Biden’s Covid Curse

Joe Biden wearing a mask
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
February 15, 2022

Joe Biden is a hair’s breadth away from making history in a manner that Democrats once thought impossible. With his average approval rating hovering near 40 percent, Biden is just one point away from Donald Trump’s record of being the least popular president at this point in his first term. Much of the blame for that falls on the White House, itself. Depending on which worried Democrat you ask, Biden either failed to rise above the intractable politics that he promised to fix, or has proven unable to communicate his goals and achievements to the American public. Maybe both. But presidencies are just as defined by events beyond one’s control as they are by promises, and the primary culprit for Biden’s woes is an unmistakable five-letter word that would slot nicely into the first row of a morning Wordle: COVID. 

Announcing an end to the pandemic was supposed to be Biden’s reward for Trusting the Science. He listened to experts, put shots in arms and dollars in pockets, and empowered advisers to issue clear public health guidance where Trump did not. In the early months of his presidency, he under-promised and over-delivered—on vaccines, on key deadlines, and funding for an economic recovery. The horizon of normal life, though, was soon tainted by the surging Delta and Omicron variants, all of it made worse by a defiant political minority that refused to get vaccinated, throwing the economy into continued uncertainty and pushing Biden’s promise of normalcy further down the road. But voters have nowhere else to point their fingers than at the party in charge. 

Democrats, now on the verge of a midterm catastrophe, are trying to pivot. Last week, with Omicron infection and hospitalization rates falling as quickly as they shot up a month ago, Democratic leaders began scaling back the Covid restrictions they erected so forcefully at the beginning of the pandemic, an attempt to make life seem a little more normal for a country ready to move on. Most states have already rolled back mask requirements, while most red states never had them in the first place. Earlier this month, there were only eight states remaining with indoor mask mandates—all of them big blue states led by Democrats. But a few days ago, that suddenly changed. In coordination with the White House, Democratic governors in New Jersey, California, New York, Illinois, Oregon, Delaware and Rhode Island announced a rollback of indoor mask orders. 

The new logic was bluntly articulated by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who is now saying out loud what most voters in this country already believe: that coronavirus is moving from a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis to the kind of illness that, like the flu every winter, might force people to miss a few days of work as they lie on the couch watching Netflix. “We are learning to live responsibly and normally with it,” Murphy told me by phone. “People are fatigued and frustrated. There’s a sense of loss, of lives, jobs, businesses, kids struggling at school. They are upset and they are frustrated. Today, the data is overwhelmingly headed in the right direction. One of our guiding principles, the whole way in New Jersey was, we have tried to meet the moment. We don’t want to undershoot, but we don’t want to overshoot either, and add to the mental health crises and stress and related issues that exist.”

The C.D.C. has not changed its guidance on indoor masks. Covid is still infecting more than 200,000 people daily, more than last summer’s surge, and killing hundreds of people every hour, though the impact is mostly felt among the unvaccinated. Coronavirus is here to stay, albeit in diminished form. But Murphy and other Democrats are bowing to political reality, a sudden about-face from the Trust The Science crowd. “Would love to see the Democratic internals,” snarked Abigail Marone, a spokeswoman for Republican Senator Josh Hawley, after blue states started ending their mask requirements this week. A Monmouth poll in January showed that support for masking dropped among all Americans from 63 percent in September to just 52 percent, a negligible majority. The same poll included an attention-grabbing topline: A whopping 70 percent of Americans agreed with the sentiment that “it’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” Almost nine in 10 Republicans agreed with the statement—not a shocker—but so did 71 percent of independents. Rarely these days do political pollsters find such consensus. 

Democrats, meanwhile, were split on the matter 50-50, another data point suggesting that the left is having a difficult time coming to grips with the gradual end of the pandemic. As David Leonhardt wrote recently in The New York Times, “millions of Democrats have decided that organizing their lives around Covid is core to their identity as progressives.” The dynamic has aggravated the Biden White House and other Democratic professionals who want their voters to shake their addiction to pandemic life before the midterms arrive. “If Democrats actually want to be the party that believes in science, here’s what the science says: vaccines protect against severe disease and long Covid. Wearing an N95 will protect you even if others aren’t masked,” said Jon Favreau, the Pod Save America host and former Obama speechwriter. “Treatments are now available for the most vulnerable among us. Considering all the tools we now have available, people who still want restrictions after the Omicron wave is over should tell us what science they’re following.”

Republicans and Covid skeptics may have shunned science and vaccines early on, making the pandemic longer and more treacherous for everyone else, but the crisis hasn’t exactly worn well on Democrats. From the outset, governors and mayors rightly tried to hew closely to the guidance from federal and state public health officials, starting with mask rules that, for millions living in blue states, never came to end. But as our understanding of the virus kept changing, so did the corresponding public guidelines. Mask rules differed not just across state lines, but across county lines and even across the street, as businesses either enforced mask rules or didn’t. Beaches were dangerous, until they weren’t. Masks were required to enter the threshold of a restaurant, but not when seated for dinner. Liberals on Twitter scolded people who attended big football and baseball games, warning of super-spreaders that ultimately never came. Performative journalists scolded Republican governors when rates were high in their states, but downplayed the dynamic when rates were high in blue states. And of course, several Democrats were caught breaking their own rules. California Governor Gavin Newsom was photographed dining indoors at a posh restaurant without a mask, at the height of the early pandemic. Nancy Pelosi got a private appointment at her hair salon when most salons and barber shops in California were forced to close. 

