COVID Normalcy and the American Gerontocracy

Speaker Pelosi has it. Is President Biden next?

President Joe Biden smiles after signing the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022 in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 6, 2022. Watching from left are Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Annette Taylor, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Wednesday, Steven Taylor noted that an outbreak among the elite guests at the Gridiron dinner demonstrates that COVID is not done with us. The Atlantic‘s Russell Berman has something of a follow-up in “A Push for Normalcy Tests the Gerontocracy.”

Yesterday afternoon, President Joe Biden hosted a good old-fashioned bill-signing ceremony at the White House. Before an audience of several dozen in the State Dining Room, the president celebrated the long-awaited enactment of a postal-reform bill. After his brief remarks, a large, bipartisan group of lawmakers crowded around Biden as he put pen to paper on the legislation. They huddled in close, as politicians do, silently jostling for prime position in the photo. None of them wore a mask, although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi carried one around her wrist like a handbag.

The event was a taste of the normalcy that Biden has been trying to create lately. Reality intruded this morning, however, when Pelosi announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the highest-ranking government official to do so since former President Donald Trump’s near-death bout with the virus in October 2020. The 82-year-old speaker stood maskless right beside the 79-year-old Biden yesterday; she also attended an even larger, mostly mask-free event at the White House a day earlier that featured Biden and former President Barack Obama.

Biden’s own test came back negative last night, the White House said in a statement. Because he interacted only briefly with Pelosi at both events, he is not considered a close contact under the CDC guidelines. But that may be wishful thinking. The virus seems to be stalking the president: Two members of Biden’s Cabinet, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, tested positive after attending the annual Gridiron Club dinner on Saturday night, a gala that brought together several hundred members of the D.C. elite. The president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, also tested positive after attending the dinner.

Biden, who did not attend the Gridiron Club event, is going about his business this week, reflecting what he called the “new moment” that the country has entered in its fight against the pandemic. “We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines,” the president said during last month’s State of the Union address. “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.”

As he has throughout his tenure, Biden is trying to model the behavior the government is recommending. He’s fully vaccinated and double-boosted, having received an additional shot within days of their authorization for people over the age of 50 or who are immunocompromised. When the CDC urged wearing masks in public spaces, the president wore one except when speaking, to the point where Republicans mocked him for keeping his face covered while walking outside alone during trips between his helicopter and the White House. Now that the CDC has updated its recommendations, Biden is back to glad-handing in close quarters without a mask.

Yet the push for normalcy is complicated when the leaders doing the pushing are, according to the CDC, still at the highest risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID. People in Biden and Pelosi’s age group, 75-84, represent just 3.3 percent of COVID-19 cases recorded during the pandemic, but they make up more than one-quarter of all deaths. That older Americans comprise such a small portion of overall cases is likely because millions of them are long retired and interact with far fewer people than the president of the United States and the speaker of the House. (Both of Pelosi’s octogenarian lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 82, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, 81, weathered mild COVID-19 cases during the winter Omicron wave.) With COVID cases rising again in more than half the country, including the District of Columbia, public-health experts are encouraging people at higher risk for severe COVID, including the elderly, to exercise more precautions. Can Biden do that while projecting “normalcy”?

Two-plus years into the pandemic, and more than a year into the vaccination era, I don’t see that he has any choice. During the campaign and his early presidency, he dutifully modeled responsibility—perhaps excessively so once he was vaccinated—in order to set the example. At this stage, he’s taking a slightly elevated risk to show Americans that it’s time to get on with their lives.

Now, I don’t think Pelosi should have been at the signing ceremony. Not because she’s geriatric but because she was sick. She should have quarantined herself. And, if the symbolism of watching Biden sign (checks notes) Postal Service reform? into law was somehow so important that she simply had to be in attendance, then she should absolutely have worn a mask.

Whether Hoyer, Clyburn, and the rest should all have retired long ago to pave the way for the next generation of leaders is, well, ultimately a question for the constituents who keep sending them back to Washington to decide. One presumes they have the good judgment to be vaccinated and boosted.

Regardless, the fact that we’ve pretty much ended widespread social distancing, masking, and other public-facing countermeasures in order to “get back to normal,” it’s inevitable that more White House and Congressional staffers and senior leaders—quite possibly including the President himself—will contract the disease. The point of being triple- and quadruple-dosed is that it should mitigate the effects substantially.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    To paraphrase Niven’s Laws: COVID doesn’t care if you’re having fun or getting back to normal.

