President Joe Biden’s message on what the federal government can do about COVID-19 appears to be shifting as the latest variant hits Democratic-run states and the pandemic continues under his watch.
Biden told governors on Monday that “there is no federal solution” to the latest wave of the coronavirus, with Washington standing by to help in what is largely a state matter.
“This gets solved at the state level," Biden said in his first appearance at a National Governors Association briefing on COVID-19. "And then, ultimately, gets down to where the rubber meets the road, and that's where the patient is in need of help or preventing the need for help."
During the 2020 campaign, Biden held a more vigorous view of what the federal government generally and the president specifically could accomplish in terms of mitigating the outbreak.
“I’m going to shut down the virus,” then-candidate Biden vowed last year. He also held former President Donald Trump personally responsible for every pandemic death. "220,000 deaths. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,” Biden tweeted. “Anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain President of the United States."
More recently, when the last wave of the pandemic hit red states especially hard, Biden and the White House urged Republican governors, especially potential 2024 rivals for the presidency, to “at least get out of the way.”
But the omicron variant has not been confined to the red states, as some blue states and cities contemplate new COVID-19 restrictions to slow the spread. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have both publicly suggested the variants caught them by surprise. The death toll has continued to climb with Trump gone.
Biden won the election in no small part because of his pandemic promises. According to exit polls, he carried voters whose top issue was the coronavirus by 66 points. He beat Trump among those who prioritized controlling the virus over reopening the economy by 60 points. Support for Biden’s COVID-19 handling as the vaccines rolled out, after casting some doubt on whether Trump was cutting corners in development during the campaign, helped propel him to solid overall job approval ratings.
Then, progress toward vaccination stalled, followed by the emergence of the delta variant. Masking and some restrictions returned, at least in some places.
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The Biden administration has since come under fire for a lack of easy access to COVID-19 testing during the holiday season, with the White House seemingly mocking the idea of taking on a larger role in that area weeks before doing just that. Biden had to invoke Trump on the vaccines in a pre-Christmas speech, even as press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the possibility of partnering with the ex-president on outreach.
A dip in support on Biden’s strongest issue isn’t the only reason his job approval ratings are now underwater by more than 10 points in the RealClearPolitics average. But it’s an important one.