The Memo: Omicron poses huge threat to Biden presidency

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States


The omicron variant of the coronavirus is a grenade rolled into the heart of the Biden presidency. The White House's only hope now is that it won't explode.

If it does so, setting back the nation's progress against the pandemic in a fundamental way, the negative impact could be seismic. That's something President Biden can ill afford, given the way his standing has been dented by a succession of troubles in recent months.

Biden's handling of the pandemic has been one of his relative strengths.

In the early months of his presidency, it helped him earn solid poll ratings. More recently, the COVID-19 response has been a much-needed shard of light amid darker issues such as inflation and the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But Biden's poll ratings on the pandemic had already come some distance off their previous highs. In an Economist-YouGov poll released last week, he was in negative territory on the topic, with 43 percent approving of his handling of the pandemic and 47 percent disapproving.

Those numbers were still better than he scored on some other topics, notably crime. However, they also spoke to a frustration in the nation at large that the pandemic is not going away - and that its secondary effects on issues like the economy continue to cascade.

Since then, the COVID-19 news has become several notches more grim. The World Health Organization on Monday declared the omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa, posed a "very high" risk globally. That came after the same organization had stirred anxiety and cratered financial markets Friday by terming the mutation a "variant of concern."

The United States is among many nations that have imposed travel restrictions to try to slow the spread of the new variant, barring travelers from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday.

Most experts agree that while the move could buy the U.S. some time, it is highly unlikely to stop omicron from cropping up within American borders sooner or later.

Biden is faced with the tough task of simultaneously showing he is taking the threat seriously while also not scaring Americans or gratuitously deepening their gloom.

In remarks from the White House on Monday, Biden tried to thread the needle, branding the new variant "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

He again encouraged those Americans who have not been vaccinated at all to get their first shots immediately and also recommended the wearing of masks indoors. Yet, he also expressed vigorous opposition to any further pandemic-related shutdowns.

Democrats point to the successes the president has enjoyed in the battle against COVID-19 and the logistical achievements of the vaccination rollout. Biden himself noted that last Christmas fewer than one percent of Americans had received vaccinations, whereas by this Christmas he expects the share of the adult population who are vaccinated will be north of 70 percent.

Still, even some Democrats acknowledge there will be a political price to pay for omicron, even though the president himself can't fairly be held culpable for its rise.

"Look, I think every time that Americans feel like we are getting back to normal, there is another wrinkle in the plan," said New York-based Democratic strategist Basil Smikle. "The president is not to blame, but a lot of the anxiety and frustration will be projected onto him."

Republican pollster David Winston was more emphatic, arguing that Biden's July statement that the nation was on the cusp of declaring "independence from a deadly virus" has come to look much worse in retrospect.

"He sort of declared victory in July and this is now the second time he has had to pull back. After the delta variant came out he was basically saying, 'We have to rethink what we're doing here.' "

Winston added that the "restlessness and frustration" the public is now feeling could be problematic to Biden because it cuts away at one of the central promises of his 2020 candidacy.

"There was an expectation that he could get us back to normalcy," Winston said. "That was one of the key elements of what he said he could accomplish ... and we just haven't gotten there."

Republican elected officials, meanwhile, are going all-out attacking Biden.

"President Biden has botched his handling of COVID from the beginning," House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo on Monday. "He's mishandled this in so many different ways."

But Democrats have a ready answer to that. It basically amounts to, "What's your bright idea?"

When it comes to the specific threat posed by the omicron variant, Republicans don't appear to have any plan vastly different from what Biden is already doing.

"They don't have a coronavirus strategy," Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said, asserting that this failure was emblematic of a broader lack of seriousness on the GOP's part.

Going into a midterm election year, Simmons added, "it will be important for the president to remind people of the cowardice of the Republicans in Congress when it comes to facing up to our problems, while the president had the courage to stand up and take them on."

It is possible that the omicron variant will not prove as grave a threat as many people now fear.

Other variants have fizzled, and there are some reports from Africa of people who have contracted the new mutation only suffering mild symptoms.

Still, the White House will be bracing for what's to come.

Right now, omicron looks like bad news at the worst possible time for Biden.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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