It’s the Virus, Not Afghanistan, That’s Dragging Biden Down
All eyes have been on Afghanistan, but it is domestic issues—starting with public health—that appear to be bringing Biden’s numbers back to Earth.
For all of the media attention here on President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, the latest poll numbers show that it’s his handling of COVID-19 that’s been most damaging to his standing with the American public— and that could get worse, fast, if the Delta variant disrupts the school year.
The American people are sick of the pandemic and they’re taking it out on Biden while a handful of red-state governors reap short-term political gains by blocking mask mandates and other public health measures, and allow the virus to spread.
Their intransigence in the face of a widening health crisis is costing Biden politically. On Monday, with the news that the Pfizer vaccine had gotten full FDA approval, he called on private sector companies to do what he has done with the military and federal health workers and make the vaccine mandatory or require frequent testing to employees who refuse it. “It’s your lucky day,” the president told the people who say they were waiting on the FDA.
There may be a relatively small number of people who wanted full clearance instead of emergency authorization before getting the jab, but the FDA’s move may motivate companies to take a more aggressive approach to protecting their workforces and facilities now that they may be on a legally sounder footing for doing so.
Biden had promised that the country could return to something resembling normal once 70 percent of the population was vaccinated, which he believed could be achieved by July 4, aptly named Independence Day. The numbers fell short but the new president was on a roll, and he and the first lady celebrated with a big party on the South Lawn, prematurely as it turned out.
Even before the authorization, vaccination rates have continued to tick up but not fast enough to beat the Delta variant into submission, and not fast enough to reclaim Biden’s standing. Notably, his predecessor gently encouraged his fans to get the vaccine at a rally this weekend.
“I believe totally in your freedoms, I do,” Donald Trump said. “But, get the vaccine. I recommend it, I do. It’s good. It works.”
Fans there to see Trump booed him for advocating a life-saving vaccine.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing—but it is too late. When he had the bully pulpit and the opportunity to lead the country, he chose to follow and we’re all the worse for it,” says Jeff Horwitt with Hart Research, the Democratic polling firm that together with the GOP firm, Public Opinion Strategies (POS), conducted the recent NBC poll that found Biden’s approval dipping below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency, a casualty of the resurgent virus and an increasingly pessimistic public.
“It’s really COVID and the economy together,” said Horwitt. “And in August and September when schools re-open, there are lots of things that can go wrong.”
“The COVID situation has impacted public confidence in general and really hurt economic confidence,” said Bill McInturff with POS. He points to a 10-point drop in the MI Consumer Confidence index that began well before Afghanistan—one of the three largest drops in 50 years of polling.
Biden has charted an ambitious domestic agenda and he needs popular support to keep together a fragile bipartisan coalition that he has painstakingly built against all odds, and to keep his own party in line to support a second “human” infrastructure bill to expand health and social benefits, and address climate change. The challenge is enormous, and it rests largely on Biden’s negotiating skills and the perception of him as a strong and competent leader. Only 25 percent of the public supports the way he exited Afghanistan, though they agree it was time to go.
The depth of the country’s frustration and the partisan division that is fueling it is evident in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s numbers. In October of 2020, the epidemiologist was viewed favorably by 50 percent overall with 13 percent viewing him unfavorably. In the current poll, 40 percent approve and 36 percent disapprove, with most of the negative coming from Republicans who moved from 27 positive and 23 negative in 2020 to 13 positive and 68 percent negative in the current poll.
How red and blue state populations view their leaders is most stark when you compare Texas Gov. Greg Abbott with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Abbott barred local leaders from imposing mask mandates and has done nothing to constrain the virus and protect his constituents. When he tested positive last week for COVID-19, we learned that he is doubled-vaxxed and got a booster shot before it was authorized—and he is tested daily. After the positive test, he immediately received infusions of antibodies even though he had no symptoms—an expensive treatment not widely available to the thousands sickened in his state. Meanwhile, in California, Governor Newsom, a Democrat, is facing a recall ballot because in a moment of stupidity he attended a party at a fancy restaurant and was pictured maskless cavorting with the rich and powerful while otherwise shepherding his state through COVID-19 and multiple other crises.
Abbott gets away with hypocrisy and elitism in a state where the population is vaccine-hesitant and mask-resistant, while Newsom faces the severe punishment of potentially losing his job for a far smaller slip.
“Those (red state) governors knew that their supporters were skeptical of institutions and public health. But instead of addressing that head on, they played right into it,” says Horwitt. “They’ve taking precautions for themselves but they’re not willing to take the political shot here and do the right thing.”
Trump getting booed won’t encourage his followers to change course, but we are seeing more unvaccinated people fall sick, then recover to tell the tale. “It’s painful to see so many tragedies,” said Horwitt. “but we’re beginning to hear more live to tell the story. Before, people who knew what this was like couldn’t talk anymore. They were dying.”
The White House is ramping up its efforts on vaccine persuasion. It’s safe, it’s effective, it’s free, the president said in his midday announcement Monday of the FDA’s full Pfizer approval. “There’s no time to waste,” he said. And he’s on solid ground with his messaging.
According to a USA Today/Ipsos poll, substantial majorities of Americans, upwards of 60 percent to over 70 percent, favor mask mandates and vaccine requirements, and think people have a right to refuse but can then lose their right to be among others. Not surprisingly, 78 percent of Democrats favor the common good over personal freedom while 62 percent of Republicans value personal freedom above all else, taking risks that the governors they support and the former president they revere did not take.