The Memo: Will COVID-19's dip boost Biden?

President BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE’s fortunes could be set for a boost as the outlook on COVID-19 improves — even as much of the political media has its gaze fixed elsewhere.

Biden’s fraught efforts to get his legislative agenda through Congress have dominated the conversation in political circles recently. Yet, even if his large social spending bill passes, it will be some time before its benefits are felt in voters’ daily lives.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 picture is brightening in the here and now.

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Daily infections are currently running at around 75,000 per day. That’s roughly a 25 percent reduction in the past two weeks, and a halving of infections from the most recent peak, hit just last month.

The war is far from over. COVID-19 is still claiming the lives of about 1,500 Americans each day. But that, too, is a significant reduction from September’s figures.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted Oct. 16-19 indicated that 42 percent of adults believe “the worst part of the pandemic is behind us” while only 17 percent believe it is “going to get worse.” 

Interestingly, Republican voters are much more optimistic on that score than Democrats, with 60 percent of GOP voters believing the worst was over, compared to 32 percent of Democrats.

Meanwhile, Biden’s poll ratings, which had suffered a sharp decline, appear to be stabilizing. The Economist poll has his approval rating just 3 points underwater — his best result in that weekly poll since mid-September — while a Reuters/Ipsos survey also found the American public about evenly split on his performance.

There is more good news in the pipeline in the fight against COVID-19, too. 

Booster shots have now been approved for tens of millions of Americans, strengthening defenses as the winter months loom. Vaccines are expected to be cleared for children between the ages of 5 and 11 soon. And Biden’s mandate requiring large employers to ensure their employees are either vaccinated or subject to regular testing is moving ahead, with a draft version of the rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration delivered to another government agency earlier this month.

Health professionals who have previously looked at the pandemic’s course with foreboding are now sounding notes of cautious optimism.

“The next two weeks are going to be crucial turning points,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor and an expert on public health. Citing the combined impact of the mandate, the boosters and the child vaccinations, Gostin said that “by early November, we will have a huge number of safety tools that we didn’t have at an earlier point.”

Further progress on the pandemic would also have clear economic benefits. The rate of job growth in recent months has been slower than many economists predicted — fewer jobs were created in September than any other month this year — but greater public confidence on COVID-19 could turn that around.

If that happens, it could deliver the kind of bounce Biden needs to put his presidency back on a more positive footing.

The president has endured a tough stretch. COVID-19 was a big part of that darkening picture, especially when the delta variant was at its peak. But the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, squalid scenes at the southern border and the apparently interminable effort to get Democrats in Congress to agree on the terms of the social spending bill have all played their part.

At a CNN town hall event on Thursday, Biden sought to both take credit for the progress that has been made against COVID-19 and empathize with those who have felt its health-related and economic effects.

He noted that there were “800,000 sites right now that exist in America where you can go get a vaccine” and reminded voters of the massive expansion in vaccinations that had taken place under his watch. 

He also promised one questioner that vaccines for young children would be “ready in near term, meaning weeks, not months and months.”

And he sympathized with Americans who have “had something that's really impacted you with COVID [so] that you really find yourself just down? I mean, just down.”

Those last two points are linked, especially for parents of young children whose lives have been suspended in pandemic abnormality until they feel their daughters and sons are safer.

Some health experts aren’t sure childhood vaccinations will be hugely impactful in terms of the overall lethality of the pandemic — it’s very rare for young children to become gravely ill. But childhood vaccinations will have a different kind of power.

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“It is significant emotionally. It’s symbolic and important and critical for households to have schools open and a lot of our society open,” said Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who is also a practicing physician.

But Patel also emphasized that vaccine resistance on the part of adults who have long been eligible for vaccination remains the biggest barrier to a broad national taming of COVID-19.

She questioned the real impact of “28 million children getting vaccinated if we still have 40 million adults who are not.”

That’s just one example of how it could all still go wrong for Biden and the country. The winter months are beckoning, along with the holiday season — a combination that is sure to see Americans congregating indoors with potentially grim results among the unvaccinated.

Politically speaking, Biden’s attempts to tighten coronavirus-related regulations have encountered major pushback especially in Republican-dominated states. Two Republican governors, Greg AbbottGreg AbbottAlaska governor joins Texas lawsuit over National Guard vaccine mandate Abbott, other Texas Republicans urge court to reverse ruling on voter fraud prosecutions O'Rourke 'not interested' in campaign help from politicians outside Texas MORE of Texas and Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats sense opportunity with SCOTUS vacancy Broward County Sheriff sacks deputy union head amid COVID-19 dispute Biden leading Trump, DeSantis by similar margins in new poll MORE of Florida, have emerged as the president’s leading antagonists on the issue. Both have pushed back against mandates. 

DeSantis has gotten into public spats with Biden, while Abbott recently signed an executive order — the power of which has yet to be tested in court — banning “any entity” in his state from imposing mandatory vaccinations.

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There is, too, the simple fact that the virus has been inherently unpredictable, with surges and ebbs that can sometimes be traced to new variants and sometimes appear to have no clear cause at all.

One source of concern among American public health experts right now is a sharp rise in infection rates in the U.K. Earlier in the pandemic, patterns seen in Britain have replicated themselves in the U.S. within weeks.

Still, the current cautious optimism is founded on the belief that any winter surge can be manageable and that the overall trajectory of the battle against the virus will continue to improve.

If that happens — a big “if” — it will be welcome news for a battered White House.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.