The White House can’t shake Covid-19.
President Joe Biden was elected a year ago to manage an out-of-control pandemic, and he secured some undeniable early triumphs by steering a massive Covid relief bill through Congress while ramping up a vaccine distribution program to get shots into the arms of tens of millions of Americans.
But right as the president was celebrating progress in the pandemic fight over the summer, the Delta variant sent cases surging, rattling the nation’s economy, and sending the president’s poll numbers tumbling. Now the sudden emergence of the Omicron variant has sparked fears of another devastating wave of the virus, one that could endanger the White House’s plans to focus on Biden’s legislative agenda and efforts to battle inflation and a bottlenecked supply chain.
Hoping to avoid some of the toll that Delta took, the administration is moving quickly to respond. But little is yet known about the new variant, first identified just days ago in South Africa, complicating exactly what they can say or do.
The early signs are ominous, compelling nations across the globe — including the United States — to curtail travel and urge citizens to hurriedly receive their vaccinations and booster shots. Outwardly, Biden on Monday tried to tamp down the sense of growing dread about the Omicron variant even as the United Nations warned that the level of risk was “very high” and could have “severe consequences.”
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists,” Biden told the nation on Monday after meeting with his top health officials at the White House. “We will fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
But within the walls of the West Wing, there was recognition of the political peril that looms, along with an implicit recognition that the public may not be willing to stomach the more dramatic measures to combat the new variant, even if Biden asked them to.
“We’re still in the middle of fighting a pandemic and people are sick and tired of that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are, too.”
White House aides are also grappling with the best means to deliver their message around Omicron, as frustration long ago set in among the president and his inner circle about how masks and vaccinations have grown politicized. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief Covid adviser, has long been a trusted, go-to voice on public health, but he has become a villain among many on the right, leading aides to weigh whether he should cut back on appearances. But Fauci has been empowered to set his own media schedule and his National Institutes of Health supervisor, Francis Collins, another favored voice in the West Wing, has announced he will be stepping down, making the need for trusted communicators even greater.
Biden’s advisers blame the pandemic for most of the setbacks that have befallen his administration over the past several months, from soaring inflation to the struggle by many businesses to hire workers. And they blame the pandemic’s staying power on an intransigent minority resisting vaccinations, which has kept hospitals busy and forced even those who have diligently followed public health guidelines to remain masked up.
Poll after poll reflects a sense of unease within the nation, as people gear up for another holiday season shadowed by a surge in virus cases. Americans are frustrated and antsy and increasingly they have taken to blaming the man behind the Resolute Desk.
“He probably would not have been elected without the virus and now he has to contend with the difficulties it brings,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “These are sobering thoughts heading into the holiday season: Part of what he’s coping with is a sense that things are out of control and he was elected to get things under control.”
“From a political standpoint, Biden’s ability to put the virus in the rearview mirror is paramount,” Axelrod added. “Any scenario in which Dems escape a catastrophe in 2022 relies on people feeling better about the pandemic and the economy.”
In Biden’s first months, his administration moved swiftly to manage the pandemic. Gone were the scattershot briefings and tweets that defined then-President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response, replaced by somber experts and disciplined messaging. For Biden, who made leading the nation out of the pandemic the central plank of his presidency, the result was strong poll numbers as cases fell, the country reopened and society unmasked.
The Fourth of July was meant to be the moment when the nation was to “declare our independence from a deadly virus,” as Biden said then. The president and first lady hosted 1,000 first responders and military families for a barbecue on the South Lawn.
But the celebration was premature and the White House event is now looked upon with regret by many in the West Wing.
Though the Delta variant had been simmering overseas, the administration was caught flat-footed and was slow to react to both the revitalized virus and the reluctance of many Americans to get vaccinated. Biden only resorted to vaccine mandates after cases soared across much of the nation. His rhetoric also toughened. He called out social media companies for not fighting vaccine disinformation and placed blame for the virus on the unvaccinated and the Republican governors who enabled them.
While vaccination rates have ticked up and cases have gone down, they remain at worrisome levels, especially as the Omicron variant emerges. Some reporting suggests the new variant could be significantly more transmissible than even Delta — though experts caution that a fuller picture of the new strain won’t be possible for another week or two.
“The speed with which it has taken off in South Africa is concerning and even from people who tend to be very sober and not freak out, there is real concern about the effectiveness of the vaccines against it,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
“The White House does need to think about worst-case scenarios,” Jha continued. “But the president should also publicly communicate to Americans that this is not March 2020, and that we have a lot of tools we did not have before. We can manage our way through this.”
Questions also loom as to whether the Omicron variant can evade the vaccines’ protections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday recommended that all adults get a booster shot. But that only raised questions as to whether the administration was too sluggish to recommend those third shots in the first place. There had been finger-pointing internally about the pace of recommending boosters, with some states and cities — including municipalities run by Democrats — opening up eligibility ahead of guidance from Washington.
“It’s been a frustrating moment, and there has been misinformation and many Americans have been confused as to what to do. And we do have a cumbersome federal system,”said Zeke Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. “But the focus can’t just be on boosters, it needs to be on getting more Americans vaccinated in the first place.”
Erin Banco contributed to this report.