President Joe Biden just got some deeply unwelcome news: The pandemic that he was elected to end could drag on deep into a midterm election year, with all the political and economic destruction that could bring.
The warning by the government’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, that the crisis won’t be under control until spring of next year — and even then, it will need most American vaccine skeptics to change their minds — came as a severe jolt to a weary nation.
It also meant that Biden’s best-laid plans of triumphing over the pandemic and riding an economic wave into the campaign for congressional election results in November next year now look at risk.
A pandemic that stretches through another grim winter and beyond risks slowing the economic recovery on which Biden is relying for a strong performance next year. It could demoralize the public and trigger the kind of sour mood among the electorate that always spells danger for incumbents. Already, the President’s personal approval ratings and public confidence in his management of the pandemic have been ebbing, according to recent NBC and CBS polls.
Biden’s partial declaration of victory over the virus on July Fourth looks highly premature — as do earlier US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxations of mask guidance.
“As we get into the spring, we could start getting back to a degree of normality, namely reassuming the things that we were hoping we could do — restaurants, theaters, that kind of thing,” Fauci told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
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Most Americans, encouraged by Biden himself, had already expected that kind of normality to be restored and may be in no mood to contemplate months more of deprivation. The spike in Covid-19 cases that has hit many areas of the country has already turned what was sold as a summer of freedom from the virus into a replay of some of the worst parts of the pandemic as hospitals throughout the South are overrun by Covid patients. And conservatives have already long ago turned against Fauci, one of the world’s most respected public health experts, and he is a top target of right-wing media.
The last 17 months that changed the daily fabric of American life have been far from predictable. And there is some data from abroad — albeit in more vaccinated nations like Britain and Israel — that suggests the current Delta variant wave of the virus could ease or may not produce the same level of deaths as earlier surges. If so, its political impact could be mitigated.
But even the prospect that the end of the battle against Covid-19 could be many, many months away represents a nightmare political scenario for the President and his Democratic Party, already facing historic headwinds in trying to keep control of Congress. They will now face the possibility of having to do so in a nation even more exhausted by a crisis that has already cost more than 620,000 lives and that has become more politically divided by the virus every month it rages on.
A pandemic that spans the early months of 2022 would make it even harder for Biden to keep up public morale and commitment to the kind of precautionary measures like masking — a toxic political fault line — that are needed to stem the further spread of the virus.
If the emergency does go on that long, it will offer an opening for Republicans who are seeking to brand Biden’s presidency as a failure — and who are seizing on his chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan to paint a broader narrative of political decay.
The latest surge of the virus, powered by the more infectious Delta variant, was able to take hold because Americans in more conservative, southern states — deeply skeptical of government advice and science — declined in larger numbers than their more liberal compatriots to get vaccinated. If such skepticism, fanned by conservative political leaders and conspiracy fueled right-wing media, were to ultimately boost Republicans in next year’s congressional polls it would be a bitter irony for the President.
And his predecessor Donald Trump — notwithstanding his own disastrous record on the pandemic — would not hold back as he seeks to relaunch a political career that always prospers most in discord and political dislocation. Trump recently accused Biden of surrendering to both Covid and Afghanistan’s Taliban, despite neglecting the pandemic for much of his final year in office and holding direct talks with the Taliban that set the initial stage for the current messy US retreat.
Another daunting prospect for Democrats is that there is no guarantee that Fauci’s prediction will hold, and the mutating coronavirus has already confounded almost every expert estimate of how long it will last and how soon it can be eradicated. Indeed, Fauci had originally predicted on Monday in an interview with NPR that if most of the people yet to be vaccinated signed up for their doses, the virus could be under control by fall 2022, more than a year from now. If it takes that long to get the situation under control, the President would have almost no breathing room until election day, when all of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are on the ballot.
As the implications of his comments sunk in, Fauci appeared on CNN and walked back his dire prediction — just a little.
“I meant to say spring of 2022,” Fauci told Cooper.
“If we can get through this winter and get really the majority — overwhelming majority — of the 90 million people who have not been vaccinated, vaccinated, I hope we can start to get some good control in the spring of 2022,” Fauci said.
A darker scenario
But Biden’s top public health lieutenant also caveated his prediction with some more unpleasant possibilities if vaccine take-up doesn’t significantly increase.
“You have the possibility of the virus continuing to circulate, mutating — forming more variants and getting us back into another situation similar to or worse than Delta,” Fauci told Cooper.
The dawning reality that significant virus loads will be with us for many months longer — and another unpleasant winter may loom — is bound to cause a sweeping recalibration of the prospects of a return to normal life so many millions of people crave. It will unleash so far unknowable political, social and economic consequences. And it again underscores, whether at home and abroad, every president’s political hopes and plans are often rocked by crises that are beyond their control.
Fauci’s comments overshadowed some rare good news on the pandemic.
The long-awaited full approval Monday by the US Food and Drug Administration of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could convince some vaccine wary Americans to sign up. But this new addition to the government’s armory is coming too late to prevent the Delta surge — and the newest Covid storm that is already here in US schools.
Millions of kids are returning to in-person classes at the worst moment yet of the crisis for children, as the Delta variant — more dangerous to minors than previous manifestations of the virus — sweeps the nation.
Already, some school districts — especially in the South where vaccination rates are low — have opened and then closed. Large numbers of kids have been infected or exposed to the virus and forced into quarantine. The alarming emerging scenario is clouding hopes that the nation can make it through the start of the third school year to be damaged by the pandemic. The specter of online learning — with all its educational deficits, community disruptions and psychological side effects — may be looming for many again.
Biden is promising to speak in the coming days about how children can safely go back to school — an imperative for the nation and for his own political standing.
“Cases among children are still rare, and severe cases among children are very, very rare, but I know that parents are thinking about their own kids. It’s not as reassuring as anyone would like it to be,” Biden said on Monday.
While the President is right that severe cases of Covid-19 are rare, hospitalizations of children with the disease have hit record highs this month as the national daily average of all new infections hit 150,000 per day and average daily deaths hit 1,000. Anecdotally, many parents now have experience with kids or their friends testing positive for the much more infectious Delta variant.
Beyond pushing mask use and adult vaccines, confronting Republican governors who banned school mask mandates and urging states to spend billions of dollars in federal rescue funds doled out to make schools safe, it is not clear how the President can quickly influence a situation at the mercy of a capricious virus.
The fact that much education policy is the preserve of the states is a complicating factor. As is the reality that while many Republicans push back at basic measures to keep people safe, the party’s strategists are prepared to hammer the President in midterm elections over school closures, in a bid to weaken his hold on suburbs that helped put him in the White House.
Even as conditions worsen, the political frenzy over the virus, vaccines and Covid-19 treatments is escalating. Several Republican governors, including Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott of Texas, are waging cultural wars over mask mandates in schools ahead of reelection races and possible presidential bids. Trump’s lukewarm endorsement of vaccines was booed by his crowd in Alabama on Saturday night, so don’t look for the ex-President to drop much political capital on the issue in future. And the FDA just had to warn against a new crank Covid “cure” — a livestock deworming drug — pushed on conservative and social media.
“You are not a horse. You are not a cow,” the FDA said, in a tweet that boggled the mind but summed up the country’s gaping political divisions over the crisis.