In his inaugural address, President Biden pledged that the U.S. would “overcome this deadly virus.”
Not quite 11 months later, the country appears, instead, to be reaching an uneasy truce with COVID-19, one that has left many Americans resigned and disappointed.
As the world moves into the second winter of the pandemic, uncertain over the impact of the new Omicron variant, that disappointment appears to be a key factor holding down Biden’s approval.
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Some of the problems Biden faces lies outside his control: No major country has been immune to the wave of illness the Delta variant caused this summer and fall. And Biden’s defenders correctly say that some Republican leaders have provided rhetorical cover for the vaccine resistance that has allowed the virus to flourish in many GOP-majority regions.
But the administration’s own actions have also played a role. For the first four months of his administration, Biden and his top aides had a clear goal — get Americans vaccinated. Since then, their focus has often seemed elsewhere, and for that, they’ve paid a political price.
An unhappy truce
Six months ago, with the vaccine rollout proceeding smoothly and case numbers falling, Biden and his aides could envision a decisive victory.
“Thanks to our heroic vaccine effort, we’ve gained the upper hand against this virus,” Biden declared at a White House ceremony on July 4.
The public was of a similar mind. Polls showed that concern about the virus had dropped to the lowest point since widespread illness began more than a year earlier.
Even as Biden spoke, however, the Delta variant had begun to undermine his claims. Simultaneously, the vaccine rollout was running into the hard reality of determined resistance from about one-seventh of the adult population.
Over the summer, the Delta wave mounted, public concern about the virus rose and approval of Biden fell.
In recent weeks, polls have shown public sentiment shifting again.
Polling by Ipsos for the Axios news site found a significant increase last month in the numbers of Americans who viewed common activities as low-risk. Significant majorities rated as low risk activities including gathering with friends and family (61%), eating out (59%) or going shopping (63%). On each, the numbers represented a large change since the peak of the Delta wave.
Similarly, polling by Morning Consult found a substantial drop in the share of Americans who see the coronavirus as a “severe health risk” in their communities. The number, about 1 in 4 Americans, is now back roughly to where it was in mid-June.
So far, the Omicron variant does not seem to have changed people’s minds.
The problem for Biden is that there’s been no corresponding rebound in the public’s view of how he’s doing his job. Indeed, ratings of how Biden has handled the virus — his strongest point since his administration’s earliest days — has deteriorated.
Polling by Navigator Research, a Democratic firm, shows voters approve of his handling of the virus 51% to 46%. That’s better than his ratings on other topics, but it’s down a lot from earlier this year. In late June, for example, 64% of voters approved. And some other polls have shown a steeper decline, with Biden in negative territory on the issue.
If greater concern over the virus sent Biden’s ratings into their plunge, why hasn’t that turned around as voters’ concerns have lessened?
Polling can’t definitively answer that question. But one strong possibility is that in May and June, Americans believed we were on our way toward beating the virus and were inclined to give the new administration credit. Now, by contrast, more and more people are simply making the best of a bad situation.
Back in June and July, “it really seemed like, wow, maybe we were going to end this pandemic,” said Liz Hamel, director of survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has polled extensively on public attitudes toward the pandemic. “Now, people have been through that hope, which turned out to be a false hope,” she said. “They’ve seen this movie before.”
Kaiser’s polling shows a significant increase since the start of the year in the number of Americans who say they’re “frustrated” by the pandemic and a decline in the share who call themselves “optimistic.”
A survey conducted last month by Quinnipiac University showed a similar trend. Asked to choose a word that described best how they felt about the coronavirus, 62%, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, picked “disappointed.”
In the same survey, 81% of Americans said they did not expect the country to return to normal for at least a year, and 58% said they did not expect normal times even then.
That lack of normality shows up as an especially salient concern among Democratic voters, noted Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist who heads NDN, a Washington-based think tank and advocacy group.
Asked about their issue priorities, Republicans ranked COVID-19 way down the scale, Navigator’s surveys show. But the pandemic remains the No. 1 or No. 2 priority for Democrats, according to the polling.
That difference in priorities highlights one of the continuing paradoxes of the pandemic:
In recent months, COVID-19 deaths have been concentrated in heavily Republican counties with low vaccination rates. In California this past week, for example, Lassen County, with just 26% of its population vaccinated, and Plumas, with 53%, have the two highest COVID-19 death tolls per capita. Marin County, with more than 80% of its residents vaccinated, had no reported deaths.
And yet, concern over the virus remains much higher among Democrats. In Morning Consult’s polling, roughly 1 in 3 Democrats called the risk in their communities “severe,” while roughly 1 in 8 Republicans did.
Republicans have made opposition to mask and vaccine mandates a key party position — pushing a largely symbolic vote in the Senate this week, for example, to overturn the administration’s requirement that employers with 100 or more workers require either vaccinations or weekly testing.
Other Republicans have gone further, attacking officials like Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top advisor on the virus, accusing the administration of hyping the risk and, in states including Florida, appointing officials who are openly skeptical of vaccines.
At the White House, by contrast, the virus has gotten significantly less public attention this fall than in the spring, despite the continued high priority it receives from Democratic voters.
Some of that shift in emphasis may have been unavoidable. In August, for example, Biden had little choice but to focus on efforts to evacuate Americans and their allies from Afghanistan after the Taliban conquest of the country.
But some of the shift was a choice. Biden has devoted a lot of public attention to touting the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed this fall. He and his top aides have also spent countless hours on the legislative negotiations aimed at winning passage of his Build Back Better plan, which the Senate might vote on this month.
