WASHINGTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr. is preparing for the biggest challenge he would face if elected president — ending the coronavirus pandemic — by reaching back nearly a century to draw on the ideas of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose big-government policies lifted the country out of the Great Depression and changed the shape of America.
With infection rates ticking back up in much of the country as the weather cools and social distancing becomes tougher, addressing the public health crisis could reach new levels of urgency by Inauguration Day. If current trends hold, as many as 400,000 Americans may have died from Covid-19 by then, recent projections show.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden will face voters in a televised town hall style meeting, offering him a chance to lay out his plan to bring the surging pandemic under control. Mr. Biden has staked his campaign on promising a more muscular federal role than Mr. Trump’s leave-it-to-the-states approach. His health advisers have been working on a set of plans that he would push out as soon as he took office, including ramping up testing, ensuring a steady supply of protective equipment, distributing a vaccine and securing money from Congress for schools and hospitals.
Many of his ideas carry echoes of Roosevelt’s New Deal vision of the robust role the U.S. government should play in helping the nation recover from a crisis. He would quickly appoint a national “supply chain commander” to coordinate the logistics of manufacturing and distributing protective gear and test kits, invoking the Defense Production Act more aggressively than Mr. Trump has to build up supplies.
Mr. Biden wants to mobilize at least 100,000 Americans for a “public health jobs corps” of contact tracers to help track and curb outbreaks And he has even called for a “Pandemic Testing Board” to swell the supply of coronavirus tests — a play on Roosevelt’s War Production Board.
“I’m kind of in a position that F.D.R. was,” Mr. Biden told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker in a recent interview, speaking about the challenges of the pandemic and the broader problems it has brought on, though he quickly added he was not comparing himself to Roosevelt.
“If you think about it, what in fact, F.D.R. did was not ideological, it was completely practical,” he added.
But the country Mr. Biden would lead is very different from Roosevelt’s America, and his coronavirus response proposals may not be all that easy to put into place. The pandemic has been caught up in partisan politics, and the public has lost faith in government institutions. And there will be no fireside chats in today’s fractious social media environment.
“It’s certainly going to be one of the biggest challenges he faces, given the amount of misinformation and undermining of public health authority that has occurred,” said Dr. Ingrid Katz, an infectious disease specialist at the Harvard Global Health Institute, who recently briefed Mr. Biden on school safety during the pandemic. “The seeds of discontent have been sown.”
As the campaign moves into its weeks, some of Mr. Biden’s plans might leave him vulnerable to the charge that Mr. Trump has leveled against all Democrats: that they are practitioners of “socialism” who would use the federal government to supersede individual and state rights.
Exhibit A is the debate over Mr. Biden’s seesawing call for a national mask mandate. Mr. Biden first raised it at the Democratic National Convention, then walked it back, before again characterizing it as a strong priority. Mr. Biden acknowledged that his team was still exploring whether he had the power to require Americans to wear masks outside their homes — or whether he would have to leave it to governors, as Mr. Trump has done.
“The question is whether I would have the legal authority as president to sign an executive order,” he recently told reporters. “We think we do, but I can’t guarantee that yet.”
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Mr. Trump has attacked the plan, accusing Mr. Biden of trying “to bring the full weight of the federal government down on law-abiding Americans,’’ who, the president said, “must have their freedoms.” At the first debate, he also repeatedly accused Mr. Biden of wanting to “shut down the whole country” again to contain the virus; he was apparently referring to comments Mr. Biden made to David Muir of ABC News in September, when Mr. Muir asked whether he would shut down the country if scientists advised him to do so.
“I would shut it down, I would listen to the scientists,” Mr. Biden said at the time. He subsequently said he did not think that would be necessary if measures were taken to slow the spread of the virus.
The success of Mr. Biden’s approach to the pandemic would also depend heavily on intangibles, including his ability to get buy-in from governors whose political leanings are nothing like his own, and from citizens, who are deeply, rancorously divided. Mr. Trump’s behavior during his own illness from the virus this month, including downplaying its danger, removing his mask for the cameras as soon as he returned from the hospital and exhorting the public not to “be afraid of it,” was a reminder of the contentious landscape Mr. Biden faces.
