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    A Washington Tragedy

    Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

    Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

    The United States passed another grim milestone on Wednesday, when the coronavirus death toll topped 250,000.

    Cases of the virus are rising in every state but Hawaii. Hospital conditions are worsening by the day, with patients cramming into cafeterias and parking garages. It’s likely that every American will soon know someone who has been infected.

    Our graphics department even debuted a new color — a dark purplish red — on The New York Times’s online coronavirus case map to capture the record rates of infection.

    Yet, in the face of this entirely anticipated crisis, Washington is doing very little. After so many months of this tragedy, there is still no coordinated federal response to the virus.

    “The general strategy is abdication,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist affiliated with Georgetown University, who says it’s possible that as many as 300,000 more Americans could die of the virus before Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. There are going to be a lot of unnecessary deaths, a lot of unnecessary cases of Covid that didn’t need to happen.”

    There are no signs of any change in strategy coming from the current administration.

    President Trump is more focused on litigating a settled election than combating the virus. Since Election Day, he’s held one public event — an update on his administration’s effort to develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Other than traveling to his golf course, the president has remained holed up inside the White House.

    At the same time, the government he leads has been offering mixed messages.

    On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans avoid traveling and gathering with relatives for the Thanksgiving holiday. And later in the day the White House coronavirus task force held its first news conference in months, urging Americans to remain vigilant as they wait for a vaccine. But on Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, called some local guidelines limiting Thanksgiving gatherings “Orwellian.” (States that have imposed fewer virus containment measures now have the worst outbreaks, according to a New York Times analysis.)

    And Congress once again left town this week without any kind of economic relief deal. Politico reported that Senate Republicans did not even discuss a stimulus package at their weekly lunch.

    The lack of federal coordination has left state and local governments to pursue a patchwork of measures, while public health officials face continued skepticism from some Americans who still doubt the severity of the virus — some even from their hospital beds.

    Europe provides an alternative vision: After several weeks of lockdowns, new cases seem to be slowing in Germany and France. (Both countries kept schools open.)

    A number of public health experts have said that another round of temporary shutdowns will be the only way to slow the spread of the virus in the United States, too. Without economic relief from Congress, though, new restrictions could plunge millions of Americans and small businesses into even more financial peril.

    None of this should come as a surprise. Throughout the summer and fall, experts repeatedly warned that the colder months would bring worsening conditions as people were forced indoors. “Winter is coming,” they practically shouted.

    Of course, change is also coming in Washington. President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transition team is developing plans to deal with the virus. But Inauguration Day is nearly nine weeks from now.

    People need to really manage their expectations about this because without question, he has a tremendous challenge,” Ms. Rasmussen said of Mr. Biden. “There will be some things he can do on Day 1, but they’re not necessarily going to make an immediate impact.”

    Mr. Biden has promised an aggressive national approach that includes pushing for mask mandates, providing economic aid to local governments, helping to manage the distribution of a vaccine, expanding testing and rebuilding support for public health agencies. “There is a real desire for a real partnership between the states and the federal government,” Mr. Biden said Thursday after meeting with a bipartisan group of governors.

    But his ability to plan those steps is already being hampered by the refusal of a Trump administration appointee to sign the paperwork that would grant Mr. Biden’s transition team access to funds, equipment and government data.

    Once Mr. Biden is in office, his effectiveness will greatly depend on the relationships he can build with Republican governors and a closely divided Senate — a task that he has already admitted will be a challenge.

    The sad reality is that the mounting death toll could help Mr. Biden’s efforts, Ms. Rasmussen said. Those grim numbers could finally change attitudes toward the virus, prompting more Americans to adopt measures like mask wearing and social distancing.

    “I like to think that most people presumably don’t want Americans to be dying en masse, or have seen how it has affected their own families,” she said. “It’s very grim and horrible, but if anything good can come out of it, it might be that when Biden is sworn into office people are more willing to take the pandemic seriously.”


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    Early in President Barack Obama’s first term, it became clear that run-of-the-mill partisan suspicion of Democrats expressed by Republican voters and politicians had morphed into a more severe state: Obamacare wasn’t just bad, it was going to bring about death panels; Mr. Obama wasn’t just misguided in wanting a more generous welfare state, he was secretly shuffling “Obama phones” to the undeserving poor.

    In response, the 44th president’s defenders coined the term Obama Derangement Syndrome — which at times felt a bit over the top until poll after poll showed that many Republicans believed numerous conspiracies about the first Black president.

    Figures like Tucker Carlson on the political right have since counterpunched by accusing Democrats of Trump Derangement Syndrome, a condition best explained by this view in The Wall Street Journal: “In Stage Three, one is ready to believe anything — anything pernicious or salacious, that is — about Mr. Trump and to reject anything he has done that might be good for the country.” Symptoms also apparently include “obsession with the president’s hair and comparing him to Mao.”

    While four years of reporting has shown that many of the pernicious and salacious acts Mr. Trump has been accused of are indeed true, it is also true that he has garnered such disdain from the left that opposition to him can sometimes be reactionary and not entirely based in fact.

    On Wednesday, the Times Opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof took stock of the harm this dynamic has wrought on the issue of school reopenings in blue cities and states across the country.

    “Some things are true even though President Trump says them,” he wrote. “Trump has been demanding for months that schools reopen, and on that he seems to have been largely right. Schools, especially elementary schools, do not appear to have been major sources of coronavirus transmission, and remote learning is proving to be a catastrophe for many low-income children.”

    — Talmon Joseph Smith


    Former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin turned 79 today, which prompted him to crush a birthday cake with a bowling ball. (To promote coronavirus testing, of course.)


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