Those are both important administration priorities, but the focus on them has come at a cost: Biden has held significantly fewer public events this fall focused on the pandemic than he did in the spring. And over that same period of time, voters, including Democrats, have begun to sour on his handling of the issue.
In Morning Consult’s most recent polling, for example, 64% of Democrats approved of Biden’s handling of the virus, compared with 83% back when he delivered that triumphant White House speech.
Any weakness on handling the pandemic poses a huge challenge for Biden, said Rosenberg.
“COVID is still the dominant, central issue of our politics,” he said. “The country has been through a trauma. Biden was elected to get us to the other side of that trauma.”
“By spring, if people feel that we’re there, Democrats will be competitive,” he said. “If they don’t, it’s going to be very difficult for us.”
Supreme Court conservatives flex muscle
Just over a week ago, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority gave clear signals that they intend to significantly cut back federal protection for abortion rights, perhaps eliminating it altogether.
On Friday, the conservative justices sent another strong signal of their opposition to abortion rights in a 5-4 ruling that allowed a very limited range of challenges to Texas’ new law that seeks to prevent most abortions in the state. As David Savage reported, the court said that abortion providers could pursue some suits against the law, but allowed it to continue in effect. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court’s three liberal justices in dissent.
Also this week, the justices indicated they have another long-standing constitutional doctrine in their sights — separation of church and state.
In a case from Maine on which the court heard oral argument Wednesday, a majority of the justices clearly leaned toward requiring states to fund some religious schools if they provide support for secular private schools, Savage reported.
The case involved a program in Maine in which the state will pay for students to attend a private school if no public school exists in their area. A family from a rural part of the state which wanted to send their children to religious schools sued when state officials told them the money could be used only for secular education.
If the court sides with the parents, legal experts predict the next big issue will be whether states that allow privately run charter schools can exclude religious schools from getting taxpayer money.
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Lone star politics
In Texas, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke promises to take his campaign for governor to rural counties often skipped by previous Democratic nominees. O’Rourke doesn’t expect to win in such places, but he does hope to hold down the magnitude of his losses. It’s a tall order, Melanie Mason reported, and it illustrates the deep hole in which Democrats find themselves in rural areas.
On the other side of the aisle, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hopes to win a third term, which some of his backers believe could position him to run for president, much like his predecessors Rick Perry and George W. Bush. Over the course of his career as governor, Mark Barabak writes, Abbott has flip-flopped on abortion in a dramatic way, raising the question of “what he stands for? Apart from winning office, that is.”
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The latest from Washington
Biden has repeatedly said that he believes the world is in the midst of a competition between autocracy and democracy. This week, he held a virtual summit on democracy, and invited Taiwan, a cautious step toward drawing the island nation deeper into that global struggle, Chris Megerian wrote.
Eli Stokols wrote that Biden’s summit came amid growing questions about the stability of America’s own democratic system.
Earlier in the week, Biden spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to push him toward seeking a diplomatic solution to tensions with Ukraine, Stokols wrote.
Meantime, in New Jersey, the aftermath of the U.S. airlift of thousands of people from Afghanistan continues. As Andrea Castillo reported, more than 11,000 Afghans are being housed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where they’re receiving legal counseling, English classes and the occasional Zumba session as they await resettlement.
In the Senate, Democrats continue to try to find a way to get some form of immigration legislation into the massive Build Back Better bill. As Jennifer Haberkorn reported, the chief question remains what the Senate parliamentarian will say about whether any changes in immigration law fit under the Senate rules governing the special budget process known as reconciliation.
Some Democratic senators say that if the parliamentarian rules against them, they should vote to overturn her ruling, but that would require all 50 senators on the Democratic side, and so far, not all of them agree.
The House this week approved a measure that would enhance congressional oversight and reform the rules for presidential pardons. As Erin Logan wrote, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), aims to shore up norms violated by the Trump administration. But with Republicans opposed to it, it faces a tough road in the Senate.
The latest from California
California regulators have given final approval to a rule that would phase out gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, Phil Willon reported. The rule, part of a growing national campaign to eliminate small, often noisy and heavily polluting, gasoline engines, would ban the sale of new gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers starting in 2024 and portable generators by 2028.
Alberto Carvalho, the head of the Miami-Dade County school system, the country’s fourth largest, has been chosen the new superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Howard Blume, Paloma Esquivel and Melissa Gomez reported. Carvalho is a widely admired administrator who is credited with significantly improving academic performance and accountability in Miami.
California, which has pioneered many efforts against climate change, is diving into a new battle that will touch daily life for most people in the state, Jim Rainey reported — an effort to dramatically expand recycling of food waste.
A rash of highly publicized smash-and-grab thefts across California has given new impetus to efforts to reconsider Proposition 47, George Skelton wrote. The ballot proposition, approved by voters seven years ago, significantly reduced criminal sentences. Critics, including Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican who plans to run for state attorney general next year as an independent, say the measure has emboldened thieves. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who supports the measure, denies that.
In the summer of 2020, three months after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Legislature voted to create a state panel to seriously examine what reparations for slavery might look like — the first in the nation. In January, California’s Reparations Task Force will begin public hearings on what is already shaping up to be a monumental challenge, Taryn Luna reported.
Biden nominated Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief and 2010 Republican nominee for California governor, as ambassador to Kenya. As Seema Mehta reported, Whitman was among the highest-profile Republicans to endorse Biden in the 2020 campaign.
Another ambassadorial nominee, Mayor Eric Garcetti, is getting his long-awaited hearing, Dakota Smith reported. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing on Garcetti’s nomination for Tuesday.
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