The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Biden’s political fortunes are tied to the pandemic, omicron could signal trouble

President Biden delivered remarks on the threat posed by the omicron coronavirus variant on Nov. 29, encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. (Video: Reuters)

ROSEMOUNT, Minn. — President Biden and his aides have long asserted that ending the pandemic would revive his political fortunes, as Americans give him credit for lifting the coronavirus’s threat and begin to appreciate his other accomplishments, from climate to infrastructure.

But the emergence of the omicron variant raises the prospect that the corner will not be decisively turned on covid for the foreseeable future, as variants continue to crop up, many Americans continue to resist vaccines and experts differ on what restrictions are necessary.

That could pose a daunting political threat to the president, whose party already faces severe head winds heading toward the midterm elections and a potentially tricky reelection battle.

“We’re never going to go back to normal. Personally, I don’t think I will ever get on a plane without wearing a mask,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist who worked closely with Biden during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Still, she argued that Biden deserves more praise for the major advances that have been made against covid.

“The administration has gotten us to a place where we can do things, where we can see our family and our friends and go shopping and go to a movie and do the things that bring back normalcy into our lives,” Solis Doyle said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”

That credit continues to prove elusive. Biden’s approval ratings have dropped, a close ally lost the Virginia governor’s race, Democrats are bracing for midterm losses and voters have been slow to reward him for his legislative successes.

The White House insists all that will change once covid is in the rearview mirror. Since omicron’s emergence in recent days, Biden has sought to deliver two at times discordant messages: that great vigilance is required and that life should proceed apace.

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The whiplash is on full display this week. As the president gave a speech Monday about the ominous new variant, he was surrounded by festive Christmas decorations, a reminder that the holiday season is in full swing as Americans nervously await more details on how dangerous omicron is, if at all.

On Tuesday, Biden traveled to Minnesota, a state that’s currently hobbled by the third-highest rate of coronavirus infections in the country, to tout his infrastructure plan, seeking to keep a focus on his social agenda amid the new fears.

And Biden continues to maintain that life can return to a pre-pandemic calm.

“I expect this not to be the new normal,” he said Monday when asked if the country should get used to the idea of new variants and occasional rounds of travel restrictions.

But that, he said, relies on vastly higher vaccination rates, a goal that has so far eluded the administration.

“I expect the new normal to be everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot,” he said, “so we reduce the number of people who aren’t protected to such a low degree that we’re not seeing the spread of these viruses.”

To the extent Biden has struggled to get covid behind him, his allies argue that is almost entirely the fault of Republican leaders who are mounting a culture war against a safe, widely available coronavirus vaccine.

Even so, they say Biden faces a challenge in pressing his long-term vision, especially his infrastructure and social spending bills, while also addressing the immediate anxieties surrounding the new variant.

“There was an impression that covid was going to be almost like polio,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who accompanied Biden as he visited her state. “It was a terrible disease. There was going to be inoculation and then it would disappear.”

Instead, she said: “We’re now I think realizing that that’s not going to be the way it is. It’s going to be like an endemic. It will probably get less and less severe over time — that seems to be the path of this virus — and so it’s going to have to be something that we get used to living with, and the best way of course of living with it is by getting vaccinated and getting boosted.”

That is a tricker message than simply declaring victory at some point. And omicron is emerging at a moment when Biden had been hoping to push the benefits of his legislative agenda.

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During his remarks in Rosemount, Minn., which lasted about 30 minutes, Biden stood in front of a truck with a big blue sign saying, “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

He only briefly referred to covid. “We’re going to keep fighting through this, as we did with the original virus and with the delta variant,” Biden said. “And we’re also going to keep our historic economic growth moving.”

Instead, he spent most of his time selling his legislative agenda, saying it would bring high-speed Internet to the entire country and replace lead pipelines in states like Minnesota.

About 260,000 pipes would be replaced in that state alone, Biden said. “We’re going to rebuild this economy from the bottom up in the middle out,” he said.

