Talking Points

Biden's big Omicron gamble

President Biden walked a fine line between sounding urgent and reassuring, concerned and confident, worried and resolute in remarks delivered at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

He downplayed the danger of the Omicron variant for Americans who've gotten vaccinated against COVID-19 and received booster shots. But he also warned of dire consequences for those who have resisted vaccination and spoke of living through a "critical moment" testing us "as a people and as a nation," demanding courage and sacrifice.

Whether Biden managed to strike the right balance is something we won't be able to judge until we've seen how events unfold over the coming weeks.

In the halting, somewhat slurred delivery we have come to expect from the president, Biden laid out ways the federal government will seek to provide Americans with support to get through the building Omicron surge. A thousand military doctors, nurses, and medics will be deployed around the country to buttress hospital staff in virus hot spots. And beginning in January, 500 million rapid at-home tests will be made available for free to anyone who needs them.

Those and other initiatives are welcome, but will they be enough? A thousand medical workers spread over a continent-wide country of 330 million people is a miniscule drop in an enormous bucket. A government that spends nearly $7 trillion a year supplying an average of 1.5 free tests per person after several weeks' delay is absurd, inadequate, and unconscionably slow. But that's all that Biden was prepared to offer.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Biden sounded defensive in response to a reporter's question about whether his administration dropped the ball in not making these and other moves sooner. That's understandable. The president wasn't wrong to point out the incredible speed of Omicron's spread. Yet it's also true that we're nearly two years into this pandemic; other countries have been handing out rapid, at-home tests for months; and the rise of new variants should have caught no one at the White House by surprise.

Biden is taking a big gamble. If Omicron continues to move quickly, surging and fading within a few weeks and proving mild for most, his restrained response will look like a cool-headed and wise reaction to fast-moving events. But if things go sideways through and after the upcoming holidays, as they often have with COVID, the president will face a lot of difficult questions about why his administration responded to a critical moment with so little urgency and alarm.