By Heather Cox Richardson
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In any normal era, the big story right now would be the country’s dramatic economic recovery from the recession sparked by the coronavirus. In the first three months of 2021, the economy grew by 1.6% as economic stimulus measures kicked in and people started to buy things again. Amazon posted profits of $8.1 billion for the first three months of the year; the same months last year brought the company $2.5 billion. Supply chains are still frayed, pushing prices upward, but those problems are expected to ease as the chains heal.
At the beginning of the year, economists predicted just 0.6% growth, because they did not expect vaccinations to go into circulation as quickly as they did, and they expected the recession to linger for months. If the current growth rate holds, it would mean an annual rate of 6.4% (it’s unclear, of course, if it will hold).
For the last three weeks, jobless claims have dropped. Restaurants and service industries are not in as good a shape as consumer goods, but they should recover as more and more people get vaccinated. We are still down about 8.4 million jobs lost during the pandemic, but employment is moving in the right direction.
This economic turnaround is possible because of the administration’s vaccine program. That’s another huge story. Just four months ago, it was unclear how vaccinations would happen, and how long they would take. But Biden clearly considered the vaccination program his top priority, a way to prove that an efficient federal government was indeed vital to the country.
As of Monday, more than 56% of U.S. adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than 246 million doses have been administered. Biden is aiming to get 70% of Americans vaccinated by July 4 and is trying to make getting vaccines even easier to help persuade everyone to get them. The administration wants pharmacies to give shots to walk-in patients, for example, and is giving more doses to rural areas to cut travel distances. Today, the administration announced that states whose people are refusing the vaccine will be able to decide if they want the vaccines allocated to them as a percentage of their population. If not, they can choose to contribute those they don’t want to a federal pool from which states eager for more could pull.
Biden appears to be betting that Americans of all parties will pay attention to what he is accomplishing and stop listening to Republican lawmakers, who are living in an entirely different political reality than the Democrats.
But it’s hard to get airtime for good, solid, progress when Republican leadership is openly feuding, the former president’s advisor Rudy Giuliani is in front of cameras talking about the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s first impeachment, and a federal judge today whacked Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, for misleading her, Congress, and the public about the Mueller investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The fight between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) is escalating. To court the Trump base, McCarthy is trying to bring the caucus together behind the former president, but Cheney refuses to overlook the January 6 insurrection. She is adamant that Republicans must push back on the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, while the Republicans are coming together behind that lie. New York Representative Elise Stefanik, a Trump loyalist, is working to succeed Cheney as the third most powerful Republican in the House. Swapping Stefanik for Cheney will cede the party to Trump once and for all.
On her side, Cheney has the fact that there are already 400 federal cases against the January 6 insurrectionists, and those cases will be in the news, with videos and evidence, in the coming months, constantly reminding people that the Trump Republicans are defending that insurrection. And she is calm and measured, while the Trump loyalists are represented by provocateurs like Lauren Boebert (R-CO), fond of parading around with her guns; Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA); and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who is currently entangled in a sex-trafficking scandal involving minors. Cheney can do a lot of damage to a Trump party if she wants to.
Tying the party to Trump and the Big Lie also means that party leaders will have to weather whatever might come of the federal investigation into Giuliani, who is publicly accusing officials at the Department of Justice of trying to get to Trump through him. But the investigation into Giuliani’s work in Ukraine began not under Merrick Garland, the current attorney general, but under William Barr, Trump’s attorney general. And today, federal prosecutors in Manhattan asked U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken to appoint an outside lawyer, known as a “special master,” to review the evidence investigators took from Giuliani’s home and office to avoid accusations of political bias.
Since the search, legal analysts have been very visible in the media, suggesting that Giuliani is in, as Trump critic George Conway said, “deep s**t.”
Another story today also grabbed headlines away from Biden and kept the focus on the former president. U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a strongly worded opinion ordering the Justice Department to release a 2019 memo connected to whether Trump should have been charged with obstructing justice during the Russia investigation. Jackson accused the DOJ under Barr’s tenure of misleading her, Congress, and the public both about the memo and about the Mueller Report itself.
The DOJ has until May 17 to decide if it will appeal her ruling or release the memo.
This weird dichotomy between the things that are going very right in the new administration and the things that are going very wrong has unusually profound implications. Republican lawmakers in the states are doing all they can to skew the mechanics of government so they can regain control of the country no matter how unpopular they are.
Paying attention to the fireworks on the Republican side of the aisle threatens to drown out the extraordinary things the Biden administration has already accomplished. But ignoring the growing radicalism of the Trump party threatens to downplay just how dangerous it really is.