With 2020 over, great expectations persist that 2021 will reverse the ghastliness and massive disruption of the past year and finally end the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly 400,000 American lives.
With the transition to a president who takes his responsibilities more seriously than the last one, who ignored and dismissed the pandemic in a fool's errand to reverse the election, optimism about 2021 is understandably in season.
The prospect of four COVID-19 vaccines likewise fortifies this optimism.
As the pandemic recedes, Goldman Sachs predicts GDP growth of more than 5%. If a sensible infrastructure bill can be passed, that economic increase could be even larger.
Unfortunately, harsh realities loom. New and more contagious COVID-19 strains have appeared. Medical experts believe current vaccines will work against these mutations. However, it may take time for clinical results to confirm that assessment. Worse, however, is the dismal performance of vaccine distribution and inoculation so far.
The Trump administration promised 20 million doses would be administered by the end of 2020. Instead, about 4.5 million Americans were inoculated beginning Dec. 14. Assuming weekends, that amounted to about 250,000 per day. That rate increased to about 500,000 a day at year end.
Assuming that 300 million Americans will be inoculated, and two doses are required, about 600 million units must be administered. For ease of comparison, if all inoculations are to be completed in six months, that requires 100 million a month or about 3.3 million a day. At the rate of inoculating 500,000 per day, it will take at least 36 months to complete the process; at 1 million day, about a year and a half.
Given the demands on healthcare workers and actual production, is the nation capable of administering over 3 million inoculations per day? That is perhaps the number one question the new administration must answer. And the answer may reflect the harsh reality of the difficulty of ending the pandemic.
Today, the Congress will certify the election of Joe Biden as the nation's 46th president. But some dozen Republican senators and a large number of Republican House members will challenge the results without a single shred of evidence to make their case. Further, the conduct of the outgoing president -- denying the election results and challenging his base to follow his lead -- can leave an indelible stain on America's Constitution, rule of law and its electoral process.
Much as the rejection of truth and fact in how the past White House operated poisoned politics, the harsh reality is that the current intractable political differences may make effective governing impossible. The split in the Republican Party over whether to support the president's impossible quest for re-election could assist the Biden administration in reaching a deal with GOP realists. But the Democratic Party is likewise torn with an extreme left wing of ultra-progressives in the House and a razor-thin majority.
Compounding these harsh realities is another: Chinese and Russian exploitation of America's divisions. China has put in place in the Pacific a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and a trade agreement with the European Union, effectively squeezing out the United States. And while Vladimir Putin has denied involvement of the Russian government in the massive cyberhacks of SolarWinds and dozens of U.S. government offices and agencies, the evidence smacks of Moscow's involvement.
No new president has entered office confronted by so many simultaneous crises and, in parallel, harsh realities. Herculean efforts to clean the Augean Stables or poor Sisyphus condemned by the gods to an eternity of pushing rocks up a mountain only to have each roll back were stories of mythology. But in current politics, these are Biden's realities.
One of the consequences is that the new president must reconcile public expectations for a speedy end to the pandemic and a return to normality with a time table that may not remotely conform to these hopes. Worse, a gridlocked or broken government will only exacerbate this gap between hope and reality, creating an imperfect political storm.
The rational solutions are to reinvigorate Operation Warp Speed to meet the demand of inoculating the vast majority of Americans by summer's end; to persuade congressional leaders of both parties to declare a national emergency to deal with the pandemic and economic relief, including an investment fund beyond infrastructure alone; and to restore confidence with allies and friends abroad.
But can rationality temper the clash between great expectations and harsh reality? This may be Biden's most formidable challenge.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation."