The new president must not repeat Obama’s mistakes.

A picture of Barack Obama’s face split in half, each on either side of a photo of Joe Biden.
A picture of Barack Obama’s face split in half, each on either side of a photo of Joe Biden.
Photo illustration: The Atlantic/Getty Images

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. …

Nine months into the pandemic, government leaders can’t comprehend — or refuse to clearly say — what this virus is or how it spreads.

Overlapping red and blue speech bubbles with a coronavirus-shaped cutout over the overlap.
Overlapping red and blue speech bubbles with a coronavirus-shaped cutout over the overlap.
Photo illustration: The Atlantic; source: Getty Images

The United States has been overwhelmed by vectors of misinformation throughout the pandemic. But it’s not just Donald Trump, many Republican state leaders, and several thousand COVID-19 deniers who have waged a war against scientific comprehension. America’s virus illiteracy spans the partisan divide.

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis chirped about his state’s superior performance and mocked COVID-19 worriers — only for Florida to become the site of one of America’s worst outbreaks several weeks later. Deep-red North Dakota similarly resisted commonsense measures such as mask mandates before it suffered an even worse outbreak.

Even if we narrow our focus to blue territories, however, nonsense abounds — nonsense, granted, that is more likely to result in mass confusion and annoyance than mass infection. In Los Angeles, a new order prohibits two friends from going on a socially distanced walk at the beach. At one point in early December, the city’s playgrounds were closed while its malls were open. In Philadelphia, an ordinance makes it illegal for neighbors to sip beer outside, yet indoor drinking and dining at bars and restaurants is permitted by state law. In New York, bars, restaurants, and gyms have been ordered to close, but not until 10 p.m. — as if the virus keeps to a hard vampiric sleeping schedule. In the ninth month of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s public-health response makes as little sense as ever. …

U.S. COVID-19 statistics are about to look better — even though the reality is almost certainly getting worse. It’s time to hibernate.

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Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 26, 2020, in Houston, Texas. Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Image

Here is what we know about the state of COVID-19 as we approach the winter holiday season.

On Thanksgiving Eve, more than 1 million passengers cleared airport security, the highest single-day volume since the coronavirus reshaped American life in March. While airplanes are not likely settings for super-spreader events, everything before and after people step on a plane is somewhat risky. This includes parents shouting at their misbehaving kids in security lines; individuals munching on Auntie Anne’s pretzels, masks dangling from their chins, in departure-terminal crowds; and, most importantly, extended families swapping sweet-potato pie and invisible pathogens over the dinner table in poorly ventilated homes. …

Seven weeks ago, South Korea and the U.S. had the same number of virus deaths. Today, South Korea has fewer than 300, and the U.S. has more than 70,000.

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People walk through an alleyway in Seoul on Marh 24, 2020. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

On February 16, a Sunday, a 61-year-old woman with a fever entered the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea. She touched her finger to a digital scanner. She passed through a pair of glass doors and proceeded downstairs, to the prayer hall, where she sat with approximately 1,000 other worshippers in a large windowless room. Hours later, she exited the building and left behind a trail of pathogens that would lead to thousands of infections, triggering one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world.

By the end of February, South Korea had the most COVID-19 patients of any country outside China. New confirmed cases were doubling every few days, and pharmacies were running out of face masks. More than a dozen countries imposed travel restrictions to protect their citizens from the Korean outbreak, including the U.S., which had, at the time, recorded an official COVID-19 death toll low enough to count on one hand. …

The big will get bigger as mom-and-pops perish and shopping goes virtual. In the short term, our cities will become more boring. In the long term, they might just become interesting again.

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Photo: Joshua Dudley Greer

Last weekend, I walked a mile along M Street in Washington, D.C., where I live, from the edge of Georgetown to Connecticut Avenue. The roads and sidewalks were pin-drop silent. Movie theaters, salons, fitness centers, and restaurants serving Ethiopian, Japanese, and Indian food were rendered, in eerie sameness, as one long line of darkened windows.

Because the pandemic pauses the present, it forces us to live in the future. The question I asked myself walking east through D.C. is the question so many Americans are all pondering today: Who will emerge intact from the pandemic purgatory, and who will not?

In the past three weeks, I’ve posed a version of that question to more than a dozen business owners, retail analysts, economists, consumer advocates, and commercial-real-estate investors. …

For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity — promising identity, transcendence, and community, but failing to deliver

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Photo: Chris WIndsor/Getty Images

Big tech companies now trade at one of the smallest premiums in history

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Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

On September 28, 2018, tech died.

That’s according to a widely circulated eulogy prepared by Vincent Deluard, a strategist at INTL FCStone, a financial-services company. “If technology is everywhere, the tech sector no longer exists,” he wrote. “If the tech sector no longer exists, its premium is no longer justified.” When the Financial Times got its hands on the document, it leaned into the death thesis, declaring: “The tech sector is over.”

In news reports, death has several definitions. When it applies to a person, it means the end of life. When it applies to a company or industry, it means the end of growth. Print is dead, live TV is dead, and Millennials killed American cheese; but you can still read a print newspaper with the TV on while eating a cheeseburger. …

The feature’s predictive powers make me feel … predictable, robotic, and un-singular

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Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

A specter is haunting Gmail — the specter of a completed sentence. My fingers tap out the beginning of a message, and a gray phantom appears, with eerie anticipation.

“Thanks for taking [a look!]”

“Tuesday’s no [good, sorry.]”

“Can’t tom[orrow but what about next week?]”

The spectral presence is a technology called Smart Compose. If you’ve used Gmail even once in the past few months, you’ve almost certainly noticed the function, even if you didn’t use it or know its name. Smart Compose is the more advanced kin of another new Gmail technology, called Smart Reply. That’s the name for the boxes that may appear under a new message suggesting a rote reply, such as “Thanks so much!” …

The American system has thrown them into debt, depressed their wages, kept them from buying homes — and then blamed them for everything

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Photo: southtownboy/Getty Images

When a staid American institution is declared dead, the news media like to haul the same usual suspect before the court of public opinion: the Millennial generation.

The 80 million–plus people born in the United States between the early 1980s and the late 1990s stand accused of assassinating various hallmarks of modern life. The list of the deceased includes golf, department stores, the McDonald’s McWrap, and canned tuna. Millennials tore up napkins, threw out mayonnaise, and mercifully disposed of divorce and Applebee’s before graduating to somewhat postmodern crimes: “Have Millennials Killed Serendipity?” …

If you’re going to worry about the economy, tumbling stocks are the least of America’s financial troubles right now

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Photo: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2007, Larry Kudlow, then a talking head for the business network CNBC, proclaimed, “There’s no recession coming. It’s not going to happen.” That same month, the economy plunged into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

This week, Larry Kudlow, now the director of the National Economic Council, stood on the White House lawn and struck a familiar note: “I’m reading some of the weirdest stuff [about] how a recession is right around the corner. Nonsense,” he said. “Recession is so far in the distance, I can’t see it.”

Perhaps, as morning follows the rooster’s crow, an imminent recession looms behind Kudlow’s latest optimistic squawk. The outcome certainly seems possible if you’ve recently been torturing yourself by following the stock market. After the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 550 points on Tuesday, the past few weeks qualify as no mere correction, but as one of the worst stock meltdowns of the past few decades. …


Derek Thompson

Senior editor, business columnist @TheAtlantic. Adjunct @columbiajourn. Thursday afternoons @hereandnow. Metaphors. dthompson [at] theatlantic.

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