Rich Lowry: Why Biden can’t embrace COVID normality

If Biden follows the views of most Americans on the pandemic he risks offending his political base.

(Susan Walsh | AP photo) President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations after touring a Clayco Corporation construction site for a Microsoft data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill., Oct. 7, 2021.

Joe Biden was the candidate of normality who hasn’t been able to deliver it, particularly on the pandemic.

This is not entirely his fault, obviously. He didn’t create the delta and omicron surges, nor did he — or most anyone else — foresee that the vaccines wouldn’t prevent infections as advertised.

On COVID, though, as on much else, he has been trapped by a commitment to his political base and by a reflexive opposition to everything associated with Donald Trump into an endless emergency posture that isn’t wearing well with time.

Everyone agrees now — after the flameouts of initial efforts to pass Build Back Better and of the attempt to trash the Senate filibuster — that Biden needs a political reset. His looming Supreme Court pick will presumably provide a much-needed win, but is unlikely to move the needle much. It’s on the pandemic that Biden has, in theory, an opportunity to change course in a significant way.

By more fully embracing an approach geared to living with COVID and returning to normality, Biden could usefully play against type, align himself with shifting public opinion, and acknowledge the reality of the third year of the pandemic when vaccines and boosters are easily available to anyone who wants them.

Even the thought of such a tack would, once upon a time, have elicited charges of intolerable recklessness. In certain quarters, it still does. But the public is moving in this direction. A new Monmouth poll found that 70% of the public agrees with the statement that “it’s time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.”

Unsurprisingly, 89% of Republicans agree with that view. But so do 71% of independents and nearly half of Democrats.

An NBC News poll on the schools found the same kind of partisan splits. According to the survey, 65% of people were most worried about kids falling behind academically and only 30% most worried about stopping the spread of COVID. Again, Republicans and independents were strongly on one side — 87% and 66% most worried lost learning — and Democrats divided, with 43% worried about kids losing academic ground.

In a big Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 51% of Democrats described the pandemic as the biggest problem facing the country, whereas only 28% of independents did and 19% of Republicans.

This suggests that the response to COVID is beginning to become a wedge issue — Democrats can play to their base, which is most invested in maintaining restrictions, only at the risk of alienating the broader electorate.

Biden, whose handling of COVID is less and less popular, shows signs of being conflicted. The White House counseled against panic at the outset of the omicron surge, and even talked of a declaration of independence from the virus last summer. But the president hasn’t been able to make it unmistakable that he thinks we’ve entered a new phase in the pandemic. As the heterodox center-left writer Matthew Yglesias points out, the Biden administration may believe that it has embraced normality but what it’s really done is only make “the most extreme public health people mad at them.”

If the administration wants to make a statement, it could decisively turn against the teacher unions on the issue of keeping schools open, siding with parents and kids over a Democratic interest group. It could relax its indefensibly sweeping guidance on school masking and instantly pave the way for local school districts to lift their mandates. It could end the federal mask mandates on travel.

But any of these measures would mean crossing progressives; enduring the scolding of one-dimensional public-health experts; and courting comparisons to Donald Trump, or even worse, Glenn Youngkin and Ron DeSantis.

And so President Biden, as conditions change, can’t change with them, putting normality on indefinite hold.

Rich Lowry Courtesy photo

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.

Twitter, @RichLowry