Bidenworld: We have won the Covid battle, lost the political war


It’s the measurable progress Democrats once hoped would boost President Joe Biden’s popularity and his party’s medium-term chances. The only problem: voters long ago stopped caring.

“We’ve certainly tamed that, no doubt,” a senior Biden official said of the pandemic threat. “And it’s no use.”

Diminishing public interest in Covid may have more to do with the prevalence of other crises than the state of the fight against the pandemic. Inflation fears swamped the political landscape, decimating American optimism and putting the White House on the defensive. The right to abortion could soon be invalidated by the Supreme Court. And gun policy debates have taken on new urgency following a series of mass shootings.

Yet White House aides and advisers who once thought the president’s approval ratings would improve as public health concerns recede are now expressing frustration that the consuming pandemic voters have elected Biden to end barely ranks among voters’ top concerns. The Covid bump never materialized.

“People are giving him real hits on Covid,” said Celinda Lake, a top pollster for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “But Americans are very fleeting in their attention span.”

The extent of the administration’s Covid-fighting accomplishment is, in itself, a matter of intense debate.

After successfully vaccinating a majority of the adult population last year, the White House barely convinced half the population to return for their booster shot. Support for the federal response split along partisan lines as officials struggled to tackle Covid misinformation. And the celebration of “independence” from the virus last July turned out to be painfully premature.

The United States has suffered three surges since then, with the most recent again pushing the number of current cases past the 100,000 mark.

Yet even with parts of the country awash with new infections, health officials have seized on signs that the country is heading into a post-crisis era. The rise in cases over the past two months has not translated into a similar rise in Covid deaths – bolstering officials’ confidence that the United States can live more safely with the virus.

Last Sunday, the administration lifted the last of its sweeping travel restrictions, declaring them no longer necessary. Long-awaited vaccines to protect the youngest children are set to roll out next week.

That progress, however, has done little to improve Americans’ view of the Covid response, which polls show has remained largely static since March. Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have debated whether it’s still worth spending valuable time on the subject — even as a Republican blockade of more Covid funding threatens to decimate the federal response in the fall.

“Economic issues trump everything,” a House Democratic aide said of the current environment. “People don’t seem to think about how Trump has handled the pandemic versus how the Biden administration has put us on the road to recovery. They are just tired.

Within the administration, officials have been looking for ways to break through the unease, most recently amplifying a talking point that daily Covid deaths are down 90% from the day Biden took office.

The White House has also increased its distribution of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, the drug that can significantly reduce the risk of serious illness.

Yet in a broader recognition that the nation’s focus has shifted, Biden officials and allies have begun to argue that it’s actually a good thing the public is paying less attention to Covid, because it is a sign that the federal response has been largely successful.

“For the first time in the pandemic, COVID is no longer the killer it once was,” a White House spokesperson said, noting that the response effort “is not being done” despite the progress. “The fact that COVID is not ruling our lives is not by accident.”

The spokesperson also contrasted the Biden administration’s efforts with Trump’s response that preceded it: “Americans have seen what a chaotic, policy-driven COVID response looks like, and the mission of the The president’s first day was all about battling what is inherently a once-a-generation crisis.

The low-key message is a stark contrast to that of about a year ago, when Biden sought to capitalize on his administration’s initial progress by taking a victory lap on Independence Day.

The South Lawn speech – where Biden claimed he had “taken over” Covid – backfired when the virus returned days later, fueled by the Delta variant. The event is now widely recognized within the administration as a damaging mistake, and one that some allies say cost Biden dearly.

The resurgence has prompted Republicans to lean more heavily on skepticism of the vaccination campaign and raised doubts about the administration’s ability on a front where they had won broad approval. Over the next few months, deep divisions grew within the Democratic Party over how aggressively to fight a virus that could no longer be fully eradicated.

“It took your breath away,” an administration official said of the July 4 celebration. “They will never do that again.”

Since last summer, Biden officials have been reluctant to trumpet their response as a major success without also noting that the fight could take a turn at any moment. This reluctance has continued even as congressional pressure for additional Covid funding has stalled, suggesting that after pushing back the virus for 18 months, the government may not be able to finish the job in the fall.

Although the White House continues to advocate for the proposed $10 billion funding package, its Covid team has in recent weeks accelerated planning for a scenario where it must lead a national response with next to no money at all. .

Under current projections, the government can only purchase enough of the next-generation vaccines being developed to cover the country’s high-risk populations later this year.

Stocks of key monoclonal antibody treatments risk running out even sooner – including a treatment for immunocompromised patients that could run out by November – leaving patients to have to seek them out on the commercial insurance market.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials are developing plans to shift access to Covid vaccines and antiviral pills to the commercial market as early as next year, in anticipation of those supplies running out as well.

More immediately, the dwindling chance of a funding deal has sparked a new debate in some corners of the administration: whether to target Republicans more aggressively to block legislation that would allocate more money, or hold back in the hope that Congress can eventually find a compromise.

So far, the White House has resisted trying to take advantage of the impasse politically. All of this, some officials fear, could result in something far worse than a failure to reap the political benefits of containing the pandemic: if a massive Covid surge occurs in October and the administration is unprepared , Biden could take all the blame.

“Funding is drying up. The political will is drying up,” said Céline Gounder, infectious disease specialist and public health editor at Kaiser Health News. “And then what do you do?”


Politico

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