe128841
Morgan106423
Harrison105336
Vinton81414
Unassigned02
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 54°
Angola
Partly Cloudy
52° wxIcon
Hi: 55° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 52°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 55°
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
54° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 54°
Lima
Partly Cloudy
50° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 50°
Temperatures start to climb back up on Friday as we'll see mostly sunny skies return to northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio.
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