At least one Republican, Tom Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania who served as secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said a more forceful federal response could be workable, but only if Mr. Biden communicates with all governors and surrounds himself with scientific and medical experts and leaders on both sides of the political aisle — something Mr. Biden has repeatedly promised to do.
“You may not get unanimity, but you’ll certainly build a consensus,” Mr. Ridge said.
At least once a week for the past six months, Mr. Biden has been receiving lengthy briefings from a pair of experts his team refers to as “the docs”: Dr. David A. Kessler, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Dr. Vivek Murthy, surgeon general under President Barack Obama.
The advisers update the former vice president on the latest pandemic statistics — people infected, deaths, trend lines — and bring in panels of outside experts, who usually appear virtually on a screen that looks “like a Jumbotron,” one said, to discuss specific issues, like school reopenings, racial disparities and vaccine distribution.
In an interview, Drs. Kessler and Murthy described Mr. Biden as eager to follow their advice and more than willing to let the scientists do the talking in a Biden administration — unlike Mr. Trump, who likes to speak for himself and offers medical and public health pronouncements that often lack any scientific underpinning. They say Mr. Biden is particularly determined to restore the battered reputation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, has been repeatedly undercut by Mr. Trump.
“He has always understood that he would allow experts to speak directly with the public, because he knows that part of repairing trust is to allow the public to hear from people who are producing the data,” Dr. Murthy said.
Also serving on Mr. Biden’s Public Health Advisory Committee are Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Rebecca Katz, co-director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University; and two officials in the Obama administration, Dr. Nicole Lurie, an assistant secretary for preparedness and response and Lisa Monaco, a former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
Ramping up testing is a major piece of the Biden platform. He wants to start his presidency with the capacity to perform 100 million tests per month, up from about 30 million currently. Whether that goal is realistic in the near term depends partly on addressing continuing supply and production problems. But as more companies receive approval to mass-manufacture tests that can be performed outside laboratories, some experts are hopeful that the number is achievable.
But while Mr. Trump has the full apparatus of the federal government at his disposal to track the pandemic, Mr. Biden has only his advisers to analyze trends and projections. Dr. Kessler said he has spent hours on the phone calling pharmaceutical companies about testing and gathering input from modelers to project caseloads and deaths for the first part of 2021. He also presents research on treatments and potential vaccines to the former vice president, while Dr. Murthy briefs Mr. Biden about the virus’s impact on mental health, schools, sports and other aspects of society.
Mr. Biden has often pointed to his work with Mr. Obama to beef up U.S. readiness for a pandemic, including establishing a pandemic preparedness office within the National Security Council, as well as their efforts to fight the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009. Even before the first documented case of coronavirus infection in the United States, Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for rolling back their work.
“We are not prepared for a pandemic,” he wrote on Twitter in October 2019.
But critics say that the Obama administration did not do nearly enough to replenish the Strategic National Stockpile, the government’s cache of medicines and medical supplies, after the H1N1 pandemic, leaving it unprepared for Covid-19. And they say the H1N1 response had some of the same kind of contradictory messaging for which Mr. Biden now faults the Trump administration. Mr. Trump seized on that framing during the first debate, describing the Obama response as ”a disaster.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden is trying to draw a stark contrast to Mr. Trump, whose advisers are now promoting the controversial goal of achieving “herd immunity” by allowing the virus to spread among young healthy people while attempting to protect the old and vulnerable. Mr. Biden frequently calls out the president for undermining career government scientists. He summed up his own approach this way, in a recent speech in Wilmington, Del.:“I’ll level with the American people, I’ll take responsibility and I’ll support, rather than tear down, the experts responsible for the day-to-day execution of the plan. I’ll simply follow the science.”
An ad his campaign released last week makes the same point, showing Mr. Biden taking notes in one of his virtual pandemic briefings while the narrator says, “When Joe Biden wants an update on the virus, he calls on the nation’s top health experts.”
Whether that will be enough to persuade all Americans to follow public health advice is unclear. While Mr. Biden sees that as the role of the president, Michael Leavitt, a Republican former governor of Utah who was health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush, says the bully pulpit only goes so far.
“What I really would like to see happen is for individual people to begin taking responsibility for acting in ways that are not only good for them but for society,” he said. “Do I believe the president of the United States saying everyone must wear a mask will change that? I’m not confident it would.”