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The White House is facing tough questions about the COVID-19 delta variant, breakthrough infections, and persistent vaccine holdouts that threaten the nation's recovery from the pandemic.
Given that President Joe Biden has won strong approval ratings on his handling of COVID-19, both he and the narrow Democratic congressional majorities have a lot riding on the trajectory of the virus over the next few months.
The White House is adamant that politics is not a consideration as they try to navigate the latest phase of the pandemic.
“We don't look at it through that prism,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at Monday’s briefing before invoking the president’s scientific and medical advisers. “They don't make these decisions or recommendations based on politics. They make them based on data.”
That didn’t seem to reassure the White House press corps.
“We're hearing from health experts who are increasingly voicing their concern for the FDA having yet to grant full approval to COVID vaccines,” one reporter began a question. “Folks are using phrases like ‘grave mistake,’ ‘puzzling as to why they haven't yet.’ What is your understanding as to why we have not seen full approval yet from the FDA? And do you have any kind of expectation for when we might?”
Next came the follow-up: “Does the White House believe that we could be losing valuable time in waiting for full approval if this is what's keeping so many folks from getting vaccinated at this point?”
Another reporter asked, “Does the president favor restrictions for unvaccinated people when it comes to restaurants, museums, concerts?” Then another: “Can you talk a bit about whether or not [Biden is] concerned at all that the CDC might be taking too long to issue new mask mandates or even vaccine mandates now that we see cities like New York issuing vaccine mandates?”
The answer was usually science. “We are always going to be guided by our North Star — and that is the CDC and our health and medical experts,” Psaki said. The FDA, she added, is the “gold standard,” and they “move at the speed of science.” Biden, she said, “believes that we should be guided by the science and by the data, and so, he will look to his health and medical team to advise on what steps we should take.”
Embracing “the science” and advisers such as Dr. Anthony Fauci offers a sharp contrast with former President Donald Trump. Yet, the tone of the questions (skeptical that the government is doing enough, except possibly overreaching on travel restrictions) has taken on a decidedly 2020 feel.
When Psaki cited a statistic supporting the administration’s argument that it is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated, the pushback was immediate. “So, the 97% number — so, the CDC said that that is from January to April,” a reporter followed up. “So, that's a bit of an outdated number when you look at how many people have been vaccinated since then and the delta variant. So, why isn't there any more updated information coming from the CDC about what the risk is now to people who are vaccinated?”
Operatives in both parties acknowledge that this is politically risky because virus mutations, individual vaccination decisions, and even state and local public policies aren’t ultimately under the president’s control.
“Biden’s best bet is to let people know that the delta variant isn’t that big of a deal, and for the overwhelming majority, the vaccines work,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “And then turn his attention to other things. If Biden doesn’t find something else to talk about, it would be really bad for him and the economy.”
Renewed COVID-19 concerns helped trigger a one-day, 700-point drop in the stock market earlier this month, although it quickly rebounded. The economic reopening is producing significant growth, even amid inflation worries and inconsistent jobs reports. Any backsliding could be harmful to the economy, public optimism following the vaccine rollout, and the Democrats’ prospects in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden handily beat Trump among voters whose top issue was the coronavirus, as well as those who prioritized controlling the outbreak over reopening the economy, according to exit polls. A FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden with an approval rating on managing the pandemic of just under 60% while less than 35% disapprove.
Other polling is showing some slippage, with middling numbers at best on crime and the economy along with persistently low marks for his handling of immigration and the border. Independents are shifting against him on all these issues, leaving little room for any drop in support on managing the pandemic.
Gallup’s tracking poll found Biden with a 50% job approval rating, his lowest since taking office. “Biden's approval rating is showing the first signs of meaningful decline,” Jeffrey Jones wrote for the venerable polling firm.
The president is holding steady in other polls, but his Gallup numbers could spell trouble for Democrats on the ballot next year.
“If his approval rating is below 50 by the end of the year,” top Democratic strategist David Shor warned New York magazine, “we’re probably f***ed.”
Democratic majorities in both houses are hanging by a thread, with both redistricting and historical midterm trends regarding the president’s party favoring Republicans next year.
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Original Author: W. James Antle III
Original Location: Biden's pandemic honeymoon is over