The Memo

The Memo: Biden faces risks as COVID-19 cases rise


President Biden faces growing political risks as COVID-19 cases tick up around the country.

Biden’s handling of the pandemic has been by far his strongest card during the early months of his presidency. Virtually every poll shows him winning broader approval for his COVID-19 response than he does on any other topic, or for his job performance overall.

All of that could be endangered if the situation worsens over the next several weeks.

Any serious change in trajectory would have a negative impact on public morale. The nation is suffering major pandemic fatigue and itching to get back to normal life. The credit Biden is now receiving would swiftly turn to blame if things go south.

The data on COVID-19 is getting worse and, on Monday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky warned about “the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.”

Walensky added: “We have so much to look forward to. So much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, had struck a similar tone the day before, telling CBS News’s “Face The Nation” that the situation had begun to plateau, and that means “you’re really in danger of a surge coming up.”

Fauci continued: “Unfortunately, that’s what we’re starting to see.”

Any setback on the path to national recovery from COVID-19 could knock Biden off-course given that the pandemic is such a dominant issue.

Since Biden took office, the refrain heard from Democrats close to the White House and beyond is that little else matters, in terms of how he will be judged by voters.

But the battle between optimism and pessimism poses its own challenges.

“You can’t give people hope and say, ‘Get vaccinated, wear masks, don’t be stupid and you are going to get back to a somewhat normal life’ — and then all of a sudden, despite masks and despite vaccinations, say, ‘We are going to have to take drastic steps again,’ ” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.

Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a veteran of the Obama administration, said there were reasons for concern, including resistance among some Americans to taking available vaccines. But she said she did not subscribe to the gloomiest predictions.

“If you tell people it’s dire and everything’s terrible, what hope do you give people?” she said. “It is possible in public health to strike this awkward balance between optimism and pessimism. We are optimistic about the protection offered by these vaccines, we are pessimistic about the people who aren’t patient and the people who are dismissing the vaccine.”

Biden can point to plenty of positives, both in terms of public health and in terms of the politics of the situation.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was widely popular, and he got it enacted despite a solid wall of Republican opposition. Millions of Americans have already received their stimulus checks.

The pace of vaccinations has ramped up at a spectacular rate since Biden took office. On Friday, the nation set a new record for the number of vaccinations administered in a single day, at 3.38 million. According to a tweet from White House COVID-19 data director Cyrus Shahpar, the seven-day average of vaccinations at that point had risen to 2.62 million per day.

The president can also point to other efforts to ameliorate the worst economic effects of the pandemic. On Tuesday, he signed into law an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program.

An NPR/Marist poll released Tuesday indicated that 65 percent of adults approved of Biden’s handling of the pandemic. That figure includes 94 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and even 31 percent of Republicans.

By contrast, Biden’s job approval rating overall was a solid-but-unspectacular 52 percent. On that question, his approval numbers from independents and Republicans were much more modest at 48 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

There is a clear danger for Biden that those numbers would slip if the current increase in cases becomes more than a blip. According to figures from The New York Times, there were 70,285 new cases of COVID-19 infection recorded Monday. The seven-day average of new cases was, at that point, up 19 percent from two weeks earlier.

Some public experts believe that a continued rise in the short-term is inevitable.

“In the next four-to-six weeks, we are in a highly perilous position as Americans with a combination of pandemic fatigue, business reopenings and the repeal of mask mandates, and widely circulating variants,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a specialist in public health law. “We are likely to see a continuing rise in cases over the next several weeks.”

But Gostin argued that some of the grimmest predictions put forward now are likely exaggerated, simply because of the effectiveness of the available vaccines and the broad success in getting them into Americans’ arms.

He drew a historic parallel with battles against other, once-fearsome diseases.

“When you have really pernicious diseases like measles or polio, there is nothing you can do” in the absence of a vaccine, he said. “But then when you get a highly effective vaccine and it is applied widely in the population, you see dramatic falls in hospitalizations and deaths, a very rapid loss of fear in the population, and a return to normal.”

For Biden, that return-to-normal can’t come soon enough.

Any unexpected setbacks on the road could cause him big trouble.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 FDA Joe Biden Rochelle Walensky The Memo

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