Biden also visited Dakota County Technical College (DCTC), a trip intended to emphasize that most of the jobs created by the infrastructure law will not require a four-year degree. DCTC is the type of institution that will provide the training and skills needed for those jobs, White House officials said.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said infrastructure is a “very important long-term investment” that will spur job creation, and Democrats should pursue an aggressive strategy to sell the plan. But he warned that the president and Democratic lawmakers also need to quickly pivot to explaining that they are relentlessly focused on the most pressing challenges.

“We have to level with the American people and meet them where they are,” Khanna said. “People don’t measure their lives in macroeconomic statistics. They don’t measure their life by saying, ‘Where is GDP growth?’ They just have a feeling, ‘How am I doing?’ A lot of people feel anxious, and we ought to appreciate that and be straight with them.”

He added, “We need to speak to the two most immediate needs on Americans’ minds: The disruption and the threat that covid continues to cause and the challenges that Americans continue to face with higher prices and disruptions in supply chains in the economy.”

Some of Biden’s allies said voters would not blame the president for new variants and a dragged out pandemic, arguing that Americans are becoming accustomed to the risks posed by covid and learning to live with them.

“I don’t think people give him demerits because there’s an omicron variant,” said John Anzalone, one of Biden’s pollsters during his presidential campaign. “People weren’t blaming Trump for covid. They were blaming him for not having a plan to handle it.”

Still, White House officials have said privately for weeks that the key to Biden bouncing back in the polls is for covid to recede firmly in the rearview mirror, giving him a clear-cut victory on the biggest crisis facing the country and allowing him a free hand to focus on his other accomplishments.

The infrastructure package was a major bipartisan win, and Democrats believe they are close to passing a wide-ranging social spending bill that will tackle such issues as climate and universal pre-K. Those packages combined, along with an economy that appears to be rebounding, albeit with hiccups, could give Biden and Democrats a solid record.

But it will be hard to tout that record if voters remain frustrated at the persistence of the pandemic.

Biden’s schedule this week is a mixture of events that highlight his covid mitigation efforts with events intended to showcase legislative and administrative victories.

On Monday, he met with corporate leaders to focus attention on his efforts to ease blockades to the supply chain.

Later this week, he is scheduled to visit the National Institutes of Health, where he promises to unveil what he called a “detailed strategy” for fighting covid this winter, as more Americans spend time indoors.

Biden said the plan, which he will roll out Thursday, will avoid major disruptions to Americans’ lives, like the shutdowns that defined the early period of the pandemic, and will instead focus on testing and increasing vaccination rates.

“People have basically made a decision to define what their new normal is,” Anzalone said. “People are just looking for information. They didn’t find it from Trump.”

Biden has also been trying to remind Americans how much more their lives were disrupted last year before vaccines were widely available and how, by comparison, conditions have improved vastly.

“A year ago, America was floundering against the first variant of covid,” Biden said Monday in an address on omicron from the Roosevelt Room. “We beat that variant significantly, and then we got hit by a far more powerful threat: the delta variant. But we took action, and now we’re seeing deaths from delta come down.”

He added, “We will move forward now in the face of the omicron variant as well.”

Biden sought to illustrate this himself, celebrating his traditional Thanksgiving holiday on Nantucket this year with a family event that he had to cancel in 2020 because of covid restrictions.

His trip included eating indoors with his extended family at the Nantucket Tap Room and walking the cobblestone streets of the island’s historic downtown to visit shops.

He started the holiday with a note of bravado. Calling into a broadcast of the traditional Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was revived after a hiatus last year caused by the pandemic, Biden sounded triumphant.

“After two years, you’re back. America is back,” Biden told Al Roker, the longtime host of the event. “There’s nothing we’re unable to overcome, Al.”

But within 24 hours, the country was doomscrolling for information about omicron and Biden had announced a travel ban from southern African countries.

Linskey reported from Washington.