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.