Bidenworld: We won the Covid battle, lost the political war

It’s the measurable progress Democrats once hoped would boost President Joe Biden’s popularity and his party’s midterm chances. The only problem: Voters long ago stopped caring.

“We have certainly tamed this, no question,” one senior Biden official said of the pandemic threat. “And it’s of no benefit.”

The public’s fading interest in Covid may be more about the prevalence of other crises than the state of the pandemic fight. Inflation concerns have swamped the political landscape, decimating Americans’ optimism and putting the White House on the defensive. Abortion rights may soon be struck down by the Supreme Court. And debates over gun policy have taken on new urgency in the wake of a series of mass shootings.

Still, White House aides and advisers who once believed the president’s approval ratings would improve as the public’s public health anxieties receded now express frustration that the all-consuming pandemic that voters elected Biden to end barely rates among voters’ top concerns. The Covid bump never materialized.

“People grant him some real successes on Covid,” said Celinda Lake, one of the lead pollsters for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “But Americans are very fleeting in their attention span.”

Just how big an accomplishment the Covid fight has been for the administration is, itself, a subject of intense debate.

After successfully vaccinating a majority of the adult population last year, the White House has barely convinced half the population to come back for their booster dose. Support for the federal response splintered along partisan lines as officials struggled to combat Covid misinformation. And last July’s celebration of “independence” from the virus proved painfully premature.

The U.S. has endured three surges since then, with the most recent pushing the current case count past the 100,000 mark again.

Yet even with parts of the nation awash in new infections, health officials have seized on signs that the country is heading toward a post-crisis era. The rise in cases over the past two months hasn’t translated to a similar upswing in Covid deaths — bolstering the officials’ confidence the U.S. can live more safely with the virus.

Last Sunday, the administration lifted the last of its expansive travel restrictions, declaring them no longer necessary. Long-awaited vaccines meant to protect the youngest children are due to roll out next week.

That headway has nevertheless done little to improve Americans’ view of the Covid response, which, according to polls, has remained largely static since March. Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have debated whether it’s even worth spending valuable time on the topic anymore — even as a Republican blockade of more Covid funding threatens to decimate the federal response in the fall.

“Economic issues outweigh everything,” a House Democratic aide said of the current environment. “People don’t seem to be thinking about how Trump handled the pandemic versus how the Biden administration put us on the road to recovery. They’re just fatigued.”

Inside the administration, officials have searched for ways to break through the malaise, most recently amplifying a talking point that daily Covid deaths are down 90 percent compared to the day Biden took office.

The White House has also played up its distribution of the antiviral medication Paxlovid, the therapeutic that can dramatically cut the risk of severe illness.

Yet in a broader recognition that the nation’s focus has shifted, Biden officials and allies have begun to argue that it’s actually a good thing the public is paying less attention to Covid, because it’s a sign the federal response has largely succeeded.

“For the first time in the pandemic, COVID is no longer the killer that it once was,” a White House spokesperson said, emphasizing that the response effort “is not done” despite the progress. “The fact that COVID is not running our lives is not by accident.”

The spokesperson also drew a contrast between the Biden administration’s effort and the Trump response that came before it: “Americans saw what a chaotic, politics-driven COVID response looked like, and the president’s Day One mission has been on fighting what is inherently a once-in-a-generation crisis.”

The lower-key messaging is a sharp contrast from roughly a year ago, when Biden sought to capitalize on his administration’s initial progress by taking an Independence Day victory lap.

The South Lawn speech — where Biden asserted he had “gained the upper hand” on Covid — backfired when the virus came roaring back just days later, fueled by the Delta variant. The event is now widely acknowledged within the administration as a damaging mistake, and one that some allies believe cost Biden dearly.

The resurgence prompted Republicans to lean more heavily into skepticism of the vaccination campaign and it raised doubts about the administration’s aptitude on a front where they’d earned widespread approval. Over the next several months, deep divides developed within the Democratic Party over how aggressively to fight a virus that could no longer be completely eliminated.

“That took the wind out,” one administration official said of the July Fourth celebration. “They’re never gonna do that again.”

Since last summer, Biden officials have been reluctant to trumpet their response as a major success without also noting the fight could take a downturn at any moment. That reluctance has continued even as the push in Congress for more Covid funding stalled, raising the prospect that, after beating back the virus for 18 months, the government may not be able to finish the job come the fall.

Though the White House continues to advocate for the proposed $10 billion funding package, its Covid team in recent weeks has accelerated planning for a scenario where it has to run a national response with almost no money at all.

Under the current projections, the government can purchase only enough of the next-generation vaccines under development to cover the nation’s higher-risk populations later this year.

Supplies of key monoclonal antibody treatments are at risk of running out even sooner — including a treatment for immunocompromised patients that could be exhausted by November — forcing patients to have to seek them out on the commercial insurance market.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials are drawing up plans to shift access to Covid vaccines and antiviral pills to the commercial market as early as next year, in anticipation of those supplies running dry, too.

More immediately, the fading odds of a funding deal have sparked a new debate in some corners of the administration: whether to more aggressively target Republicans for blocking legislation that would allocate more money, or hold back in hopes that Congress can eventually strike a compromise.

So far, the White House has resisted trying to take political advantage of the standoff. All of which, some officials fear, could result in something far worse than a failure to reap political benefit from reining in the pandemic: Should a massive Covid surge hit in October and the administration isn’t prepared, Biden may shoulder all the blame.

“The funding is drying up. The political will is drying up,” said Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and editor-at-large for public health at Kaiser Health News. “And then what do you do?”