President Joe Biden's campaign pledge to manage COVID-19 is coming back to haunt him as he and his administration scramble to learn more about the omicron variant.
But Biden's reluctant acknowledgment of a COVID-19-impaired future as he works to enact his Build Back Better legislative agenda could hamstring Democrats in next year's midterm elections.
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COVID-19 will not be eradicated, similar to measles, polio, even influenza, according to Sandy Maisel. But the former Democratic strategist predicted the virus would be better contained, rather than "control our lives as it has for the last two years."
"I don't think Biden has articulated that terribly well," Maisel told the Washington Examiner. "He's certainly not articulate in a way other rhetorical presidents have been, sort of in many ways like George W. Bush. He can't make the point in a way that people buy into it."
For Maisel, Biden's task has been complicated by the pandemic's uncertainty and "unprecedented" opposition as he tries not to cause alarm or leave people unprepared. At the same time, it was a "mistake" for him to claim he could get COVID-19 "under control," the Colby College American government emeritus professor added.
"Neither he nor any of the epidemiologists understood what this virus was going to do," Maisel said of Biden. "And he did that at a time before the delta variant had taken ahold."
The 2022 midterm cycle will be decided by COVID-19 "only to the extent it makes us change the way in which we live our lives," such as inflation, according to Maisel. And he encouraged Democratic candidates and lawmakers to acknowledge the virus's indelible mark on whatever post-pandemic life eventuates, including Biden.
"I don't think they have a very good communication strategy. And I think partly that's because they don't know what a good communication strategy should be," Maisel said. "People in the White House clearly understand that he's being judged on COVID and that the success or failure of his administration going forward is largely down to whether we get this under control."
Even before Biden hesitated to acknowledge the actuality of post-pandemic life, basing his 2020 campaign on COVID-19 competency and "a return to normal" was a "severe miscalculation," according to Republican consultant Ralph Reed. Instead, Reed implored the president to keep his promise to "level with the American people."
For Reed, Biden was in denial about "the new normal" because he and his aides are anxious it could disincentivize people to become vaccinated. The administration had already hardened vaccine skepticism by introducing mandates, the Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman contended.
"This is going to be like the flu. It's likely in some way, shape, or form going to be with us for some time," Reed said. "We have to figure out a way to mitigate its effect and to prosper — and to be able to live with this as our reality, not try to wish it away by telling everybody to get vaccinated."
Biden's COVID-19 sidestep strategy makes political sense in the short run, according to John Pitney. But in the long run, he will be confronted by a dilemma, the former Republican operative-turned-Claremont McKenna College politics professor, who has studied autism's politicization, anticipated.
"If he overstates the danger ahead, he risks feeding the panic that he is trying to avoid," Pitney said of Biden, echoing Maisel. "If he sets expectations too high, then modest-but-solid progress will seem like failure."
Biden's problem is that he will not be helped by Republicans, according to Pitney. Kaiser Family Foundation polling, for example, found this month that Republican voters account for 60% of unvaccinated adults nationwide.
"GOP politicians will condemn him no matter what he does. And GOP voters will be reluctant to heed his calls for vaccination," Pitney said.
Biden bristled at suggestions this week that post-pandemic life would be defined by novel COVID-19 variants triggering fresh rounds of travel restrictions and stock market shocks. Rather, he pivoted to the importance of vaccinations, despite unconfirmed concerns that the omicron variant could resist existing shots.
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"I expect this not to be the new normal," he said at the White House. "I expect the new normal to be everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot, 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."