Krugman: Biden versus the friends of COVID

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President Joe Biden ended his first year in office on a low note, with polls showing public disapproval of his handling of, well, just about everything. We are, of course, hearing endless commentary about his political missteps, along with some acknowledgment that public expectations were too high given the razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress.

One thing I don’t think gets enough emphasis, however, is the extent to which Biden has been hurt by the way the pandemic keeps dragging on — a dismal reality for which he bears little responsibility. Oh, the messaging could have been clearer, testing and masks made more available, and so on. But Biden’s biggest error on COVID-19 was underestimating the ruthlessness of his opponents, who have done all they can to undermine America’s pandemic response.

President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Thursday, Jan. 20. [AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK]
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Thursday, Jan. 20. [AP PHOTO/ANDREW HARNIK]

Before I get to the politics of COVID response, let’s talk about how pervasively the pandemic’s persistence colors the nation’s mood.

Some of the effects are direct and obvious. Certainly most Americans, even if they haven’t developed COVID themselves, know people who have gotten seriously ill or died.

Furthermore, COVID is still making life difficult in ways large and small. Shuttered schools were a nightmare for many parents; they’ve reopened in most places but are still subject to unpredictable closings.

Work is also still disrupted. According to the Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey, 8.7 million Americans were not working because they were either sick with coronavirus symptoms or caring for someone else who was; 3.2 million more weren’t working out of fear of contracting or spreading the virus.

And COVID is contributing to our economic problems. Fear of face-to-face contact has skewed consumer spending away from services toward goods, straining supply chains and fueling inflation. Both fear of infection and burnout among workers who have been coping with the pandemic’s strains are probably major factors in labor shortages, which are also contributing to inflation.

One of the puzzles in recent polling is why public assessments of the economy are so negative despite plunging unemployment. It’s true that inflation has eroded real wages — but George H.W. Bush ran on a strong economy in 1988 even though real wages fell for most of Ronald Reagan’s second term. And as I and others have noted, there’s a big disconnect between Americans’ assessment of their own financial situation — which is pretty positive — and their grim assessment of “the economy.”

Partisanship surely plays a big role, with Republicans claiming that the economy is as bad now as it was in early 2009, when we were losing 700,000 jobs a month. But the pandemic probably also darkens perceptions: Aside from a general sense of malaise, people see closed shops and empty office buildings, which makes things look worse than they are.

What makes all of this especially demoralizing is that 2021 began with the hope that miraculous vaccines would end the pandemic. Despite the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing serious illness, that didn’t happen even in highly vaccinated countries. But America is doing especially badly because it isn’t a highly vaccinated country: After a strong start, its vaccination drive fell far behind other wealthy nations.

And while there are various reasons individuals fail to get vaccinated, at a national level our shortfall is all about politics. Vaccination rates in blue states are similar to those in other advanced countries, while the rates in red states are far behind; at the county level there’s a stunning negative correlation between Donald Trump’s share of the 2020 vote and the vaccination rate.

Why do many Republicans refuse the vaccines? Because they’re getting a steady stream of misinformation from right-wing media, while right-wing politicians have gradually shifted from claiming to be against vaccine mandates to being straight-out anti-vax. For example, recently the medical director for Orange County, Florida, was placed on leave simply for encouraging — not requiring — the staff to get vaccinated.

But why are right-wing elites so hostile to vaccines? Have they carefully considered the evidence? Don’t be silly.

Their real motive is the desire to prevent Democrats from achieving any kind of policy success. And is it really implausible to suggest that some leading figures on the right actively want to make things worse, in the belief that the public will blame Biden?

But while the public does indeed tend to blame presidents for anything bad that happens on their watch, they can fight back. In 1948 Harry Truman successfully campaigned against “do-nothing” Republicans who were blocking his economic and housing agenda. Biden could, with even more justification, campaign against Republicans whose anti-vaccine posturing is putting both the national economy and thousands of American lives at risk.

Would this work? Nobody knows. What we do know is that a year of trying to be conciliatory and unifying hasn’t worked. It’s time for Biden to come out swinging.

Krugman writes for The New York Times.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Krugman: Biden versus the friends of COVID

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