All it took to get free COVID tests was ruthlessly bullying the president

And it might be working for student loans, too.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 21: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the omicron variant of the coron...
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Washington, D.C., is a place defined by glacial slowness and resistance to substantive change. And yet, despite the government’s fundamental inability to actually, y’know, do things, every so often there are episodes where things move so fast in the halls of political power that radar guns across the Beltway start to smoke and spark. For instance, consider how quickly the White House backpedaled from its snobbish incredulity over sending people free at-home COVID tests to its announcement Tuesday that, actually, that’s exactly what they’ll do after all.

Just two weeks after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sniped at NPR’s Mara Liasson during one of her weekly briefings, asking sarcastically, “Should we just send [a test] to every American?”, the Biden administration announced on Tuesday that, yeah, they’re gonna start sending tests to every American. At least, everyone who wants one.

“Today, the president is announcing his administration will purchase a half-billion at-home, rapid tests this winter to be distributed for free to Americans who want them, with the initial delivery starting in January 2022,” the White House said in a lengthy statement that further detailed the administration’s revised plans to combat skyrocketing COVID numbers amidst the Omicron variant surge.

“The administration will stand up a website where Americans can go to get at-home tests delivered to their home — for free,” it continued. This is great news for people who love navigating federal websites so they can sign up for something other countries have offered automatically, at no cost, for months now.

And why have we ditched the snippiness for an enthusiastic embrace of what should have been a no-brainer policy from the start? While Psaki chalked the change up to a continual “reassessment” of the pandemic, and her failure to offer “additional context” to her initial answer — both true! — the deeper, more underlying truth is that the White House finds itself currently in something of a crouch these days. With the president’s Build Back Better agenda mortally wounded by members of his own party, Psaki’s glib “let them eat cake” moment two weeks ago unleashed the a wave of bad press and sincere anger at an administration that seemed unwilling — if not outright incapable — of doing a single thing right. Faced with that mounting pressure to do, well, anything really, it’s understandable why the administration would pivot on this extremely easy thing (that, again, it should’ve been doing all along).

Or, put another way: In this instance, bullying worked!

Almost simultaneously to President Biden’s announcement that at-home tests are a go, reports emerged that the administration is also considering extending its pause on student loan payments, after months of swearing that borrowers would be forced to start cutting checks once again come Feb. 1, 2022. What’s changed between when White House initially decided not to extend the pause and now? Well, a lot of things, including the fact that the pandemic has gotten worse while the administration has floundered on its biggest legislative push.

But in no small part, there’s also the fact that people have been extremely, vocally pissed. And if the White House actually does extend the student loan moratorium, it will be because of that angry bloc of extremely vocal activists who pushed the issue to the forefront. Once again, bullying — being loud and mad and relentless at those in a position to take action — may have gotten the job done.

Ultimately, the lesson to be drawn from these episodes is a disheartening one. If it took this level of public rage and frustration at a Democratic administration to do these bare minimum gestures it could have done months ago, how much harder will it be to get the Biden White House to actually do something big and new? Unfortunately, given the way things are going, we may never find out.