“Life is a gamble, at terrible odds,” says another character near the end of the 1966 play, “if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.”
This week President Joe Biden continued taking some hard bets, hoping the coins will land his way. He set the pattern in January, days before he took office, by outlining a huge Covid relief package amounting to $1.9 trillion and then topped it last month with a proposal for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
On Wednesday he made another consequential gamble by announcing he would pull all US troops out of Afghanistan, a decision his predecessors were tempted to make, but didn’t. Along with new tensions with Russia and China, Biden is facing leadership challenges in the wake of the mass shooting in Indianapolis, police violence in Minnesota, Chicago and elsewhere and the stubbornly high rate of Covid-19 cases.
The White House revealed that he would speak to a joint session of Congress on April 28 — ratcheting up the stakes of the prime-time presidential ritual by scheduling it just two days before his 100th day in office, a milestone that shapes perceptions of new presidents.
When Biden goes to the Capitol that was overrun by rioters enraged that he, and not Donald Trump would be certified as the winner of the 2020 election — and when he enters the House chamber that had to be defended at gunpoint on that chaotic January 6 — it will be a defining moment, either an opportunity to show that he is indeed “building back better” or a demonstration that he is becoming overwhelmed by mushrooming crises.
Biden is pressing “the accelerator to speed away from most of Trump’s policies,” Frida Ghitis wrote of his budget proposal. He is “eager to undo not just the wounds from the pandemic but also the damage of the Trump years at home and abroad,” and to shore up the US “diplomatic muscle without weakening its military one. In that combination, there’s something for the left and for the right to dislike.”
Responding to the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, at the hands of a police officer who said she mistook her gun for a Taser, Biden called out the “trauma that Black America experiences every day,” and said, “there is no justification for violence,” Peniel E. Joseph noted.
“By not being more specific and leaving the impression that it was only protesters’ violence that was unjustified, these laudatory words missed one profound mark: police violence scars American communities from the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs to the east and west coasts. It is right to ask for peace, but that demand must be extended beyond sporadic instances of looting to explicitly include the police, as well,” Joseph wrote.
Biden “has his hands full advancing a major infrastructure package and waging the battle against Covid-19, but this administration can’t put off civil rights until later,” Julian Zelizer argued. “The urgency of doing something now is fierce, lives are at stake every day and the President, who went so far as to repudiate white supremacy in his inaugural address, has to use the power of his office to take meaningful action.”
America needs a truth and racial healing process, wrote former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. “The misperception that racism is individual — rather than systemic as well — is one of our nation’s most persistent and counterproductive myths. Institutionalized racism pervades nearly every system in the nation, including financial, educational, health, housing, criminal justice and voting”, he observed. South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is a model that dozens of countries have followed, he noted.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill added fuel to an economic recovery featuring surging retail sales and an improving jobs picture. “Although an unfortunate minority of Americans have been devastated by the pandemic, most U.S. households are better off financially today than they were before COVID reached our shores,” wrote Eric Levitz, in New York Magazine. “The combination of multiple rounds of stimulus checks and a pandemic-induced contraction in consumption opportunities has enabled Americans to pay off old credit-card debts and stockpile savings.”
On the right, Biden is being accused of talking a good game about bipartisanship while opting to push legislation through without securing any GOP votes. “Until Biden came along, every single covid-19 relief bill was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses,” Marc A. Thiessen pointed out in the Washington Post. “The president has turned unity into division by using covid relief as a pretext to pass all sorts of liberal spending projects that have nothing to do with the pandemic…Now, Biden is trying to do the same thing when it comes to infrastructure.”
Less than a month after two passenger jets commandeered by hijackers brought down New York’s World Trade Center, with a third hitting the Pentagon and another crashing into a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, US forces began an attack that would soon topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had harbored Osama bin Laden’s terror campaign.
This week, Biden declared an end to America’s longest war, saying the last US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan starting May 1. All will be home by the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The decision “sets the stage for a predictable disaster,” wrote Peter Bergen. “Yes, al Qaeda is a mere shadow of what it was on 9/11. That’s because for the past two decades, the US and its allies have prevented Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and allied groups. It’s a policy that has worked. Now, that sound policy is being abandoned…The pullout of US and NATO troops will likely enable the Taliban to take over much of the country.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who served in the Army for 37 years, observed that “many of those who wear or have worn the uniform will be upset with the President’s action, feeling betrayed because they were not allowed to ‘finish the job’ in which they have invested so much. They will pour themselves a bourbon, and like so many soldiers in so many past wars, they will ask themselves: What was it all for?” Of Biden’s decision, Hertling wrote, “I’m convinced this wasn’t an easy call for him or his team, but in my opinion it was time to do so.”
