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What Biden said (and didn't say) about the federal Covid response

Biden told governors he wants to be a reliable partner to state governments on Covid-19. So why is the RNC trying to turn this into a controversy?
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, on Dec. 27, 2021.Carolyn Kaster / AP

When there's a five-second video from a 10-minute event causing a stir online, it's generally wise to exercise some caution. It's possible that the five seconds capture a critical moment that deserves attention, but it's just as likely that the brief excerpt has been taken out of context in a misleading way.

Take this week's virtual White House meeting with governors, for example.

At one point during the discussion, which focused entirely on officials' response to the Covid-19 crisis, President Joe Biden said, "Look, there is no federal solution. This gets solved at a state level."

The Democrat's critics pounced as a five-second clip of the comments made the rounds online. Conservative media outlets acted as if this were a major development in the fight against the pandemic. Even some on the left suggested Biden had endorsed a Trump-like position, passing the buck on an effective Covid response to the states, and abandoned the federal government's unique role in addressing the public health crisis.

The Republican National Committee also pushed the five-second excerpt, presenting it as proof that the president had "finally admitted he failed."

Reality tells a very different story. As New York's Eric Levitz explained:

[T]he actual message of Biden's remarks was roughly the opposite of this: The president said that the federal government has not been doing enough to combat the pandemic, it will now be doing more, and should its efforts prove inadequate in certain regions, state governments should alert the federal government to the problem, and it will pursue corrective measures.

The context isn't exactly hard to find. The White House posted the full transcript to its website.

The relevant portion started with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a conservative Arkansas Republican, thanking the Biden White House for extending "great support to the governors" as part of the broader response to Covid-19. Hutchinson added that Biden's task force "has been responsive and has kept us informed every step of the way."

The Arkansan concluded his comments by saying, "I want to say, personally, I've enjoyed working with you when I was in Congress and as head of the DEA. And I appreciate your leadership."

It was moments later when Biden made offhand comments about the crisis being "solved at a state level" — adding that it's at the state level "where the rubber meets the road."

In other words, federal plans are important, but public health policies are often implemented at the state level. With this in mind, Biden — who was speaking to the nation's governors at the time, touting governors' important role — explained that he wants his administration to be a reliable partner to state governments, since the White House can't do it alone.

To be sure, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms about the federal response to the pandemic. But there's nothing to be gained by isolating five seconds and pretending an anodyne (and accurate) comment about governmental divisions of labor should be the basis for some kind of controversy.