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Biden's response to the baby formula shortage is disappointing — and disingenuous

While necessary, the FDA recalls exacerbated a preexisting baby food shortage that was already hard to miss.
Image: Empty containers of the recalled Similac baby formula outside of an education center in Portland, Ore., on May 12, 2022.
Empty containers of the recalled Similac baby formula outside of education center in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.Nathan Howard / Getty Images

President Joe Biden announced last week that his administration would take a variety of steps to help parents who are struggling amid a nationwide shortage of baby formula. Biden promised to loosen regulations that restrict imports and to take measures that would increase domestic manufacturing capacity. But when a reporter asked, “Should you have taken those steps sooner before parents got to these shelves and couldn’t find formula?” the president was indignant.

The claim that he couldn’t have anticipated a particular crisis is an excuse the president and his allies reach for often.

“If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have,” Biden snapped. “But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us, and we have to move with caution as well as speed.” The claim that he couldn’t have anticipated a particular crisis is an excuse the president and his allies reach for often when they are confronted with the consequences of their own actions. That excuse, however, is never convincing.

We heard it during America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and again when the omicron variant of Covid-19 swept the country. These disasters were as predictable as the baby formula shortage — because they were predicted.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a recall of select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare in February, after four infants were hospitalized with bacterial infections related to the formulas. The recall prompted the shuttering of a major manufacturing facility from Abbot Labs, America’s largest domestic producer of baby formula. While necessary, those recalls exacerbated a preexisting baby food shortage that was already hard to miss.

“Baby formula shortages are worsening throughout the United States, causing parents to be increasingly concerned about how they will feed their infants,” The New York Times had reported in January. That same month, a Wall Street Journal report had listed many contributing factors for the scarcity of baby formula, but no one disputed that formula was becoming hard to find. Well before it reached crisis proportions, local media outlets from San Antonio, Texas, to Knoxville, Tennessee, to Columbus, Ohio described how shortages were impacting parents.

Biden didn’t have to read anyone’s mind to know the situation was becoming unsustainable. He only had to read the news. On Monday, his administration and Abbott Labs reached an agreement to resume production of baby formula. The speed with which the administration worked to resolve the bottleneck of formula supplies after it found itself under fire for not acting fast enough suggests these actions could have been taken much earlier.

The president gave his thoroughly implausible excuse about being unable to foresee perfectly foreseeable events when David Muir of ABC News, referring to the omicron wave of the novel coronavirus asked, “How did you get it wrong?” Biden laughed. “Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world,” he replied. “Who saw it coming?” Well, his administration, for one.

In June 2021, with Biden standing beside him, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla assured the public that he was “closely monitoring and addressing the emerging variants” and that Pfizer had the capacity to develop specific vaccines if, “God forbid,” a new strain of the disease evaded the protections afforded by existing vaccines.

Two months later, in August 2021, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that the U.S. could be “in trouble” if new variants emerge that prove more contagious than the delta strain of the novel coronavirus. That same month, Biden himself warned that new iterations of the virus would continue to emerge as long as the disease continued to spread beyond America’s borders. “As long as the virus continue to rage outside the United States,” he said, “potentially more dangerous variants could arrive at our shores again.”

The press corps couldn’t understand how this administration could find itself so flatfooted by an event it anticipated.

The Biden White House found itself under siege from a press corps that couldn’t understand how this administration, which had made Covid mitigation its core mission, could find itself so flat-footed by an event it anticipated. How was it possible this deep into the pandemic to see Americans waiting on long lines for Covid tests and struggling to find the masks they were still largely mandated to wear in public? The White House’s responded with an initiative aimed at sending free masks and tests out via a federally operated online portal. But within a month of this initiative’s announcement, infection rates in the U.S. collapsed, and the CDC withdrew its indoor-masking guidance.

As for our bloody, chaotic exit from Afghanistan, Biden’s claim that “I don’t think anybody anticipated” the country’s quick collapse was contradicted by intelligence reports that said a quick collapse could happen.

When it finds itself in a bind of its own making, the Biden White House would like you to believe that it is woefully bereft of good advice and sound advisers. That isn’t exactly exculpatory, but administration officials appear to believe it is preferable to the truth: that lethargy and overconfidence within the administration’s ranks has often led them to dismiss the prospect of looming crises until those crises become real.