The unraveling contradictions and ambiguities in the Biden administration’s approach to the apparently imperishable COVID-19 crisis has many ironies, and it presents a grave threat to an administration whose standing in public opinion is beginning to waver.
More than six months have passed since Inauguration Day. As is customary, the political honeymoon granted to all new presidents — all, that is, except Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE — is ending. The country’s judgment of the administration’s performance no longer will benefit from the levitation of goodwill following a presidential election. Instead, it will be judged more critically.
The president already is seriously underwater on immigration, crime and inflation. He scores well, and deservedly so, for the general reduction in the combative, antagonistic atmosphere of Washington that afflicted the entire Trump presidency.
It remains a matter of some dispute whether the uproarious ambience of the Trump years was chiefly the fault of the president or of his mortal enemies. Regardless, as president, Trump was in the country’s face every day and tweeting at it every night, and he has been replaced by a regime that is not just quiet but often almost comatose — and that has been a balm for the country’s nerves, if not the answer to all of its public policy wishes.
The other point, apart from the ambience of his administration for which President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE wins approval, has been his handling of the pandemic. The almost airtight Trump-hating political media created a state of national hysteria over the coronavirus and then hung it around the president’s neck like a noose. The new administration naturally benefited from the steady decline of the coronavirus since Inauguration Day. The public scarcely recalls that, as candidates in 2020, Biden and running mate Kamala Harris said they would not trust a vaccine sponsored by Trump. Nevertheless, they have taken credit for the decisive declines in the incidence and mortality rates of the coronavirus as a result of the development and initial distribution of those vaccines under Trump’s watch, far ahead of what scientific opinion had thought possible — and in stark contrast to Chinese and Russian vaccines that have been exposed as inadequate or ineffectual.
To some extent, Trump made his opponents’ task easier by his bear-baiting news conferences and by the fluctuating attention — sometimes dismissive, sometimes rather alarmist — that he gave to the virus. But there is no question that the coronavirus was a powerful ally of the Democratic presidential campaign.
The arrival of variants of the COVID-19 virus, which appear to be more contagious but also less dangerous to vaccinated individuals than the original coronavirus, has complicated Biden’s response to the pandemic. The administration has failed in its effort to have the entire population double-vaccinated, partly because of a substantial degree of suspicion of the vaccination process and its effectiveness, which is unjustified in the case of adults. And the administration has been reduced to the absurdity of speaking in various authoritative voices advocating contradictory courses of action.
The president has attacked social media companies for allowing vaccination opponents to be heard through their platforms, even as the administration considers collaborating with social media to encourage vaccination. While claiming credit for a “second declaration of independence” from the pandemic, the administration is discussing whether to recommend the return of mask mandates and perhaps other, stricter directives, even for fully vaccinated people.
It is going to be increasingly implausible for the administration to claim credit for defeating the coronavirus if it resurrects widely detested methods of fighting it. The official administration line completely deemphasizes the previous administration’s success in bringing forward effective vaccines at record speed, while claiming that new variants may justify a reimposition of some aspects of last year’s coronavirus shutdowns that profoundly irritated and demoralized the country when applied to a more dangerous virus about which much less was known. It will not only be difficult for President Biden to harvest any credit in the polls for this performance; depending on how the numbers break and how the administration responds, it may be hard to convince the public that this president has not converted a public-health advance into a retreat.
The polls of Biden’s performance are deteriorating, including the general canvas of the nation’s state of optimism. The comparative silence imposed by the administration’s social media allies on Trump appears, perversely, to have helped reduce the widespread public fatigue with his aggressive personality. Similarly, the effort by House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget 'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) to produce a reputable congressional committee finding that Trump provoked an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 may, instead, highlight the fact that Trump-hate, the almost unitary basis of Democratic national campaigning for the past five years, has run out of steam.
Democrats will have to stand on their own record, which is deteriorating every month. And their great COVID ally of 2020 could now, because of their own errors and self-generated credibility problems, become their most formidable enemy this year and in 2022’s midterm elections.
Conrad Black is an essayist and author of 10 books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. He co-hosts the "Scholars & Sense" podcast with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Hoover Institution scholar Victor Davis Hanson. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.