Biden faces new political threat in omicron
The White House on Monday was dealing with the latest and most serious threat yet to President Biden’s pledge to “shut down” the coronavirus: a new variant that experts worry is easily spread and could elude vaccines.
While experts cautioned that much remains unknown about the omicron variant, travel restrictions have quickly been reimposed to limit its spread, and the government on Monday stepped up calls for people to get booster shots to maximize protections.
For Biden, whose faltering poll numbers have left Democrats openly worried they could lose their House and Senate majorities next year, the variant adds to an already difficult political climate fueled by inflation and goods shortages exacerbated by supply chain problems.
Republicans seized on omicron as fuel for their attacks that Biden has failed to contain the pandemic, while Biden appeared before the cameras to reassure the public of his leadership on the central issue of his presidency.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
Those final words served as a reminder to those watching of the Trump administration, which was widely criticized for its handling of the coronavirus.
Through the first six months of Biden’s presidency, his handling of the pandemic was a clear strength after the tumultuous year in which Trump presided over it, a period that culminated with Trump getting a serious case of the disease.
The tide has since turned on Biden, however, with cases and deaths rising over the summer despite vaccines. Republicans have taken to highlighting how there have been more U.S. deaths from COVID-19 this year than the previous year.
“Biden failed to shut down the virus as he promised,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said in a Monday statement.
Those deaths were mostly fueled by an epidemic among the unvaccinated, a minority that has refused to take vaccines despite repeated pushes by Biden. Democrats have also noted that some Republicans have effectively sabotaged a pandemic recovery by casting doubt on vaccines and other restrictions that might lower the spread of the disease. Yet it is unclear whether those Republican politicians — or Biden and Democrats — will be the ones punished by voters in 2022 and beyond.
Health experts agree that the pathway out of the pandemic is through vaccination, but Biden’s sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandate for businesses is being held up in court and faces an uncertain future.
On Monday, a federal court temporarily halted Biden’s mandate for health workers at hospitals that receive federal funding in 10 states that sued to block the administration’s November rule, arguing that the mandate would lead to staff shortages.
Meanwhile, fatigue from the nearly two-year pandemic has set in for many Americans, making Biden’s challenge all the more difficult.
“We’re going to deal with this for a while and I think [Biden] has to tell Americans there is no definitive end,” said Basil Smikle, Democratic strategist and director of Hunter College’s public policy program. “This comes in phases.”
“He needs to be able to say that this is how we weather these fluctuations and give us instructions about how we move forward,” he said.
White House officials blame Biden’s sinking poll numbers on public weariness with the pandemic.
Yet they also argue the country is undeniably in a better position now than when Trump was in charge. A majority of Americans are now vaccinated and there has been real progress in developing treatments.
On the economic front, there has been a drastic decline in unemployment claims and the economy is creating jobs, despite the real problems of the supply chain and inflation.
Part of the challenge for Biden is the expectation game, which might have been worsened by the partial victory lap he took on July 4, just as the more contagious delta variant was beginning to spread in the U.S. Omicron is now another threat to the expectations from voters that Biden will move the country beyond the coronavirus.
“It was kind of short sighted and foolish because it raised expectations when we were nowhere near the end of the pandemic,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University. “And what the omicron variant shows us is that we’re a long way out until this becomes simply an endemic disease that we tolerate and manage.”
Gostin said Biden needs to set expectations with a simple message: “America is in for a long road and that the only way that we can protect ourselves is to vaccinate everyone in America and everyone abroad, beginning with America first.”
One former Trump administration official who worked on the pandemic response suggested the Biden administration was caught flat-footed at the outset of the delta variant surge. They argued the aggressive response to omicron could be an overcorrection amid bad poll numbers.
Experts have said it will likely take at least a couple of weeks before more is known about the omicron strain and how effective vaccines are in preventing serious illness. Biden, who has sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor by offering a more aggressive response to the pandemic along with a more cohesive vaccine distribution and embracing the advice of health experts, will visit the National Institutes of Health later this week.
A Washington Post-ABC poll released earlier this month illustrated how the public’s view of Biden’s handling of the pandemic has steadily declined over the past six months.
An April poll found 64 percent of the public approved of Biden’s work on the pandemic, but a poll conducted Nov. 7-10 found just 47 percent gave Biden positive marks on that issue. That decline aligns with a broader dip in his overall approval rating.
The pandemic could become yet another front where the White House has to play defense heading into the midterms as Biden and his team rebuff attacks from Republicans over inflation, immigration, employment and government spending.
“The masks and vaccination polarization is going to deepen if this mutation, this variant, starts to move through our population more significantly,” said Smikle. “It will just renew all of those tensions going into the midterms.”
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