Progress on COVID and economy under Biden, but disunion haunts U.S. on its 245th birthday


Most U.S. adults are vaccinated but COVID-19 cases are rising. The economy is accelerating but inflation looms. Bipartisan cooperation has improved but political rancor is high.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden holds up team a jersey given to him during a ceremony honoring the members of the 2020 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 2, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

More than five months into Joe Biden’s presidency, the United States has changed in multiple ways, with a healthier business outlook and a pandemic - at least in many parts of the country - increasingly under control.

But as the world’s largest economy celebrates its 245th birthday on July 4, the Independence Day holiday will not be the full celebration that Biden had hoped, or promised.

A White House goal of vaccinating 70% of adults against COVID-19 with at least one shot will not be met, and legislation to repair the nation’s infrastructure is still far from arriving on Biden’s desk.

Biden will celebrate with a 1,000-person party on the White House lawn and fireworks over the National Mall. Historians said he, and the country, have a reason to do so.

“Compare where we are versus a year ago economically, in terms of public health, in terms of the national psyche, it is almost like living in a different country,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

He said Biden had to walk a careful line between celebrating the progress made on the pandemic and declaring: Mission Accomplished.

“If Biden had been too hasty in declaring the pandemic over, which he has not, it would be difficult to ask Americans for future sacrifices and it would also make Democrats politically vulnerable next year if the pandemic in some way recurs,” Beschloss said.

Trouble may loom ahead, though. The U.S. government said on Thursday that daily coronavirus cases rose in the past week, driven by increases in the Midwest and Southeast where vaccination rates are low and the highly contagious Delta variant, first found in India, is spreading.

“We are celebrating, as a country, at the same time as we recognize the fact that we’re in a serious situation for those who have not been vaccinated,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. “And the message is: Get vaccinated.”


In a sign of economic progress, the Labor Department said on Friday that U.S. companies hired the most workers in 10 months in June.

But the economy is far from back to normal, with 7 million fewer jobs than it had in February 2020, before the pandemic. Meanwhile, some businesses are having trouble hiring the employees they need, as workers struggling with childcare or worried about illness choose to stay home here.

Vanderbilt University historian Thomas Alan Schwartz noted the country’s challenges had changed since the tumultuous tenure of former President Donald Trump.

“Our problems are really different now,” he said. “I think Joe Biden’s America is a calmer, gentler place.”

Demonstrations over racial disparities have fallen after massive unrest in 2020 over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, and the white police officer charged with murdering him was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison.

Biden commemorated here the 1921 massacre of Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month and signed a bill into law making June 19 a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of the enslaved.

At the same time, threats from homegrown extremism, particularly white supremacists, are on the rise, Biden’s Justice Department has said.

And a Republican-led fight against "critical race theory" has turned the teaching of American history into a new political battleground here.

Despite Biden’s pledge to get Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work together - and massive popular support - legislation on infrastructure, police reform, and gun safety still has not crossed his desk.

The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, during which five people died including a Capitol Police officer, remains an open wound. House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has criticized members of his party who cooperate with a committee set up by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the insurrection.

Still, McCarthy attended a White House event on Friday to honor the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, the 2020 World Series winners. Baseball is the quintessential American pastime.

“As we beat this pandemic and celebrate fans coming back to stadiums, we celebrate something else: a national achievement,” Biden said, hailing how frontline workers, friends, families, and neighbors came together to look out for one another. “Together, as a nation, we have proved that it truly is never a good bet to bet against America.”

Asked about the future of Biden-backed infrastructure spending in Congress, McCarthy told a reporter he was only there to celebrate the Dodgers.

The labor market's recovery just picked up the pace. Now it needs to stay this way.

At this pace, Insider calculates, the US economy is now on track to recover all jobs lost to the pandemic in just seven months. The job-growth trend sharply improved in June, when the country added 850,000 payrolls. That follows a gain of 583,000 jobs in May and marks the strongest one-month jump since August. It was also the sixth straight month of job gains.

Maintaining the June pace would bring total payrolls back to their pre-pandemic peak by February 2022, according to Insider calculations. Using the three-month average for payroll growth delays a complete recovery to June 2022.

The trend lines up with the government's own forecasts for economic recovery. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office said on Thursday that the labor market should return to its pre-crisis payroll count by the middle of 2022. The office's forecast was revised to account for Democrats' $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, a faster reopening, and a surge in consumer spending.

Separately, the Federal Open Market Committee's latest set of economic projections see the unemployment rate falling to 3.8% by the end of next year. That compares to the pre-pandemic low of 3.5%.

Where the recovery goes from here

Several signs point to even stronger job creation in the months ahead.

A handful of factors leading Americans to stay at home — from childcare costs to enhanced unemployment insurance — are set to fade through the summer. Americans can expect "a really strong set of jobs numbers" starting in July as virus fears fade and schools reopen, Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers in a June 22 hearing.

The lapse of boosted UI payments should also push more people back into the workforce, he added. The March stimulus package included a $300-per-week expansion to UI set to expire in September. Yet 26 states plan to end the benefits early, arguing the supplement disincentivizes people from taking jobs.

Fifteen of those states began cutting benefits in June, and while the jobs report's survey period doesn't reflect the early cancellations, jobless claims data suggests the move is working. Filings for unemployment insurance fell the most since early May last week and notched a new pandemic low.

Still, a complete recovery is unlikely to yield the same labor market like the one seen before the health crisis. The recovery so far has been extremely uneven, with unemployment among Black Americans nearly double that for whites. Telecommuting, while down significantly from its pandemic peak, lingered in June even as most lockdown measures were reversed.

The labor shortage also looms large over the rebound. Wage growth has come in above trend over the last three months as businesses jostle to attract workers. While experts expect the shortage to fade into the fall, the imbalance between worker supply and business demand could keep wages climbing at the fastest rate in decades.

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