Three Afghan women — Habiba Sarabi, Fawzia Koofi and Sharifa Zurmati — who are part of the government team negotiating with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, wrote that since the US went to war with the Taliban, “We have been able to make unprecedented progress toward democracy and human rights, all while improving the quality of life for Afghan women. Over the last two decades, the risk that an Afghan woman will die in childbirth has plummeted, while the life expectancy of an average Afghan woman has increased by almost 10 years. Meanwhile, the percentage of Afghan girls who attend secondary school has grown more than sixfold.” They added: “The Islamic Republic and the Taliban should engage meaningfully at the negotiating table, since there is no going back. For the Afghan people and the Afghan women, the only way is forward.”
For more on Biden and foreign policy:
Lanhee J. Chen: The choice no president ever wants to make
David A. Andelman: President Joe Biden is making a major mistake on Afghanistan
Michael Bociurkiw: Putin is massing troops at the Ukraine border and testing Biden’s mettle
US health officials recommended pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week to allow time for investigation of blood clots among a very small number of vaccine recipients. “It is essential that the FDA and CDC demonstrate to the public that they are taking seriously any risk, even the most minuscule, and continuously evaluating vaccine safety and efficacy honestly, rigorously, and transparently,” wrote Dr. Céline Gounder. “Dismissing any risk could fuel greater mistrust.” She added: “More than 180 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been administered in this country to date, according to CDC data, and we have not seen blood clots associated with either of those vaccines.”
In Michigan, the Covid surge continued, with no clear understanding of why, wrote Dr. Kent Sepkowitz. The likeliest explanation: “a very transmissible viral variant is spreading one step ahead of the vaccination among those newly eligible for it, with some contribution from a premature, partial return to normal life… Michigan after all was called out repeatedly by former President Donald Trump last spring as a state that needed to be liberated from Covid-19 restrictions, as if the Democratic governor, not the pandemic, was the enemy.”
For more on Covid:
Anushay Hossain: J&J vaccine pause prompts a needed discussion of women’s health
Sara Novic: I was fortunate to get my vaccination, but the hurdles are too great for many other Deaf people
We asked readers to let us know what they’re most eagerly anticipating doing after lockdown. Jhodie-Ann Williams curated the responses, noting, “The country beginning to open up and vaccinations becoming more widely available is bittersweet. Thoughts of friends, loved ones — and even the millions who were strangers — who died of Covid-19 before they could see this day, are not lost.”
“There is excitement to finally experience things like holding a new grandchild in your arms, boarding a plane, putting on lipstick — you know, that others will be able to see — and going to a baseball game.”
“When the pandemic is over, I want to see my children and grandchild again,” wrote one California reader, Renee Aubuchon. “We have lost a year of hugs and dinners, of doing things together, being with each other that we will never get back. How precious, how incredibly sweet, it will be to see them again. I also want to walk along the beach, in a forest again…”
When the pandemic ends, could we be in for another “Roaring 20s”? The 1920s were a decade lived in the shadow of “the last massive pandemic, which occurred alongside a devastating war,” wrote Nicole Hemmer. “The end of these twin crises unleashed a decade of exuberance and experimentation — and a decade of growing inequality and deepening conservatism.”
Today, she noted, “there is such a hunger for joy and community and a sense of being fully alive; if we can feed that both with sequins and serious political change, then the 2020s might be a decade of growing opportunity and equality, rather than an era of excess, barreling toward collapse.”
If the 1920s indeed occupy a big share of mind in the present decade, wrote Gene Seymour, Ernest Hemingway, the writer whose early novels broke through in that era, could “return to the spotlight.” A new PBS documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick makes the case for paying attention to Hemingway, despite the many ways his life and work may be out of sync with our time.
“The Hemingway style — clipped, allusive, laconic and hard-boiled — helped give American writing its rhythm and tone as much as blues and jazz helped give American music its global identity. Hemingway’s style, in language and in life, reads like a metaphor for what it means to be an American, for better and for worse.”
