By Lambert Strether of Corrente
There were so many cycles of outrage during the former guy’s administration it was hard to keep track of them, but one of the most serious was ignited by Politico in March 2020 with this article: “Trump team failed to follow NSC’s pandemic playbook” (which was written under the Obama administration. From Politico:
[There are] hundreds of tactics and key policy decisions laid out in a 69-page National Security Council playbook on fighting pandemics, which POLITICO is detailing for the first time. Other recommendations include that the government move swiftly to fully detect potential outbreaks, secure supplemental funding and consider invoking the Defense Production Act — all steps in which the Trump administration lagged behind the timeline laid out in the playbook.
“Each section of this playbook includes specific questions that should be asked and decisions that should be made at multiple levels” within the national security apparatus, the playbook urges, repeatedly advising officials to question the numbers on viral spread, ensure appropriate diagnostic capacity and check on the U.S. stockpile of emergency resources.
Obama, in a speech in Philadelphia in October 2020, laid the charge more forcefully and vividly:
We literally left this White House a pandemic playbook that would have shown them how to respond before the virus reached our shores. They probably used it to I don’t know, prop up a wobbly table somewhere. We don’t know where that playbook went.
And on NPR in November 2020, Obama was even more vivid, or perhaps I should say florid:
We had set up a pandemic preparedness task force inside the White House, which involved various agencies, and they would do regular tabletop exercises to figure out how we’re going to respond. We put together a pandemic playbook, which we actually gave to the incoming Trump administration, indicating here are the steps that you need to take, and if, in fact, this ends up being an airborne virus that is highly contagious, then, you know, the steps that are going to need to be taken in advance of any development of a vaccine, or any other kind of medical intervention, is wearing masks, social distancing, so forth and so on.
Obviously, these are serious charges, which amount to “If only Trump had followed our Playbook Covid would have been beaten, and thousands of lives would been saved.”
For starters, I should note that the Playbook is an impressive document, and that I’m encouraged that the United States still has a functioning civil service, at least in some part of the Federal Government. However, (1) I’m not clear on the “origin story” of the playbook, which after all only became an issue in the election year of 2020, and not before; (2) the Biden administration is not making key plays from the Playbook in any case, leading me to question (3) whether any Playbook, no matter how impressive, would have enabled us to dodge the bullet that is Covid, given the state of our public health system. Let me start with the media critique, move on to the Biden administration, and then consider the public health system.
(1) Origin Story of the Playbook
Obama says “We put together a pandemic playbook, which we actually gave to the incoming Trump administration.” That’s not how it works. Government documents are not simply “given” like the latest best seller to read; they are embedded in enormous institutional matrices. I have analyzed a lot of physical documents in my time. Here is the title page of the Playbook:
Notice first, from the logo at top left, that the owner of the document is not, as Politico would have it, the National Security Council, but The Executive Office of the President. “The EOP consists of several offices and agencies, such as the White House Office (the staff working directly for and reporting to the president, including West Wing staff and the president’s closest advisers), the National Security Council, and the Office of Management and Budget.” The EOP has a staff of about 1800, some political appointees, some not.
Notice second that the document has no date, no version number, no authors, no distribution list, and no glossary, despite being replete with acronyms. (Contrast the Playbook to the high-gloss “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza” (2006), which has a signed letter from President Bush to introduce it.) Next, the Playbook’s type and logos have the jaggies, as if it was printed on an inferior grade of inkjet printer. (Some of the inner pages are really bad.) Finally, the document is printed landscape-style, and if you look carefully at the top, you will see the circular indicators indicative of comb binding. In my experience, documents in such formats are often shared in meetings round a conference table. Not many are printed, and they don’t go outside the boundaries of the entity that produced them.
All these indications combine to lead one to the conclusion that the Playbook was meant for internal use in the EOP only. Why does this matter? Because in substance the plays in the Playbook — and this is not to take away from its excellence as content — are meant to help the Executive wrangle the interagency process at the Federal level, as well as the SLTT (States, Localities, and Tribes). But none of those entities have signed off on it (nor could they, given that the Playbook has no date or version information; what would they have been signing?) The Playbook has the plays, but it doesn’t have any players. All the players have to be acquired, and the field has to be playable. You may say that the former is the job of any administration. Indeed it is, and the Trump administration was bad at it, but Obama’s claim that “We literally left this White House a pandemic playbook” is, I suppose, true, but also not relevant. The Playbook may have been necessary. but it was certainly not sufficient. The use of the word “literally” is always such a tell.
