WASHINGTON — Inflation is rising, companies are struggling to hire staff and President Joe Biden’s polls are in free fall. The White House sees a common culprit for all of this: COVID-19.
Biden’s team sees the pandemic as the root of both the country’s malaise and its own political woes. Finally, mastering COVID-19, the White House believes, is the key to rejuvenating the country and reinvigorating Biden’s own reputation.
But the challenge of the coronavirus has proved vexing for the White House, with premature claims of last summer’s victory overrun by the more transmissible delta strain, millions of Americans going unvaccinated, and lingering economic effects from the darkest days of the pandemic.
All this while another variant of the virus, omicron, appeared abroad. It worries public health officials, leading to new travel bans and panicked markets as scientists scramble to understand just how dangerous it could be.
While the economy has actually returned, there are multiple signs that COVID-19 will leave its scars even as the pandemic subsides.
For now, the government says an irreconcilable minority opposing vaccination is ruining the recovery for the rest of the country — forcing masks on the vaccinated and adding to lingering fear everywhere you look.
When asked why Americans aren’t getting the message that the economy is improving, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week: “We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and people are tired of it. We are too.”
The state of affairs, she said, affects everything from how people feel about sending their children out the door to the price for a gallon of gas.
The government views vaccination mandates as crucial not only to preventing preventable illness and death, but also to securing economic recovery — and saving Biden’s political position.
“We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic, generally available,” Jeff Ziens, White House Covid-19 coordinator, told a coronavirus briefing. While he ruled out large-scale lockdowns like the United States experienced in 2020 and like those resurfacing across Europe, Zients renewed the government’s call for more Americans to get their photos.
But on Friday, the discovery of the new variant in southern Africa caused much of the world to halt travel from the region, posing a threat that the World Health Organization says could be worse than the devastating waves from the delta.
There has been frustration for weeks within the White House and among the president’s allies over the administration’s slow move to approve booster shots for all adults. The regulatory process, they fear, has contributed to misinformation and confusion surrounding the boosters and means the nation is not optimally protected for the holiday season.
Biden on Friday called on unvaccinated Americans to be “responsible” and get the shot and for those who qualify for a booster to get that too. “That’s the minimum everyone should do. … We always talk about whether this is about freedom, but I think it’s a patriotic responsibility to do that.”
Still, Democrats say a turnaround may be within reach, despite all the wringing of hands over Biden’s sagging position with the Americans.
“From Trump to Biden, people feel like it’s mourning again in America, to the feeling that it’s morning weather in America,” said party strategist Jesse Ferguson.
“Getting through the pandemic will unlock the door to the economy, to our way of life and to people who feel less divided,” he added.
For Biden’s critics, however, it is a daunting task to blame all of the country’s problems on COVID-19 or think that containment of the virus will solve them.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blamed the high prices on Biden’s major pandemic aid package, recently saying, “There’s no question what keeps working Americans up at night. Inflation. The runaway prices and unpredictability that has fueled Democrat policies.”
The lingering effects of the virus have taken its toll on the president’s approval ratings, even if his handling of the virus is considered relative strength.
In an October AP-NORC poll, 54% of Americans said they approve of Biden’s work on the pandemic. That was slightly higher than his overall approval score and much higher than approval for his handling of the economy, at 48% and 41%, respectively.
By July, 66% had approved of Biden on COVID-19 and 59% approved of his overall work performance.
In last month’s poll, only about a third of Americans said the country was moving in the right direction, down from about half in late February.
Views of the economy have also declined: only about a third say conditions are good, compared to nearly half in September.
For the White House, blame for the pandemic is emerging as a modern version of the old “It’s the economy, stupid” mantra from the Bill Clinton years.
When Psaki was pressed about what the government was doing to contain higher prices, she replied: “We know the root causes of that, right? Global supply chain issues.”
“The best thing we can do as a government is get the pandemic under control. That’s the main focus of the president.”
The same message ripples through the administration.
“As long as the pandemic continues, there will be pandemic-induced shortages, so the best way to deal with this is to end the pandemic,” Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said recently, stressing the need for vaccination.
Speaking about the government’s response to rising gasoline prices, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said getting people vaccinated was “the ultimate answer”.
Economists largely endorse the sentiment, but warn that the solution is not easy.
“The root of the problems in the economy is the virus,” said Harvard economist James Stock, “and the best way to minimize the spread of the virus is to get more vaccinations. It’s economic policy number one in my thoughts.”
But with experts predicting that COVID-19 will become endemic, Stock said, “You have to be realistic that it won’t go away.”
Even if the virus fades, economists warn, there will be harmful effects.
Goldman Sachs noted in a recent analysis that about half of the 5 million people who have left the workforce since the pandemic have retired, making it more difficult for companies to reclaim lost jobs. Work by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom and others shows that businesses expect more people to continue working from home and shop online, a problem for local retailers who rely on office workers to buy lunch and people to return to stores.
Only 5% of Americans’ total workdays were at home pre-pandemic, a figure that is now 25%, according to Bloom. More than three-quarters of the employees surveyed by he and his colleagues would prefer to work from home at least one day a week, and nearly a third would prefer to work from home all five days. This can make it more difficult for employers to evaluate their employees and use office space efficiently.
The government is also dealing with a global economy, so solving pandemic problems at home has its limits.
Coronavirus outbreaks in Asia shut down computer chip factories, exacerbating the semiconductor shortage, a sign that vaccination could be as crucial globally as the government’s domestic efforts. One of the reasons for Biden’s infrastructure spending to strengthen the supply chain is to minimize the damage from these shutdowns.
“If a factory in Malaysia closes because of a COVID outbreak – which they have – it creates a ripple effect that could slow auto production in Detroit,” Biden said in a recent speech. “Why? They can’t get the computer chips they need.”
— The Associated Press