White House grapples with COVID-19 resurgence
The White House is grappling with a resurgence of coronavirus cases that Democrats see as a real political threat given the central role getting the pandemic under control plays for President Biden.
Cases fell dramatically over the first months of Biden’s presidency, with the rollout of vaccines boosting his poll numbers and lending a spirit of optimism to the country and the administration in the spring.
Biden’s numbers still look good and could be boosted further by strong economic news — including a blockbuster jobs report on Friday — that suggests that so far, at least, the rising cases have not depressed spending or the recovering economy.
The White House also announced on Friday that 50 percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated against the virus and officials have celebrated the fact that vaccination rates among the newly vaccinated are increasing.
Yet questions remain, including how to convince more people to get vaccinated, and whether debates over COVID-19 restrictions, vaccine mandates or booster shots will weaken how the public views Biden’s efforts.
One longtime Biden ally in regular contact with the White House described an uncertain situation, saying it is difficult to guess what will happen given the unpredictability of the virus.
Asked if the rising cases could hurt Biden politically, the source said it all comes down to the economy. “Ultimately, I think it could. I’m not sure if it will. The only way this impacts him is if the economy takes a turn.”
Inside the White House, officials say they are feeling content with the general direction of life amid the pandemic. But there’s also a sense of palpable uncertainty that everything could turn sideways as the variant spreads across the nation and with some 90 million Americans who have thus far shunned the vaccine.
“We all lived through the last year and a half and I don’t think anyone isn’t worried things could get worse again,” one administration official said.
Officials say they’re doing everything possible to convince those Americans to get vaccinated while sending surge response teams to more than a dozen states that have seen sizable increases in cases.
“From the beginning, we have known that the virus is unpredictable,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said at a briefing Thursday. “And we have been relentless — relentless — in our efforts to get people vaccinated.”
While some public health experts say the variant could peak in the coming weeks, they acknowledge that the trajectory of the virus remains difficult to predict. Adding to that uncertainty is the possibility a more dangerous variant could emerge, which Anthony Fauci warned of this week.
In an acknowledgement of the challenge of reaching the unvaccinated, Biden has gotten more aggressive in his approach to pushing for vaccines over the past week. He endorsed vaccine mandates and unveiled a plan to require federal workers and contractors to attest that they are vaccinated or submit to regular testing.
Officials are now discussing ways the federal government could use its power to further incentivize vaccinations in the health care sector and other sectors, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday, though it’s unclear whether or when the administration will announce new steps.
At the same time, Biden has insisted the U.S. will not impose lockdowns again, though most such measures would ultimately be out of his control. Some businesses have already delayed return-to-work plans.
“This is not March 2020 or even January 2021,” Psaki told reporters Friday. “We’re not going to lock down our economy or our schools because our country is in a much stronger place since we took office.”
The July jobs report indicates a robust economic recovery, though Biden stressed Friday that the continuing recovery is dependent on more people getting vaccinated.
Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi, whom the White House often cites, said that thus far limited data shows the delta variant having a very modest impact on economic activity in areas that have seen sizable case increases, like Florida.
“There is a lot of smoke but no smoking gun. There’s nothing in the data that would say that this is going to show up in the macroeconomic data,” Zandi said. “But this is still evolving pretty quickly.”
Psaki said Friday that the White House hasn’t seen a direct impact on the economy from the delta variant but that officials anticipate supply chain impacts, noting that the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law was designed to prepare for “ups and downs.”
One Democratic strategist acknowledged that while Biden’s COVID-19 response outpaces his job approval numbers, “there’s definitely a chance the bottom could fall out.”
A new Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed that the percentage of Americans who approve of Biden’s handling of COVID-19 dipped from 65 percent in May to 53 percent.
The strategist pointed to Biden’s July 4th celebration, where he invited 1,000 first responders, military members and essential workers to the White House south lawn, “will probably be viewed as a mistake long-term.
“I don’t think it was quite ‘Mission Accomplished’ level,” the strategist said, referring to former President George W. Bush’s announcement ending the war in Iraq in 2003. “But I do think it was a bit premature.”
Some Democrats believe that governors will incur blowback from voters where cases have increased, instead of Biden and his team, who has been focused on combating the pandemic since day one.
“They’ve kept their eye on the ball on COVID and the vaccines from day one,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Democratic think tank Third Way. “I think their focus is there and their will is there.”
Still, the administration has recently endured some criticism for its messaging, something that has been rare for a White House that has shown itself to be both a disciplined and consistent messenger.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to issue updated mask guidance saying vaccinated Americans in some areas should wear face coverings triggered confusion. That confusion, Democrats acknowledge, could come back to hurt them if it isn’t corrected.
“They’ve had a huge inconsistency problem,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “They need to fix that and fast. No one understands where they’re safe and where they’re not, especially with these breakthrough cases.”
Michael Osterholm, a leading epidemiologist who served on Biden’s coronavirus advisory board during the transition, acknowledged the administration could better coordinate its messaging, but added, “We’re in the environment of what I call corrected science.”
“We are learning as we go,” he said. “Imagine trying to build an airplane when you’re flying at 30,000 feet.”