For completeness, I offer a link to the Trump administration’s responses to the Playbook outrage, which aren’t especially impressive. (Nevertheless, the paradox that the Democrats are simultaneously treating Trump as a Russian asset and making sure he has relevant documents from the EOP is a little mind-bending.)
(2) Biden Hasn’t Adhered to the Playbook Either
There are at least two areas in which the Biden Administration has not followed the Playbook, either. One is just inexplicable; the second is improbable. And there is a third area where the Playbook was utterly useless.
Inexplicably, the Biden Administration has not followed the Playbook’s guidance on Communications. From the Playbook:
Clearly, the HHS Secretary was not “the primary spokesperson for the public health and medical response” under the former guy, but the same is true for the Biden administration, where Biden, Walensky, Fauci are all spokespeople, along with talking heads like Slavitt and Gottleib. Biden’s HHS secretary [checks notes] Xavier Becerra is nowhere to be found, and they all have fallen to fighting among themselves. Surely a single spokesperson would be best? (Biden, bless his heart, is the best communicator in the bunch, but he needs to save his energy.)
Improbable is the best way to characterize the Playbook’s view of the credibility of the Federal government:
“The American people,” taken as a whole, did not “look to the Federal government for action.” Half didn’t do it under the former guy, and half aren’t doing it under Biden, either. I wish they had, very much, but they have not.
Beth Cameron, the civil servant who developed the Playbook, expressed her in retrospect rather wistful hopes for it in June 2020:
I would emphasize that unlike other natural disasters that we face, like hurricanes, for example, the pandemic is affecting all 50 states and the federal government has to lead a response. There will be no way to decrease our cases and beat the pandemic in the U.S. unless we have a concerted effort and a national plan for testing and contact tracing.
There was little testing and no contact tracing under the former guy. The same is true under Biden.
We can’t fight a pandemic state by state and country by country. This will always leave us in reaction mode rather than anticipating, which is where we need to be. A whole-of-government, whole-of-world, unified approach is still essential to surge needed testing, tracing and gear to all locations where the disease may seed and spread.
There was no “whole-of-government, whole-of-world” approach under Trump. The same is true under Biden.
(3) West Wing Brain and the Playbook
Over and over again on The West Wing, the climax of the show is a speech. Jed Bartlet delivers the speech, the audience (fictive and real) swoons, the staff congratulates themselves, and “fundamentally nothing will change.” Similarly with the Playbook. It’s a wonderful document. Politico swooned. Unfortunately, the plays have to be run. Players have to be found. Not only that, the plays have to be run on an actual field. But what state is the field in? What happens when everything goes wrong? What happened, in fact:
We couldn’t do testing, because of the CDC test kit debacle. A travel ban was hard, because public health authorities opposed it, it was decried as racist, and China was thought to be the problem, not Italy. Contact tracing was not possible. Asymptomatic transmission makes detection hard. Doctors didn’t have treatment protocols. (Remember the ventilator fad?) We had no treatments. We had no vaccines until Operation Warp Speed kicked in. It is extremely difficult to see how even the best Playbook — and again, this document is very good — even if accepted gracefully when handed over, and studied carefully, could have overcome all these material issues. It’s a real example of West Wing brain to think a White House playbook can make a broken public health system whole. Tables and bullet points can’t compensate for years of disinvestment. Would some lives have been saved with more competent execution? Probably. How many? Well, not as many one might have thought hearing Democrats in 2020. If the Playbook were that easy to execute, Biden would have executed it.
 I think Politico plays a little fast and loose with its quotes. For example, they say:
The guide further calls for a “unified message” on the federal response, in order to best manage the American public’s questions and concerns. “Early coordination of risk communications through a single federal spokesperson is critical,” the playbook urges.
What the Playbook actually says, under “Key Questions” in section 2a, “Initial Response Activation” under the “Decision Making Rubric” for that section, is:
Is the US government coordinating risk communication to develop a unified message across a range of media?
And a note:
“Early coordination of risk communication through a single federal spokesperson is critical to collect and disseminate data elements from across SLTT and federal agencies.
The playbook does not “call for.” It asks a question. This is a venial, not a mortal sin, but it bugs me. So does the omission of “disseminate data elements,” which is clear about, well, data, and not “communications” in normal use. (One might also note that the Biden administration has not been strong on a “single spokesperson” either.
 Obama’s claim that the Playbook covers the use case of airborne transmission is true only if you equate droplet transmission with airborne transmission. From the Playbook:
Here is a PDF file of the “Pandemic Playbook”Pandemic-Playbook