Omicron and Navigating Pandemic Politics
The Republicans are cynically attacking Biden for failing to control the pandemic they prolonged, its time Democrats helped the President by fighting back
Like many Americans who have an unhealthy relationship with their phone, I first learned about the Omicron variant on Thanksgiving Day when I should have been enjoying food and family. Coronavirus putting a damper on yet another holiday felt somehow fitting. By the next day, cable news and the internet were dominated by discussion of the dangers of a new variant. The stock market took a huge hit due to fears of yet another surge. President Biden announced a ban on travel from South Africa. The feeling of quasi-normalcy during Thanksgiving for the vaccinated and boosted is about to give way to another season of anxiety and dismay.
The Delta surge over the summer precipitated the drop in President Biden’s approval rating. If the Omicron variant comes to our shores, it will hit just as Democrats are bouncing back from the past year and developing their midterm strategy. It's possible that the Omicron variant will not be as deadly as we fear. Maybe it will come and go without disturbing the holidays or delaying Hot Vax Summer 2.0. But the rattled markets, panic porn headlines, and travel bans are a reminder that it will be ages before our politics are pandemic-free. If Omicron does hit us hard, rising case rates and death tolls will further inflame a pessimistic and angry public. There are some lessons to learn from how the politics of the pandemic have played out in the Biden era.
It’s the Pandemic, Stupid
After the Democrats lost a very winnable race in Virginia and barely won an unlosable one in New Jersey, the pundits and practitioners went looking for any reason to explain what ailed the party. Was it Critical Race Theory? Unusually good Republican candidates? Unusually bad Democratic ones? Too much anti-Trump messaging? Too little anti-Trump messaging? Something else entirely?
Trying to find a simple explanation for something as complex as an election is a fool’s errand (and a pundit’s job). Electoral outcomes are always the result of innumerable factors interacting in a complex manner. Biden's biggest contender in all of American politics is the pandemic. When the pandemic felt more under control, Biden’s numbers were higher. As soon as we hit a speed bump on the path to normalcy, his approval rating cratered. A fairly obvious point, but sometimes it’s easy to overcomplicate the simple.
Biden was elected on a promise to control the pandemic and is paying the price for the virus’s continued hold over our lives. As legendary political reporter Dan Balz put it in the Washington Post:
[Biden] had three overriding priorities: The first was to tame the coronavirus pandemic and deal with its effects on the economy. The second was to persuade Congress to enact the most sweeping domestic policy initiatives in generations. The third was to unify the country the best he could… As December approaches, none of these goals has been fully accomplished, and that shapes the political environment heading into next year’s midterm elections, which could dramatically affect his presidency.
The pandemic continues, with new infections rising again, nearing 100,000 per day. A few months ago, southern states were the hot spots. Today, the northern tier of the country is being hit hardest. Vaccines continue to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths, but that is little comfort. More Americans have died of COVID-19 so far in 2021 than in the entirety of 2020.
Now, of course, almost none of this is Joe Biden’s fault. His administration has done a heroic job of combatting the virus, getting the public vaccinated, and generally succeeding in all the areas where the previous regime failed miserably. However, Biden and the Democratic House continue to take the political blame from an anxious and exhausted public. As we prepare for Omicron, the Biden White House’s job is to continue convincing Americans to get vaccinated as soon as possible. I am confident they will do everything within their limited control to save lives. Zeynep Tufekci has some typically smart thoughts on how we should respond to Omicron.
Just as with the Delta surge, the Republicans plan to shamelessly exploit the Omicron variant.
The Worst People in the World
Back in 2009, Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans developed a strategy to win back political power. They rooted for failure amidst the worst financial crisis in nearly a century to reap the political gains. The Republicans blocked bills to create jobs and then blamed Obama for not creating more jobs. This strategy was shameless, cynical, unpatriotic, and devastatingly effective.
Ever since President Biden took office, the Republicans have run an updated version of that strategy with a Trump Era level of incoherence. The Republicans are doing everything possible to make it harder for President Biden to control the pandemic while blaming him for not doing the thing they are trying to stop him from doing. The Republicans are simultaneously making the following arguments:
The dangers of COVID-19 are being exaggerated by the government;
Biden isn’t doing enough to control the virus;
The vaccines shouldn’t be trusted and definitely shouldn’t be mandated;
Lastly, Trump deserves more credit for developing the vaccines and, were he still in charge, he would have already introduced a new vaccine to account for Omicron.
In terms of political messaging, this is nonsensical claptrap. According to FiveThirtyEight, nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of Biden’s response to COVID on June 1, 2021. When Delta hit in late summer, this approval dropped by 10 points. Today, only 48 percent of Americans approve, while 46 percent disapprove. While Democrats continue to approve of Biden’s COVID measures, the bulk of the drop came from Independents and Republicans. Given polarization, the bulk of Republicans were always going to disapprove of Biden’s response no matter its efficacy. But the numbers among Independents are alarming and portend doom for the elections next year.
It’s easy to find this demoralizing. The Republicans are spreading anti-vaccine misinformation, blocking local communities from putting lifesaving masking and social distancing policies in place, and killing tens of thousands of their constituents. They are making it impossible for President Biden to control the pandemic and then sitting back and laughing as the public punishes the party in power.
The Urgency to Punch Back
There are, however, some kernels of hope in the polling data that could help. According to a recent poll from Navigator Research, 52 percent of the public trusts Joe Biden and the Democratic Party to combat COVID and only 34 percent trust the Republican Party. The Democratic advantage is 23 points on the question of who to trust to “ensure enough people are vaccinated.”
On COVID policies, the public strongly backs those supported by Democrats. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found majority support for vaccine mandates for businesses, schools, employers, and federal and local governments.
As President Biden works to control the pandemic, Democrats up and down the ballot must aggressively call out Republican misinformation and misdeeds. We need to make the politics of the pandemic a choice between two parties, not a referendum on the party in charge. Here’s one way to make the case
President Biden and the Democrats have worked with scientists, experts, and business leaders to get Americans vaccinated and reopen schools and businesses. If the Republicans take back power, they will repeal mask and vaccine requirements, undo all of the progress that has been made and prolong the pandemic.
The polling makes it clear that the public is open to this argument. But Democrats must argue and argue it aggressively. We have no other choice if we want to right the political ship in time for the midterms.
Some will caution against politicizing the pandemic, but it’s too late for that. The Republicans already did so. Besides, there is no nobility in repeatedly getting punched in the face without punching back.
It’s time to punch back. It’s our best and only shot to navigate what could be a very difficult period of pandemic politics.