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Tough choices all around
The Omicron variant of the coronavirus struck at the most inconvenient time: just as millions of Americans were traveling for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Suddenly, family gatherings were once again shadowed by menace and risk of infection — but also by a new layer of uncertainty and confusion.
All of which served to drive Americans to new heights of exhaustion with the toll the virus has taken on ordinary life.
It remains a serious public health emergency, with daily coronavirus cases soaring into the hundreds of thousands. But the pandemic also presents difficult political choices for elected officials, from President Biden on down, just as election season begins in earnest.
Democrats could enter the 2022 midterms as the responsible grown-ups who finally tamed a deadly scourge. Or, if Republicans succeed in branding mask and vaccine mandates as nanny-state overreach, voters could punish them in the fall. Most likely, both narratives will compete for attention as the virus itself casts the determining vote.
“Everyone up and down the chain is frustrated,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican messaging expert who has spent the last year conducting focus groups on the virus. “And it just doesn’t seem to end.”
Worn out, fed up and confused
There is no mistaking the signals that Americans are sending at this moment:
A Monmouth University poll taken two weeks after Omicron was first detected in the United States found that six in 10 Americans said they were “worn out” by the pandemic, and nearly half said they were angry.
Since January 2021, the public’s initial exuberance about the arrival of vaccines has curdled. More than 58 percent reported feeling “frustrated” about the status of Covid vaccinations in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A quarter said they were “confused.”
According to Gallup’s Covid tracking survey, optimism about the state of the pandemic reached 51 percent in October only to plummet to 31 percent in December. The percentage of Americans who said the situation had gotten worse shot up to 35 percent from 18 percent.
But polls also show a deep divide between those vaccinated and not, and Omicron has barely budged the latter.
“As a nation, we’re not experiencing the pandemic equally,” said Mollyann Brodie, who oversees polling for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Science vs. impatience
While Omicron — so far — appears to be less vicious than its predecessors, the explosion of cases has evoked grim memories of early 2020, when the coronavirus ripped through unprotected American cities so quickly that health workers had to place corpses in refrigerated trucks.
This time, public health officials are having to factor the public’s waning patience into their epidemiological calculations.
When asked on CNN to explain why the Centers for Disease Control had reduced the recommended quarantine period from 10 to 5 days, Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, first walked through a number of scientific arguments. But she then acknowledged, “It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.”
Scott Gottlieb, a former F.D.A. commissioner in the Trump administration, credits the Biden administration for its aggressive rollout of the vaccines, and in particular the speed with which it made booster shots available.
Still, he said, its ostentatious displays of deference to “the science” have fed charges of hypocrisy whenever decisions appeared to incorporate other considerations.
“The Biden administration kind of handcuffed itself coming in because of this narrative that all of the problems under Trump were created by interference in the scientific process,” he said. Now, he added, “I think they have buyer’s remorse.”
The Trump factor
Omicron’s arrival also has fostered a rare détente between the current president and his predecessor.
When Trump recently told an audience in Dallas that he’d gotten a booster shot, some in the crowd began to boo. What happened next was fascinating: He didn’t back down.
The booing, Trump said, was coming from “a very tiny group over there.” Then later, at the same event, he said, “We saved tens of millions worldwide by creating the vaccine.”
“We should take credit for it,” he went on, nodding to politics. “You play right into their hands” — meaning Democrats — by questioning the vaccine, he warned.
In his national address on the pandemic a day later, Biden credited “the prior administration” with speeding the development of a vaccine and noted Trump’s comments about the booster.
Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas, praised the move. “I thought that was a good effort at depoliticizing it,” he said. “And I think that helped.”
Luntz urged the White House to put Biden and Trump together on television to promote vaccination. “The two of them should be speaking together in the Oval Office,” he said.
We asked both camps, and it’s safe to say there are no plans to do so.
Governors up for re-election must weigh two uncertainties: how much the public will tolerate the kinds of restrictions they imposed in the pandemic’s early days, and to what extent the shield wall provided by the vaccine will hold.
Some Democrats are already recalibrating. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis last month declared the public emergency “over” and said local authorities could determine the measures necessary to keep people safe. As for the unvaccinated, he said, “At this point, if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s really your own darn fault.”
White House officials working on the pandemic say they don’t have that luxury. They closely monitor the number of daily vaccinations and puzzle over how to reach the unreachable.
“We tried everything,” said one official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We paid people; we built mass vaccination sites. At this point, we don’t have time to waste.”
Tell me how this ends
Biden campaigned on beating the pandemic and restoring a sense of normalcy. If he can’t do so, Democrats are likely to suffer in the fall.
But there’s a chance the pandemic fades by November. Boosters are widely available, and they’re working. Children over five can get vaccinated. And for those who do get sick, treatments exist and are improving.
Perhaps Omicron will prove the storm before the calm. “By early February, we could be in a place where Covid is, in fact, ‘like the flu,’” noted Bob Wachter, chair of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.
The White House, mindful of the virus’s capacity to disappoint, is leery of anything that smacks of a premature declaration of victory. “One of the worst things we could do is set positive expectations and not meet them,” a second White House official said.
The G.O.P.’s ‘sweet spot’
Republican strategists see mandates as increasingly unpopular with suburban women, among other key segments of the electorate. Kristin Davison, who managed Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign in Virginia, pointed to a “sweet spot”: “strongly encouraging people to get the vaccine, but not going so far as to mandate it.”
“People are saying, ‘What the hell, we’re over it, come on’,” she said. “That’s where Democrats really are in danger.”
And Gottlieb, the former F.D.A. commissioner, said Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses created a fat political target that outweighed any vaccination gains.
“You’re going to see governors run for president against vaccination mandates now,” he said.
But for many Americans, who just want life to return to normal and are impatient for solutions, politics are part of the problem.
“I’m not really optimistic” about the year ahead, said Ryan Henslee, 43, a father in Hemet, Calif., pointing to misinformation he said was preventing people from getting vaccinated and worsening the nation’s rifts.
“If we don’t find a way to get on the same team,” he added, “it’s going to hurt our kids for a lifetime.”
What else to read
Trump endorsed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a man whom European leaders increasingly view as “an existential threat to a bloc that holds itself up as a model of human rights and the rule of law.”
For the Times magazine, David Marchese interviewed Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and climate scientist who has become “a leading advocate for communicating across ideological, political and theological differences.”
The congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 riot is “confronting a series of difficult questions, including how forcefully to flex its subpoena power and whether the Supreme Court will stymie a major element of its inquiry,” Luke Broadwater and Emily Cochrane write.
Jennifer Szalai reviews “How Civil Wars Start,” a timely and disturbing book by political scientist Barbara F. Walter, who assesses that the United States is in the “danger zone” for domestic conflict.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, is emerging as the early favorite to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats, Marianna Sotomayor reports for The Washington Post.
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