Don’t Listen to Centrists When They Say Good Things Are “Politically Impossible”

The Biden administration’s U-turn on distributing millions of COVID tests free of charge — after White House spokesperson Jen Psaki ridiculed the idea two weeks ago — is a case study in how meaningless claims of “political impossibility” often are.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on December 21, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

During a conversation with reporters on December 6, White House press secretary Jen Psaki fielded a question from NPR’s Mara Liasson about why the US government wasn’t making free COVID tests available to all. Liasson’s question was perfectly reasonable. After all, several countries have opted to make free testing available — and the idea of simply sending tests through the mail made a lot more sense than the much more convoluted and insurance-based scheme the White House was then touting. Psaki’s response, which combined exasperated mockery with a clichéd talking point about how much free testing would cost, was resoundingly and rightly criticized.

Sometime during the roughly two weeks since Psaki gave her press conference, the laws of political reality appear to have shifted — and what was worthy of mockery by the White House press secretary less than a month ago seems to have been quite possible all along. Though details are still emerging, Biden administration officials this week made clear that they plan to send out half a billion free, rapid at-home tests in January. We’ll have to wait and see how the White House intends to make such a plan work, and whether or not its promised quantity of tests is actually adequate to meet needs.

What we do know is that it was always possible to make free testing available on a large scale and that, with the Christmas season in full swing, the White House’s foot-dragging represents a significant failure (even if it has essentially conceded the concept of free testing). Given the administration’s track record to date and Joe Biden’s own established preference for means-testing, it’s still possible the rollout next month will come with strings attached or needless eligibility criteria. Regardless, the case for making rapid COVID-19 tests free to anyone and everyone who wants them remains as ironclad, from a public health perspective, as it did a few weeks ago.

A bigger takeaway from the administration’s sudden pivot is that the greatest barrier to large-scale or activist state policies is quite often just plain and simple political will. The bipartisan preference for a small-c conservative approach to governance, even during a world-historic crisis, is just that: a preference, and no more bound by immovable laws than any voluntarily assumed belief system.

Examples of big institutional and policy changes that are regularly dismissed as unfeasible by political elites in both parties can frequently be seen working well in other countries, and not just in relation to COVID. Universal health care, federally guaranteed paid parental leave, publicly funded childcare, and a vast range of other transformative and popular policies would be perfectly within reach for people across the United States, were it not for organized elite and corporate opposition to them.

It’s not, of course, the case that any president can simply will such things into existence. But as even a relatively small example like that of free COVID testing shows, it is very much is the case that the realm of what’s possible is itself a political question — and that all kinds of things become decidedly more possible once people who wield power and influence stop treating them as if they were unthinkable.