Issac Bailey is a journalist based in South Carolina, “a Black man who has never personally had a nasty run-in with the police. I should have no trouble with them. But I fear them, and I know they fear me,” he wrote. “We’ve bathed our culture in so many guns that it is reasonable to wonder who is carrying one and what they plan to do with it. It’s not crazy for cops to assume a gun is present in every vehicle they stop, just as it’s not crazy for Black men to think they might become the next hashtag during a traffic stop because a cop was having a bad day or can’t tell the difference between a Taser and Glock. We’ve sprung a trap on ourselves and can’t see our way out.”
In Minneapolis, ex-officer Derek Chauvin’s trial is coming to a close, with the nation watching. Paul Callan noted the array of police witnesses testifying against Chauvin and the medical experts “with sterling credentials” who testified “that Chauvin and other officers used excessive force, substantially contributing to Floyd’s death.”
Against that, Callan noted, “the defense argues that Floyd’s heart trouble and his refusal to remain in the police car after his arrest were the main reasons for his death.” But the flaw in the argument is that “the restraint used by Chauvin does not have to be the sole cause of death to support a murder or manslaughter conviction under Minnesota law. The prosecutor need only prove that Chauvin’s actions were a ‘substantial causal factor.'”
Paul Begala recalled this week his favorite ride at the Fort Bend County Fair — the Tilt-a-Whirl.
“You sit in a car that rolls and spins around an undulating track, moving in at least three different ways at once,” he wrote. “The ride is a blast. When you get off it, it’s hard to walk. You get the sensation that the ground is spinning and heaving. But it’s not. It was the chaotic ride that made the ordinary seems disorienting. Someone who’s clearly been on the Trump Tilt-a-Whirl too long is Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. The poor man is staggering about, wondering why the earth is spinning.” Cornyn tweeted a lament Monday that Biden is limiting his own tweets and interviews and scripting his comments.
“Does Cornyn really miss the last four years of presidential Twitter? Does he not remember the insanity and toxicity that former President Donald Trump unleashed every day on social media? Does Cornyn really think it’s a problem that the current President is being…steady, stable, normal and grounded?”
Nikki Haley, a Republican who sharply criticized Trump after the Capitol riot, now is saying she would support him if he ran again in 2024. “She’s again taking the coward’s approach,” wrote Jill Filipovic, “speaking out when she believes the risk is low, and then refusing to actually act when the stakes are high.”
With Trump taking a lower profile post-presidency, Fox News host Tucker Carlson “is among the leading voices working deliberately to mainstream a set of virulently racist anti-immigrant ideas,” wrote Nicole Hemmer. “History demands that we pay more attention, not less, because it suggests there’s every reason to believe Carlson and his acolytes could succeed in normalizing hate for a wider audience.”
Simran Jeet Singh: Why Sikh Americans again feel targeted after the Indianapolis shootings
Cornell William Brooks: The lessons of Beulah Mae Donald, the mother who took down the Klan
Catherine Mayer: Public sympathy is with the Queen. But the British monarchy may need more than that to survive
Sherry Cola: Our beautiful Asian faces are not going anywhere
Edward J. Markey and Mondaire Jones: Add four justices to the Supreme Court
Errol Louis: Is New York ready for a pro-Trump governor?
A reader’s question sent John D. Sutter on a search for US cities most likely to avoid disasters caused by a changing climate. The surprising answer: places like Duluth, Minnesota.
Sutter consulted Jesse Keenan, of Tulane University, who has been researching the question. “The entire Great Lakes region is poised to succeed in this way, Keenan told me. Thinking across decades and generations — not right away — that northern region could undergo a Renaissance as people flee fire, rising seas, floods, hurricanes and extreme drought. There are still climate risks in the upper Midwest, to be sure. But they are expected to be less intense than those affecting other parts of the United States.”
Among other climate-resilient cities:
–Rochester and Buffalo, New York
–Knoxville, Tennessee, and
–Asheville, North Carolina.
Duluth’s mayor Emily Larson told Sutter, “We are known as the San Francisco of the North.” The average home price is a comparative bargain — just above $200,000, to San Francisco’s $1.4 million.
The average temperature in January may not be as attractive: 8 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 49 in San Francisco.
“It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s an extraordinary place,” Larson said of Duluth.
“And we want to be that (refuge) for people.”