To Keep Americans Healthy, The Administration Must Regain Credibility
The Biden Administration has lost much credibility in the eyes of the American people at the very point when credibility is desperately needed. Unfortunately, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the most influential spokespersons for the Administration, is among the list of those whose credibility has suffered. And that loss is damaging to public health. Talented, accomplished, credentialed and good-willed though he may be, even "America's Doctor" needs to rebuild credibility and establish trust.
One of the latest blows to his credibility and reputation came in early October, when he told a Face the Nation interviewer that “it is just too soon to tell" if families and groups were going to be able to gather together to celebrate Christmas. The backlash to his comment was swift and strong. He later claimed his words were taken out of context, but the damage was already done. Public trust in the government with regard to Covid-19 was eroded by yet one more degree.
Despite what Dr. Fauci has accomplished in his post over the past 21 months, amid some extraordinarily challenging circumstances, inconsistent statements not supported by science undermine even his ability to influence the behavior of the American people. This recent head-scratching claim — that our chances for Christmas are still up in the air — not only contravened the government's own data, but also made little sense in light of the American public's current habits.
At the beginning of October, the CDC reported that Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations were down 15% from the previous week. But more importantly, Americans are packing by the millions into sports stadiums, airports and public transportation every week. They are returning — have returned — to normal life. For these people, regardless of their immunity status, comments like Fauci's are irrelevant at best, and fodder for divisive rhetoric at worst. Credibility is needed to build trust, and trust, in turn, is essential to having the right to influence others. The nation needs credible voices who have earned trust in order to influence healthy choices.
Credibility relies on several foundational pillars. Dr. Fauci still has the support of his position, title and authority in government. But the additional pillars of credibility he once had, derived from a reputation of making judgments on the basis of science alone and from consistency in messaging, have crumbled.
They've been eroded at many junctures. The American people largely concluded that his early flip-flop on the necessity of masks was not entirely based on scientific merit. Nor were some of his moving-target statements about herd immunity thresholds. More recently, critical legislators have hammered him for his insistence that migrants at the southern border were not to blame for the spread of the virus, while he at the same time adamantly supported a vaccine mandate for all other international travelers. The Administration has universally mandated vaccines — largely without exception — for government workers and for those using public transportation. The failure to allow for exceptions under unique circumstances, despite individuals being willing to undergo testing to show they are disease free, comes off as dogmatic and doctrinaire — essentially not following the scientific data but putting in place rules — often inconsistently — that just don’t make sense. Politics are at work here, but give the politicians credit: they're good at smoking out inconsistencies in their opponents.
Ultimately, this credibility issue is a threat to public health both now and in the future. Covid-19 numbers may be falling these days but, in many respects, the coronavirus is still a generational threat to public health which demands the best efforts of government and private citizens alike to keep at bay.
As we move away from letting the virus manage us to instead manage our own lives, we need trustworthy public health voices to guide our transition. If the Biden administration wants to be that voice, it needs all its choir members to be singing from the same songbook. It would be self-defeating to have one member continue to proverbially shoot himself in the foot. And while we're at it, they might pump the brakes on broad brush generalizations and blanket global mandates, which by their inflexibility disagree with science in many cases, further eroding credibility.
Perhaps more importantly, we'll need trustworthy public health voices to guide us through crises still to come. Viruses will do what viruses do — mutate and pose novel threats to public health. The credibility of experts like Dr. Fauci will be critical to our ability to take protective measures in the future, should they become necessary. Recall the "boy who cried wolf" — every misstep Dr. Fauci and his colleagues make now could hinder our ability to respond to the next public health challenge coming down the road.
Building trust depends on our leaders being honest, direct and straightforward. From the perspective of human behavior, we know that when people don’t trust the messenger, they're prone to stop listening, disregarding facts and often doing the exact opposite of what good judgment would dictate.
Last year, I wrote about the importance of fact-based communications during the pandemic. Even with a long and commendable record of public service, Dr. Fauci has reached a point where many no longer perceive him as a credible source for facts that could inform behavior, especially to the people he needs to sway the most. This gap of public trust is doing harm. It is time for him to turn his attention to the hard work of rebuilding credibility and restoring the trust of the American people.