Bidenworld: We won the battle against Covid but lost the political war

This is the measurable progress that Democrats once hoped would boost President Joe Biden’s popularity and his party’s chances over the medium term. The only problem is that the voters have long ceased to care.

“We have definitely tamed it, no question,” one senior Biden official said of the pandemic threat. – And it’s not profitable.

The waning public interest in Covid may have more to do with the spread of other crises than with the state of the fight against the pandemic. Inflation worries have swept across the political landscape, undermining American optimism and putting the White House on the defensive. The right to abortion may soon be overturned by the Supreme Court. And the gun policy debate has 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 disappointment that the all-consuming pandemic that voters elected Biden is hardly is among the main concerns of voters. The impact of Covid never materialized.

“People think he has made real headway against Covid,” said Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s 2020 campaign lead pollsters. “But Americans are very fleeting in their attention span.”

Just how much of an achievement the fight against Covid has been for the administration is itself a matter of intense debate.

After successfully vaccinating most adults last year, the White House barely convinced half the population to return for a booster. Support for a federal response has split along party lines as officials struggled to fight misinformation about Covid. And the celebration of “independence” from the virus last July proved agonizingly premature.

Since then, the U.S. has experienced three spikes in infections, with the most recent one once again surpassing the 100,000 mark.

Still, even as parts of the country are flooded with new infections, health officials have caught signs that the country is heading towards 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 US can live more safely with the virus.

Last Sunday, the administration lifted the latest of its extensive travel restrictions, announcing they were no longer needed. Long-awaited vaccines designed to protect the youngest children should arrive next week.

However, this progress has done little to improve Americans’ views on the Covid response, which, according to polls, has remained largely static since March. Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill are arguing about whether it’s even worth spending precious time on the topic — even as a Republican blockade of additional Covid funding threatens to wipe out the federal response in the fall.

“Economic issues outweigh everything,” a House Democrat aide said of the current situation. “People don’t seem to think about how Trump handled the pandemic and how the Biden administration put us on the path to recovery. They’re just tired.”

Inside the administration, officials have been looking for ways to overcome the malaise, most recently reinforcing the thesis that daily Covid deaths are down 90 percent from the day Biden took office.

The White House has also played along with the spread of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, a therapeutic agent that can greatly reduce the risk of severe illness.

However, acknowledging the wider recognition that the country’s focus has shifted, officials and Biden allies have begun to argue that it’s actually a good thing that the public is paying less attention to Covid because it’s a sign that federal measures have largely been successful. .

“For the first time in a pandemic, COVID is no longer the killer it once was,” a White House spokesman said, stressing that response efforts “are not being made” despite progress. “The fact that COVID does not rule our lives is not accidental.”

The spokesman also drew a contrast between the Biden administration’s efforts and the Trump response that preceded it: “Americans have seen what a chaotic political response to COVID looked like, and the president’s mission on day one was to fight what at its core was once a crisis. generations.”

The low-key messages stand in stark contrast to roughly a year ago, when Biden sought to capitalize on his administration’s initial progress with a victory on Independence Day.

A South Lawn speech in which Biden claimed he “got the better” of Covid backfired when the virus returned with a roar, fueled by the Delta variant, just days later. The event is now widely recognized within the administration as a devastating mistake that some allies say cost Biden dearly.

The resurgence made Republicans more skeptical of the vaccination campaign and raised doubts about the administration’s ability at the front, where they were widely acclaimed. Over the next few months, deep divisions arose within the Democratic Party over how aggressively to deal with a virus that can no longer be completely eradicated.

“It was unsettling,” one administration official said of the Fourth of July celebrations. “They will never do that again.”

Since last summer, Biden officials have been grudgingly trumpeting their response as a major success, without noting that the fight could abate at any moment. That reluctance persists even as Congressional push for more Covid funding has stalled, raising the possibility that after 18 months of fighting the virus, the government won’t be able to wrap up in the fall.

While 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 in which it would have to conduct a nationwide response with little to no money.

According to current projections, the government may only procure next-generation vaccines in development that are sufficient to cover the country’s at-risk population later this year.

Stocks of key monoclonal antibody treatments risk running out even earlier, including treatments for immunosuppressed patients that could run out by November, forcing patients to seek them out in the commercial insurance market.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials are drawing up plans to move access to Covid vaccines and antiviral pills to the commercial market as early as next year, in anticipation that those stocks will also run out.

What’s more, the waning chances of a funding deal have sparked fresh debate in some quarters of the administration over whether Republicans should be pursued more aggressively for blocking legislation that would release more money, or abstain in the hope that Congress can eventually reach a compromise.

So far, the White House has resisted attempts to take advantage of the political standoff. All of this, some officials fear, could lead to something much worse than a failure to capitalize politically on containment of the pandemic: if there is a massive Covid surge in October and the administration is not prepared for it, Biden could take all the blame. .

“Funding is running out. Political will is drying up,” said Celine Gunder, infectious disease specialist and editor-in-chief of public health at Kaiser Health News. “What are you doing then?”