  2. BugManDan says:

    because she was sick. She should have quarantined herself.

    Was she feeling bad before she went to the ceremony?

  3. Gustopher says:

    During the campaign and his early presidency, he dutifully modeled responsibility—perhaps excessively so once he was vaccinated—in order to set the example.

    Some people just aren’t going to be happy. I actually wonder whether the country would have been better off if the Biden administration was a walking dumpster fire of corruption and scandal so opponents would have something to focus on and be opposed to that wasn’t a pretty miraculous vaccine and basic public health measures.

    Hunter Biden really let us down. And Good Ol’ Joe Biden should have brought him into the administration and given him Jared’s old portfolio.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Sigh. The vaccines were invented and ready to go before Biden got to office. He did a solid job of getting them distributed. The fact that he’s not Trump doesn’t mean he’s immune from criticism; it’s part and parcel of the job.

    I do think there was some performative BS on COVID from this administration, such as the order from SECDEF that people on military installations—including those of us who were vaccinated–had to not only go back to masking indoors but do so outside as well. That was rather absurd signaling rather than a reasonable health measure.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: Sigh. You weren’t criticizing the performance of the administration, you were criticizing the actions Biden himself was doing modelling responsible behavior — i.e., wearing a mask even after being vaccinated.

    And it was a big mask too, wasn’t it?

    I get it, masks are annoying, all orifices should be exposed to the air, and Republicans are going to Republican.

    There’s a lot of things that the administration did wrong with Covid and the messaging, but Biden’s own performative modelling of responsible behavior wasn’t one of them. (And surely, he practiced putting on and taking off the mask in the most dignified way, with coaches and focus groups…)

    (Given that Republicans are going to Republican, maybe the administration should have recommended some insane precautions, and let “saner” “minds” “compromise” down to masking in public — something involving attaching pool noodles to clothing to ensure safe distancing, perhaps)

  6. Kathy says:


    …but Biden’s own performative modelling of responsible behavior …

    I’m old enough to remember when that was called leading by example.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: There was no good reason to wear masks in meeting with a staff that was 100% vaccinated. Or to wear them outdoors. But I get why he went overboard.

    @Kathy: I literally use that exact wording in the post to describe his behavior.

  8. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Sorry, I must have missed that.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @BugManDan: Exactly my question. Did she actually KNOW that she was sick? Running a fever? Lost sense of taste? (I only included those two markers because the other 4 or 5 are business as usual for me, so those are the only reliable indicators.)

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I’m 100% vaccinated and I still wear a mask and social distance in grocery stores, lumber yards, and gas stations (no *restaurants, bars,* etc). Am I going overboard? Because even 100% vaxed I can still pass it on to others and I’ll be dawg damned if I am going to have an asymptomatic case and then pass it on to my granddaughters, who can’t yet be vaxed, or for that matter any random immune compromised person I come across in the grocery store.

    ** I don’t miss them at all
    and ftr, I have never masked out of doors as it never made sense to me.

  11. Kathy says:


    I miss going to the movies a little, but otherwise I do the same.

    I also mask outdoors and while in the car. I put on a mask before leaving home, and remove it only when I get back.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: I bring it up because I know it is not as big a sacrifice for me as it is for others. I do miss live music, but ever since I moved out here, I have found precious few opportunities for it.

  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    and ftr, I have never masked out of doors as it never made sense to me.

    I’ll bet you haven’t ever gotten off the subway, to go up the stairs with 150 other people into a urban district with several thousand people milling around in a 10 block area have you?

    But yes, I agree that barring the type of street congestion found in Daegu, ROK, and some districts in downtown Manhattan, much outdoor masking is a little excessive. (But downtown Daegu on the culture street–restaurants, fashion shops, bookstores, and a (oops) 2 movie theaters–was f’n crowded. Every day was like going to a rave.)

  14. gVOR08 says:

    I had to wait in line at the bank today, and again to get my second booster shot at CVS. Nobody around here in SWFL wears masks, nobody stays out of the sports bars, and vax rates are about average. But people in line were 5-6′ apart. Maybe people just got used to a little personal space. Being of Norwegian descent, I like it. Six feet seems about right, COVID or no COVID.

  15. Jax says:

    @gVOR08: That was my favorite part about the Covid rules, nobody breathing down my neck while at the register waiting to check out! We should just keep that.