The Memo

The Memo: Nation rallies for Biden on his COVID-19 response

President Biden is narrowing America’s partisan divide — at least when it comes to the coronavirus.

Biden’s handling of the pandemic is winning strikingly high poll numbers, even in a nation bitterly divided on a host of other topics.

In a new CBS poll released Thursday morning, 67 percent of Americans said Biden was doing a good job on the pandemic. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll registered Biden an approval rating of 62 percent on the same topic.

Biden signed his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package into law on Thursday and delivered his first prime-time address the same evening.

The big news from his address was another shift for the better — all adults will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination by May 1, he pledged. 

The president acknowledged, in emotive terms, the loss and sorrow the nation has endured during a year when life has been transformed and more than 500,000 people have died in the United States.

But he also paid tribute to heroism and tenacity amid those horrors. “Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do,” he said.

Rates of infection from COVID-19 are falling, as are death rates. 

The economy is showing signs of life, too. New jobless claims came in lower than expected on Thursday morning. The S&P 500 notched a record closing high in the afternoon. Markets have recently been propelled in part by a shift toward cyclical stocks — those that do best in a growing economy — over “stay at home” tech stocks that boomed during the yearlong lockdown.

It’s a far cry from the worst days of the pandemic a year ago. The nation reeled as lockdown commenced in March and unemployment rocketed to almost 15 percent by April.

Biden is in one respect simply the beneficiary of good fortune. He had just defeated President Trump when the first vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United States. Biden’s predecessor might well have won reelection had it not been for the pandemic.

On the other hand, Trump was in many ways the agent of his own destruction, repeatedly downplaying the virus and suggesting people might consider injecting themselves with bleach.

Biden does not have Trump’s desire to seize the spotlight with incendiary behavior day after day — and that seems to suit most of the American public just fine. 

Biden’s overall job rating in the CBS poll was 60 percent. Trump never reached even 50 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average at any point in his tenure.

“Nobody expected Biden to be Mr. Exciting. That isn’t who they voted for,” said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist and a Trump critic. “They want steady, reliable leadership. That is where they feel comfortable.”

Del Percio argued that Biden had room to build even further on his current solid standing. The COVID-19 relief package is popular overall and some of its most eye-catching features — notably the direct payment of checks of up to $1,400 to eligible Americans — have obvious political appeal.

The White House said on Thursday that some Americans could receive checks as soon as this weekend.

“I think it is possible for President Biden to stay above 50 percent for quite some time, mostly because the effects of the relief bill will take place over months, the economy will be getting stronger and people will be getting vaccinations,” Del Percio said. “People see government working for them — literally. They have to interact with government to get their vaccination.”

However, Biden’s handling of COVID-19 does not appear to be a panacea for partisanship. The stimulus bill was met with blanket Republican opposition. Late last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asserted that the bill “isn’t a pandemic rescue package. It’s a parade of left-wing pet projects that they are ramming through during a pandemic.”

But Republicans will struggle to make those attacks stick. Trump, too, tried to paint Biden as a radical during last year’s presidential campaign. He had little success, partly because Biden has a lifelong center-left record.

“I said way back, even in the primaries, that if there was any person who had the unique combination of characteristics and experience needed to bring a very fractured and divided country closer together, it’s Joe Biden,” said Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser to Biden during his time as vice president to former President Obama.

But even Vela acknowledged, “I’m not suggesting he could heal the entire divide.” That was “an unrealistic goal,” he said.

There is plenty of evidence that elements of polarization linger, even on the coronavirus. The NPR poll showed 47 percent of people who supported Trump in last year’s election will not get a COVID vaccination even if one is made available to them. The figure among the general population was much lower, at 30 percent.

In an Economist-YouGov poll conducted March 6-9, 51 percent of adults approved of Biden’s handling of COVID-19 but only 19 percent of Republicans shared that view. Fifty-one percent of Republicans “strongly disapproved” of Biden’s actions on the crisis, and a further 20 percent “somewhat disapproved.”

There is also the question of whether the good feelings about Biden’s COVID-19 response will carry through to other parts of his agenda. Conservatives view Democratic talk of infrastructure and transportation spending as Trojan horses to enact sweeping environmental changes. 

Immigration is an even more polarizing issue.

There is an acknowledgment in both parties that Biden is vulnerable to any worsening of the immigration situation at the southern border, where there has again been an upsurge in child migrants in recent weeks.

But on Thursday night at least, Biden was able to sound a chord of healing and common purpose that was rarely heard from his predecessor.

“National unity isn’t just how politicians vote in Washington,” he said. “Unity is what we do together as fellow Americans.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage

Tags American Rescue Plan Barack Obama Biden address Coronavirus response coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Mitch McConnell The Memo

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