President Joe Biden won last year’s election based on his promise to “shut down the virus” rather than the economy and restore a sense of normalcy. Even as his overall job approval ratings slide, his pandemic management remains a relative high point in the polls.
That’s why the White House is eyeing the emergence of the omicron variant of COVID-19 warily. Biden is suddenly on the defensive on his strongest issue. After more in the United States died of the virus in 2021 than in all of 2020, a grim milestone the country reached late last month, reporters began to repeat this election-year assertion back to him: “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America.”
At the time, there had been 220,000 deaths under President Donald Trump. There have now been 350,000 since Biden was sworn in as his successor. “If the president had done his job, had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive,” then-candidate Biden said at the time.
Does this apply to Biden as well? It depends on how you define doing the job and “responsible for.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki contrasted Biden with Trump when asked this question at a briefing this month.
"The former president was suggesting people inject bleach," she said. "He apparently didn't even share with people he was going to interact with that he had tested positive for COVID himself. He continued to provide a form of misinformation, which probably led to people not taking steps forward to protect themselves ... I think there's a pretty stark difference between their approaches."
Psaki also trained her fire on Republican lawmakers who are resistant to federal vaccine mandates, much as she has previously targeted GOP governors who are blocking Biden’s preferred COVID-19 protocols within their own states. "They want to shut the government down to advocate for people to assert that on society," the top White House spokeswoman told reporters.
But the plain fact is that COVID-19 has not gone away as entirely as Biden appeared to promise during the campaign and strongly signaled with the rollout of the vaccines earlier this year. The political impact could be significant.
In 2020, exit polls showed Biden winning voters whose top issue was the coronavirus by 66 percentage points. He carried voters who thought it was more important to contain the virus than to reopen the economy by 60 points.
In May, an Associated Press/NORC poll showed Biden with a job approval rating above 60%. That was as shots were flowing into arms, masks were starting to come off, and Biden’s pandemic promises appeared to be coming to fruition. His approval rating on COVID-19 was 71%.
As Biden’s COVID-19 numbers have come back down to earth, they have wound up underwater almost across the board. Last month, Gallup showed 49% approved of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus and an equal 49% disapproved. Majorities disapproved of his performance on every other issue polled, and he was below 40% approval on most of them. His overall rating was 42% of the job he was doing as president compared to 55% who disapproved.
COVID-19 has become a culture war issue, galvanizing many conservatives against Biden’s health policies. The slower than expected progress on vaccination and new variants is cooling attitudes among COVID-19-cautious Democrats and independents.
A memo written by longtime Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, which advised the party’s leadership and candidates to “lean into defeating COVID, sell the rest of the agenda (growing economy, climate, health care, etc.) and brand the GOP as extremists, unfit to govern,” warned that the pandemic was a problem.
“The president’s decline is alarming. It’s serious,” Rosenberg said. “But it also can be reversed. And it isn't going to be reversed by passing these two bills alone,” Rosenberg wrote, referring to the $2.4 trillion reconciliation bill and the infrastructure law. "He has to get Covid under control.”
To that end, Biden has attempted to impose vaccine mandates where he legally can and, in some cases, according to federal court rulings, where he cannot. When the omicron variant made headlines over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Biden promptly imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and seven nearby countries to regulate the flow of infected people. This is despite the fact he ridiculed such restrictions while running against Trump, calling the China travel ban “xenophobic” and likening restrictions on Europe, which the Democratic president kept in place until last month, to trying to beat the virus by building a wall.
Psaki told reporters Biden wasn’t criticizing these travel policies as much as Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about foreign countries. But trying to avoid unflattering comparisons to Trump on COVID-19 is not where this administration planned to be.