Administration

Biden battles ‘COVID incumbency disadvantage’

AP-Andrew Harnik

Democrats have a new term to describe both their political fears and President Biden’s falling approval ratings: COVID-19 incumbency disadvantage. 

Just as former President Trump saw his approval fall through his handling of the coronavirus, now Democrats worry President Biden is taking a political hit from his management of a seemingly never-ending pandemic.

And they don’t see much relief in sight given the headlights from the omicron variant, which has fed fears that a yet-more-contagious version of COVID-19 could slow or setback the U.S. recovery, with Democrats already worried about their midterm prospects.

“It could continue. That’s the fear,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.

Just as Trump took a hit for his handling of the pandemic, Biden can expect some criticism for his management, Payne said.

“For any politician in office, there’s going to be a COVID incumbency disadvantage,” he said.

A number of Democrats will be annoyed with any comparisons between Biden and Trump when it comes to the virus.

Democrats have criticized Trump for mishandling the pandemic and setting the United States recovery back. They point to his support for treatments not backed by scientists, and argue he should have done more to encourage people to take vaccines.

Trump and his supporters argue it is Biden who has mishandled the pandemic. They say the former president deserves credit for helping the development of vaccines and that Biden’s efforts to control the pandemic through vaccine mandates are an infringement on personal liberties.

Politically, at least some Democrats think Biden and Democrats could be vulnerable with the mandates they’ve pushed on businesses.

Payne said there’s going to be a “real come to Jesus moment” for Democrats about vaccine politics. 

The coronavirus has been a political strength of Biden’s despite the fatigue, and it remains so. But there are some signs of erosion.

In March, an ABC/Ipsos poll showed that 72 percent of Americans were pleased with Biden’s pandemic response. But this week, a survey once again by ABC and Ipsos showed a significant drop: 53 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus response while 45 percent disapprove.

The poll also reflects a significant decline in support from independents, who in 2020 moved away from Trump and helped catapult Biden to office.

In July, 62 percent of independents approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic. But in the latest ABC/Ipsos poll, only about half of independents approved of his handling of the pandemic.

“A large crisis, difficult to control, can overwhelm any president,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “This is certainly the case with a pandemic.

“Even though the Biden Administration has made great progress with vaccines and public health measures, the continued dangers from COVID mean voters are on edge, anxious, and insecure about what’s around the corner. As we’ve seen, COVID policies are also at the center of partisan division so the pandemic amplifies and heightens already severe party tensions,” he said. 

If Biden ends up in a 2024 rematch with Trump, however, it will set up a battle between two presidents who have both led the White House through pandemic times. And a number of Democrats think most voters won’t want to return to Trump, though there are also some worries.

“At this point, Biden has a slight advantage over Trump because he brought the nation vaccines and a return from lockdown,” said one Democratic strategist. “But there’s also all of this confusion that lingers. It is much better than what we had with Trump but it’s still a mess.” 

Behind the scenes, Democrats say they have urged the White House to be more consistent with its messaging, particularly on vaccines.

They argue that while the White House has done a good job at getting the message out that vaccines save lives and that people should get vaccinated, some say it’s been more of a struggle to message on booster shots.

The definition of fully vaccinated changed this month when administration officials said only those who received a booster would be fully vaccinated. Yet as of Tuesday, as the U.S. approached 800,000 COVID-19 deaths, just 26.9 percent of Americans had gotten booster shots. 

“Basically, their messaging has collapsed beneath them,” one strategist said. “They had an early handle on it with the early vaccine distribution and its spiraled out of control since then. 

“No one knows, ‘Should I wear a mask when I’m inside if I’m vaxxed? Should I go to a restaurant if I’ve had two vaccines but I don’t have a booster? Is it safe to send my children to school if their classmates aren’t vaccinated? It’s all a mess. And all of that messaging comes from the administration.” 

Another Democratic strategist criticized Biden for doing too much of a victory lap over the Independence Day holiday, before the delta variant wave swept through the country.

“When you say the pandemic is over in July, don’t be surprised people will be upset and angry when it’s still raging in December with no end in sight,” the Democrat said. 

In the fall of 2020, Trump’s approval rating in an ABC News/Ipsos poll was just 35 percent, with almost two-thirds of those surveyed saying he acted too slowly and didn’t trust what he was saying about the deadly virus. 

Democrats like Payne worry that Biden could fall into the same trap. 

“You take on political water,” he said, highlighting that the Biden White House has purposely stayed away from talk of lockdowns. “What is palatable politically? I think Democrats might start getting scared about the politics around COVID response.” 

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon predicted Biden’s approval numbers “will suffer as long as COVID causes widespread death and suffering and disrupts the lives of millions of Americans.” 

Bannon said the “best thing the President can do is aggressively fight the pandemic even if it means pissing off anti-vaxxers.” 

“The economy is ready to take off once the pandemic rate recedes,” he added. “Bold and strict measures to fight the deadly disease will eventually help frightened Americans, an embattled president and endangered Democrats in the midterms.” 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden vaccine mandates

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