The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Working from home during covid seems to work out for Biden

Since testing positive for the coronavirus nearly two weeks ago, Biden has presided over a remarkably successful stretch of his presidency

President Biden on screen delivering remarks on the successful counterterrorism operation of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the Blue Room Balcony of the White House on Aug. 1, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Work from home, it turns out, has been good for President Biden.

Since first testing positive for covid nearly two weeks ago and remaining at the White House, Biden has presided over a remarkably successful, if short, stretch of his presidency.

Biden celebrated as the Senate, and then the House, passed the Chips and Science Act — a $280 billion bill that will subsidize domestic semiconductor manufacturing in an effort to help U.S. companies compete with China. He delighted as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the majority leader, reached a secretive and unexpected $370 billion deal on legislation to lower prescription drug prices, cut emissions and overhaul how the country produces energy.

Then, after a rebound infection that the president’s doctor announced Saturday, a covid-positive Biden announced Monday evening that he had ordered the successful killing via two Hellfire missiles of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda and one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists who, along with Osama bin Laden, helped mastermind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

And throughout it all, Biden embodied the public health pitch that he and his team have been making for months — that for the majority of vaccinated and boosted individuals, covid likely means an inconvenient period of isolation rather than a terrifying hospital stay.

“Joe Biden has had the most productive quarantine in the history of the United States,” tweeted Kendra Barkoff, who served as Biden’s press secretary while he was vice president, shortly after the Zawahiri news broke Monday.

Asked Tuesday about the fact that a particularly successful stretch of Biden’s presidency seemed to coincide with his on-again-off-again-on-again covid diagnosis, which limited his ability to travel, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre laughed and responded, “My goodness. Jeez. Oh, my gosh.”

“What we're seeing right now is because of the hard work of this administration, is because work that we have been doing for some time now just happens to be coming down at this time,” Jean-Pierre said. “But I wouldn't put it all together in one week or two.”

She added, moments later: “I think we should just be really thrilled and really excited that we’re getting work done for the American people.”

Biden’s covid diagnoses — which have kept him confined to the White House for the past 12 days and counting — in some ways conjure up his 2020 presidential campaign, in which the deadly pandemic similarly kept him close to his home in Wilmington, Del.

At the time, Biden offered himself as a contrast to then-president Donald Trump, promising calm and competent leadership in the face of the virus, compared with Trump’s freewheeling chaos.

Yet in the eyes of his critics, covid also proved a political gift to Biden. They repeatedly accused Biden, who was 78-years-old when he assumed the presidency, of using the pandemic as an excuse to cloister himself away in his basement and avoid going head-to-head with Trump.

Asked about Biden’s recent work from home stint, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the president is likely helped by having less opportunities to commit the sorts of gaffes for which he has long been known.

“Yes, out of sight, out of mind is not a bad strategy for Joe Biden, because when you’re out front carrying the message, you trip and fall a lot,” Graham said. “He’s a nice man, but he cannot deliver a coherent message.”

The White House, however, has publicly and privately pushed back on the notion that Biden has spent his quarantine receding from public view, or keeping a more relaxed schedule than usual. A White House aide provided a list of activities Biden has engaged in during his bout with covid, including working with Kentucky leaders to manage the flooding in the state, holding a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and participating virtually in meetings with his economic team and also with the House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus.

“Because of the indispensable protections from the vaccines, boosters, and treatments that President Biden worked hard to make available to all Americans, he has been productive from the Residence, executing on the full range of his duties — rather than being helicoptered to Walter Reed, like his predecessor,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates, referring to Trump’s battle with covid near the end of his term.

Graham said Biden “deserves credit for pulling the trigger” with Zawahiri, but in the same breath criticized Biden’s decision last August to withdraw from Afghanistan, saying it created the conditions for al-Qaeda to begin reconstituting itself in the Taliban stronghold.

“I never believed that within a year — before a year was up — that Zawahiri would be on the balcony of a Haqqani guesthouse in Kabul,” Graham said, referring to the Haqqani Taliban faction harboring Zawahiri when he was killed. “That’s beyond brazen.”

Biden’s decision to authorize the Hellfire missile strike on Zawahiri underscores the sort of strength his team is desperate for him to project as Democrats head into the November elections with the president’s approval ratings sagging historically low.

In 2011, after all, Biden was at then-president Barack Obama’s side during the Situation Room debate on whether to green light a dangerous Special Forces operation to take out bin Laden, who senior intelligence and national security officials believed was hiding in a compound in Pakistan. At the time, Biden advised Obama against the raid, arguing it was too risky.

But now, a little more than a decade later, the circumstances had shifted and it was Biden who gave the order to take out Zawahiri, who had served as bin Laden’s logistically-minded No. 2. Unlike the bin Laden raid — in which the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 helicoptered into Pakistan under the cover of night and killed the terrorist leader after a firefight — Biden was able to execute Zawahiri’s killing from a CIA drone in the skies above Afghanistan.

“We make it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” Biden declared Monday, announcing Zawahiri’s killing from the Blue Room Balcony of the White House.

Nonetheless, many of Biden’s critics say he hardly deserves credit for his productive fortnight. They argue that some of the successes, like the deal between Manchin and Schumer, did not involve Biden all — though some also concede that Biden’s quarantine at the White House may have a political silver lining.

“The less they see him, the less they’re reminded of the fact that he’s kind of weak, feeble and past his prime,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who worked in the Trump White House. “That is true.”

Still, Surabian added, “Unless there’s a magic wand that exists that I’m unaware of, and he can wave it and fix this economy and stop inflation, I don’t think there’s any piece of legislation or any act overseas that will be enough to save the Democrats in November.”

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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