Biden must fix his COVID mistakes if he wants to win re-election in 2024

COVID-19 could end up toppling two presidents – the one who was grossly incompetent and the one who expected to lead a vaccine to victory over the coronavirus.

In other words, Donald Trump would very well have been re-elected if he had handled COVID responsibly. And while Joe Biden was an improvement, the perception of his handling of the pandemic isn’t great, and that could be his undoing.

A New York Times Analysis of Biden’s decline in the polls from the mid-50s to his current 42 percent shows that the downward pressure began well before the chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. The drop in Biden’s numbers actually coincided with the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant, and with it a growing public awareness that the government’s cheerful proclamation of a “summer of freedom” had become something else entirely after vaccination.

Biden’s Independence Day celebration was “the domestic equivalent of Mission Accomplished,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont-McKenna College, recalling George W. Bush’s hasty declaration of victory in Iraq.

The president had invited thousands to the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate America’s “independence” from the virus, 16 months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and after more than 605,000 Americans had died.

Now, less than a year later, one million people have died from the virus and counting. Grief, anger and despair – plus the political battles over vaccines, mask-wearing and school closures – have tainted Biden’s popularity in ways he could not have foreseen when he ushered all those unmasked revelers into the White House on July 4th last year invited .

Many analysts believe that Biden’s descent in the polls began around the time US troops left Afghanistan with nothing to show for twenty years of war. Images of desperate Afghans at the mercy of the Taliban filled TV screens. Thirteen US soldiers were killed in an explosion at Kabul airport that everyone saw – with gruesome images widely shared on TV and the internet.

But Biden’s job approval actually began falling a full five weeks before those discouraging scenes.

“Afghanistan has deepened and accelerated the decline,” says Bill Galston, senior scholar in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Although voters supported the decision to end US involvement, the messy outcome eroded voters’ confidence in Biden as a steady, competent hand — which, along with his decades of experience as a DC dealmaker, was a key selling point of his candidacy.

Biden believed that the right COVID explanation would show government could work and democracy could deliver results. A life-saving vaccine was the answer to relieving deaths and serious illnesses from the coronavirus, but the president has oversold it as the promised land. Then, as the virus continued to grow, he got the blame — even as millions of people inexplicably refused to get vaccinated. For the president, it was a no-win situation, and now the Senate is beefing up funds to deal with an expected fall spike in the virus.

But it wasn’t always like that. Biden initially received high marks for his handling of COVID. “Two hundred and twenty million shots in the arms of the people,” says Matt Bennett of Third Way, a moderate Democrat group. “He didn’t do and say crazy things,” but Bennett adds, “He didn’t ride it to the victory he expected,” in part due to confused messaging and vaccine denial.

Some of the confusion was understandable given that COVID is a “novel” virus that evolves and poses different threats. The public wanted clear information and more certainty, and the administration was struggling to pull it together. “They needed a consistent message, and they didn’t have it,” says Pitney.

An Axios-Ipsos poll found that confidence in Biden’s ability to save the economy from COVID had fallen from 52 percent in January 2021 to 44 percent in October 2021. Biden’s messages “focus on the wrong issue” from a confidence-building perspective, said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos US Public Affairs. “The problem is not with the unvaccinated. The problem is convincing those who are vaccinated that they have the tools to navigate a COVID world…[and reassuring] the vaccinated that they can lead a normal life again.”

All the back-and-forth about whether schools should open and what exactly it means to “follow the science” left people with more questions than answers.

“People are confused,” Young said. “There’s no sense of what the endgame is.”

The CDC added to the confusion with exquisitely nuanced guidelines that changed frequently — which many people found arbitrary and unscientific. “There’s this huge ambiguity about who is protected, how much they are protected,” said Chris Jackson, pollster and senior vice president of Ipsos.

In January of this year, the CDC updated its “isolation policy.” The agency didn’t recommend a rapid test after five days of quarantine, but said if you take one and it’s positive, isolated people should continue isolation for another five days. Those leaving isolation have been urged not to fly on planes or eat in restaurants.

It’s all on the honor system. No wonder people on planes cheered when a Trump-appointed federal judge ended the mask mandate on planes before Biden got around to it.

The young children’s parents are still waiting for a vaccine, months weeks away, and the government is warning they may have to ration booster shots in the fall if Congress doesn’t make more money available. The race for at-home test kits peaked before the holiday last year when they were harder to find than the latest children’s toys.

In an exchange at the White House briefing in early December, NPR’s Mara Liasson asked Biden’s then-press secretary Jen Psaki, “Why don’t we just release them and give them out, make them available everywhere?”

Psaki replied in a remarkably sarcastic tone, “Should we just send one to every American?”

Shortly after that exchange, which caused a storm of outrage from a frustrated public, the government announced that 500 million tests would be available free of charge and in the mail to every American in early January. By that time the holidays were over and it was too late to muster any good will for the belated administrative intervention.

“It’s also true that he gets higher ratings for his handling of the virus than for his other duties,” says Galston. It’s the only area where Biden polls over 50 percent. At the same time, concerns about the pandemic have slipped below inflation and the economy on the list of voter priorities, while abortion has moved up sharply on an upcoming SCOTUS decision that will almost certainly tip over Roe v. calf and thus a nationwide guaranteed right to vote for women.

“If we don’t have major surges, [COVID] won’t play a big role in the midterms, but general discontent will persist into 2024,” says Pitney. The COVID cloud is adding to voter sentiment, according to an NBC poll released this week, which showed 75 percent of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.”

“It’s the midterm slide,” says Pitney, who points out that other presidents by this point “looked like they’d disappeared,” and she and her party rallied. “These are difficult problems to solve, as they would be for any president. Real disposable income has fallen, and until inflation abates and reverses, there’s not much Biden can do except pray the rosary a lot.”

My initial bias towards Biden’s handling of the pandemic was to slack off on Presidents. He’s so much better than Trump, and he has crises in the kazoo.

But when he said this week that he wasn’t a “mind reader” and therefore his government hadn’t prevented an infant formula shortage, it was pretty lame. Public health emergencies aren’t about reading minds, they’re about spotting the mistakes and scaling up staff so they don’t happen again. When Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, we’ll hear a lot more about what Biden got wrong. He should beat them at their own game, admitting his mistakes and presenting them as valuable lessons from a pandemic. Biden must fix his COVID mistakes if he wants to win re-election in 2024


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