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Bidenworld: We won the Covid pandemic battle, lost the Covid politics war

It’s the measurable progress Democrats once hoped would boost President Joe Biden’s popularity and his party’s chances in the medium term. The only problem: voters stopped doing it a long time ago.

“We have tamed this without a doubt,” a senior Biden official said of the pandemic threat. “And it makes no sense.”

Declining public interest in Covid may have more to do with the prevalence of other crises than with the state of pandemic response. Inflation worries have flooded the political landscape, decimated American optimism and pushed the White House on the defensive. Abortion law may soon be repealed by the Supreme Court. And arms policy debates have taken on new urgency in the wake of a series of mass shootings.

Yet White House aides and advisers who once believed the president’s approval ratings would improve as public health concerns ease are now expressing frustration that the all-consuming pandemic that voters have chosen to end Biden has hardly become its biggest concern. of the voters. The Covid bump never materialized.

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

Just how great the Covid battle’s achievement for the administration is is itself a subject of intense debate.

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

The US has since endured three spikes, with the most recent pushing the number of current cases again above 100,000.

But even as parts of the nation are awash with new infections, health officials have picked up signals that the country is moving into a post-crisis era. The surge in cases over the past two months has not translated into a comparable increase in Covid deaths — bolstering officials’ confidence that the US can live more safely with the virus.

Last Sunday, the government lifted the last of its extensive travel restrictions, declaring it no longer needed. The highly anticipated vaccines intended to protect the youngest children will be rolled out next week.

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

“Economic problems outweigh anything,” a Democratic House official said of the current environment. “People don’t seem to be thinking about how Trump has handled the pandemic or how the Biden administration has put us on the road to recovery. They are just tired.”

Within the administration, officials have looked for ways to break out of the slump, most recently reinforcing a talking point that daily Covid deaths have fallen 90 percent compared to the day Biden took office.

The White House has also ramped up distribution of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, the drug that can dramatically reduce the risk of serious illness.

But in wider acknowledgment 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 that the federal response is largely down. passed.

“For the first time in the pandemic, COVID is no longer the killer it once was,” said a White House spokesperson, stressing that the response effort “despite progress” has not been completed. “The fact that COVID is not controlling our lives is no coincidence.”

The spokesperson also drew a contrast between the Biden administration’s efforts and Trump’s response that preceded it: “Americans saw what a chaotic, politically driven COVID response looked like, and the President’s Day One mission was to fighting what is inherently a once-generational crisis.”

The minor messages contrast sharply with about a year ago, when Biden tried to capitalize on his administration’s initial progress by winning an Independence Day victory round.

The South Lawn speech — where Biden claimed he had “gained the upper hand” over Covid — backfired when the virus roared back several days later, fueled by the Delta variant. The event is now widely recognized within the government as a damaging mistake, and some allies say it cost Biden dearly.

The resurgence led Republicans to lean more skeptically about the vaccination campaign and it raised doubts about the government’s suitability on a front on which they had gained widespread approval. Over the next few months, deep divisions arose within the Democratic Party over how aggressively to fight a virus that could no longer be completely eliminated.

“That took the wind away,” a government official said of the Fourth of July celebration. “They’re never going to do that again.”

As of last summer, Biden officials have been reluctant to label their response as a major success without also noting that the fight could go down any minute. That reluctance persisted even as pressure in Congress for more Covid funding ground to a halt, raising the prospect that, after pushing back the virus for 18 months, the government may not be able to finish the job in the fall.

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

Current projections say the government can only buy enough of the next-generation vaccines in development to cover the country’s higher-risk population later this year.

Stocks of important monoclonal antibody treatments are at risk of running out even faster — including a treatment for immunocompromised patients who could be depleted by November — forcing patients to seek them out on the commercial insurance market.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials are preparing plans to shift access to Covid vaccines and antiviral pills to the commercial market as early as next year, pending supplies run out.

More immediately, the dwindling chances of a funding deal have sparked a new debate in some corners of administration: whether we should be more aggressive with Republicans for blocking legislation that would allocate more money, or hold back in hopes that Congress will eventually pass a bill. can compromise.

So far, the White House has resisted attempts to take political advantage of the deadlock. All of this, some officials fear, could lead to something far worse than failing to gain political advantage by containing the pandemic: Should a massive Covid wave hit in October and the government is unprepared, Biden could take on the blame.

“Financing is drying up. Political will is drying up,” said Céline Gounder, infectious disease specialist and general public health editor at Kaiser Health News. “And what do you do then?”

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