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Week in politics: Biden says there is no federal solution to the pandemic

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Well, joining us now is NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, Happy New Year. Good morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Happy New Year. Good to be with you, David.

GURA: Ron, you heard Cici (ph) there talking about the bones of the American economy being good. President Biden was elected, of course, in part to help steer the economy back to a better position. Let's talk about that perception gap we got into in the interview - sort of does the American public share the perception that the economy is improving?

ELVING: Not across the board, no. Now jobs are good. Wages are up. Stock markets are in record territory. But every silver lining has a cloud, David. In this case, as you've already said, it's inflation. And inflation has brought back bad memories of a time when it was much worse back in the '70s and the '80s. So there's a tendency for people to look at the cloud and for one overriding issue of the day, to affect the way people see other issues. That can work in favor of a popular president in good times, but it can also work the other way. And right now, the overrider is the pandemic. And whether it's the disease that one fears or the mandates, that bleeds over into polling on everything else, including the economy.

GURA: Let's talk a bit about the pandemic - the U.S. now averaging 378,000 new cases a day. Public health officials believe that's an undercount, Ron. And earlier this week, when talking to the nation's governors about the pandemic, President Biden said there is no federal solution. This gets solved at the state level. So it's this kind of pandemic federalism, which sounds kind of like something we heard from the previous president.

ELVING: Yes. It's almost an echo in a sense, but the context is quite different. Former President Trump, almost two years ago, called the governors and said, look; this is on you. You're going to have to handle it. We'll try to get you some help. But at the time, he was also in a mode of downplaying the threat, the disease itself. He later told Bob Woodward he was trying to prevent panic in the country. Now we're two years into this. The federal government has done far more than anyone ever imagined, from the CDC work to trillions of dollars in relief spending, so the pushback from governors these days is quite different. We see a lot of the governors saying, leave us alone. We don't want your federal mandates. Let us decide what we want our people to do. So Biden's dealing with a very different political equation. And these remarks carry a different meaning.

GURA: President Biden had another conversation this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has military forces near the border with Ukraine, and, from what you can tell, does it sound like there's been any progress toward easing those tensions between Vladimir Putin and the West?

ELVING: On the plus side, Putin asked for this call, and an actual invasion seems less imminent. But that's no guarantee, not even something to really put your weight down on. The basic impasse remains. Putin wants Ukraine back in his bloc, and he is adamant that it not become part of the West. So if he can't possess Ukraine, he wants it frozen in neutrality, which, of course, leaves it totally vulnerable - so no resolution in sight. We should expect Putin will keep the pressure up in the new year.

GURA: Something we're hearing the administration talk a bit about is its success appointing judges. President Biden has gotten more of his picks confirmed to the federal bench than any first year president since Ronald Reagan.

ELVING: That's hard to believe, isn't it?

GURA: Mm hmm.

ELVING: Nonetheless, 40 is the number and quite a few at the powerful appeals court level. Lots of judges are retiring at this moment, taking senior status - some of them, no doubt, with the thought that they'd rather have Joe Biden name their successor and perhaps get it through the Senate while the Democrats still have the majority. So we'll see if that dynamic continues in 2022.

GURA: One last question here just about the now late Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who passed away. His funeral, his memorial, is going to be next weekend. He's being remembered for nearly killing the filibuster and also encouraging a young senator from Illinois to run for president. That's the shorthand of his legacy. What do you think people should remember about Harry Reid?

ELVING: Yes. He took a very significant step towards finally dealing with the filibuster, although it is still with us. He at least curtailed it and was the first person to say, look; we're not going to allow this for presidential appointments. That really broke a logjam and moved us towards eliminating the filibuster someday. But Harry Reid was a fighter. He'd been an amateur boxer at one time. He also knew how to organize, how to build political infrastructure at all levels. So when he first broke into politics in Nevada, it was a pretty strong Republican stronghold at the federal level, and when he retired, it was dominated by Democrats, if often by narrow margins. He had a formula for what worked, and it started at the roots of the party with the people the party was meant to serve. And it's an example that Democrats elsewhere might well want to follow.

GURA: NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

ELVING: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.