More recently, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came in for widespread mockery when he was photographed maskless at the NFC Championship in his own city. Instead of responding like a normal human—Hey, even the safest among us let our masks slip! My bad!—the triple-vaccinated Garcetti delivered an all-time excuse, pretending that he was holding his breath when he took his mask down for his picture with Magic Johnson. The hypocrisy, constantly-changing guidelines, spotty enforcement and choose-your-own-adventure social media world gave endless ammo to Republicans and Covid skeptics. But it also gave casual voters license to tune out political leaders entirely. “At this point, I don’t think we’re changing people’s minds,” Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from a working class Midwestern district, told Politico this week. “I just think people are gonna do what they’re gonna do.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat with an independent streak, has been evangelizing those sentiments for months—that Democrats need to stop abiding by pandemic rules that were established two years ago, that it’s time to get back to normal, that if unvaccinated people choose to get seriously ill or die, that’s on them. “I think at this point, people are smarter than a lot of politicians and public health officials give them credit for,” Polis told me from Boulder, during a recent Google Hangout. Colorado eliminated indoor mask mandates last year, though counties can implement their own rules—a decision that chafed progressives and adherents to strict pandemic rules. “One of the reasons we went away from mass mandates early is because society moved past it and I didn’t want to be the only one in a crowd wearing a mask, because I did have three shots. And why should I? And why should other people? At some point, we have stopped inconveniencing the vast majority of people who’ve gotten vaccinated just to protect the 15 percent who haven’t.” A recent poll showed that Polis’ favorable rating in Colorado is 20 points higher than Biden’s.

If Democrats hope to put Covid life in the rearview, Stacey Abrams just reminded them why they can’t. Abrams, the Democratic folk hero and voting rights advocate who is running for governor in Georgia a second time, went viral this week for all the wrong reasons. Abrams was photographed maskless inside a Decatur elementary school classroom, surrounded by children forced to wear masks. She became the latest in a long line of Democrats busted for violating the very Covid rules she and her party have championed, a blunder made worse by her campaign’s decision to post the photo on Twitter for all to see. At first, a spokeswoman for Abrams contemptuously pushed back on her Republican critics as if she did nothing wrong, calling them “pitiful.” But Abrams eventually copped to her mistake and apologized. The photo went viral not just because it involved a campaign gaffe or one more hypocritical Democrat. The story took hold because it involved kids—kids with parents who are either fed up with school masking, or demanding that mask rules remain indefinitely. “The politics of this stuff is just most acute when it comes to kids and schools,” said Chris Hartline, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  

Even if Democrats want to shift the national narrative about Covid into a pivot to normalcy, local fights over masking in schools show no signs of ending anytime. Lost this week in much of the coverage about mask mandates was the fact that in most cases, decisions about masking in schools will be up to local jurisdictions, county administrators, and school boards. Making matters more complicated for Democrats are teachers unions that support continued mask mandates in schools. Blue state governors are hesitant to cross their union frenemies. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said his state will end mask mandates for indoor spaces, but keep them in place for k-12 schools. Newsom and New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued roughly the same guidance. Put another way: Masks will not be required for most adults, but they will be required for students, teachers, and other school staffers. The new orders make for another round of mixed messaging, as parents take sides in the ongoing battle over their most precious commodity, their children. 

Impassioned arguments over schools and masking are the kind of fights that light up Facebook groups and Nextdoor posts, but fly under the radar nationally. It’s a volatile political subject for Democrats, as last year’s election in Virginia vividly revealed. Local school board fights about critical race theory, testing and masks in schools trickled up to the governor’s race and soon took center stage. Republican Glenn Youngkin made education—“parents rights”—his signature issue. It was an umbrella topic that appealed to conservatives who didn’t want what they perceived as critical race theory taught in public schools, but also to independents and some Democrats who were frustrated with stops and starts of stay-at-home learning and the developmental impacts of masking and social distancing on young children. On election day, according to exit polls, Youngkin won among voters who had children under 18. “Parents have a fundamental right to make decisions for their kids, across Virginia but also across the country,” Youngkin told me by phone this week. “Parents are looking for elected leaders to stand up for them.” He told me he was pleased that Democratic governors are ending certain mask mandates, and he said, “Democrats need to start listening”—not to elites, but to parents. That might sound like tiresome gloating, but 10 Democrats in the Virginia state Senators just joined Youngkin and Senate Republicans in supporting an amendment that would allow parents to opt out of school mask mandates. That move would have been unthinkable for Democrats just a few months ago.

The Virginia race might be old news, but masks are not. Parents all over the country continue to show up to local school board meetings to argue for or against masking their children, armed with bits of information culled from social media that confirm their beliefs and validate their self-righteousness. “People go to school board meetings, armed with what they think is ‘knowledge,’ but it’s really just a collection of headlines they’ve seen,” said Alex Mahadevan of the Poynter Institute, who works on a news literacy project called Mediawise. “So you have people on both sides of the argument, cherry-picking headlines that lack context, to support one way or another their feelings on mask mandates. I often think about the hierarchy of needs, and I really do think that people need to be right. People want to be right. It’s the best feeling in the world when you are, and the worst feeling in the world when you are told that you were wrong, or that you can’t do something.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Democratic voters were told—and told themselves—that they were right. They were right to trust the science, to play it safe, to believe that the worst was yet to come. Now, as the science reveals a path back to normalcy that might finally be real, those same voters seem to be the most reluctant to come back from the darkness of the pandemic. Democratic leaders are now trying their best to pull them along, but it turns out that when you tell your people to live in fear, they might actually listen. A pandemic cannot be unwound overnight.