President Joe Biden and Democrats are banking their COVID-19 response will pay dividends next year as they prepare to defend their congressional majorities. President Joe Biden speaks about the September jobs report, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, from the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh/AP

‘A challenge for the Democrats’: Biden hopes to target GOP on COVID next year

Naomi Lim October 13, 07:00 AM October 13, 07:00 AM

President Joe Biden and Democrats are banking their COVID-19 response will pay dividends next year as they prepare to defend their congressional majorities.

But remnants of pandemic life and lingering economic pain may spoil that plan as Biden and Democrats brace for what history dictates will be competitive 2022 midterm elections.

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Public health officials have grappled with so-called “COVID-19 fatigue” as they try to message best pandemic practices to a beleaguered population. Democratic strategists are hoping they will not encounter weary voters next year, particularly after California Gov. Gavin Newsom survived a recall that doubled as a referendum on his management of the pandemic.

Biden has helped ensure the COVID-19 pandemic “is on the retreat,” with 75% of the eligible population half vaccinated, according to Democratic National Committee spokesman Ammar Moussa.

“On the other hand, not only did Republicans vote against making it easier for people to get a vaccine, but they’re also repeating anti-vaxxer talking points and pushing policies that are guaranteed to prolong the pandemic,” he told the Washington Examiner. “What we have here is a clear contrast between President Biden and Democrats’ responsible stewardship of public health and Republicans’ essentially cheerleading for an everlasting pandemic, more lost lives, and a weakened economy.”

House Democrats campaign spokeswoman Helen Kalla, who is poised for tough elections, said she was confident her party could make public health and economic arguments to voters.

“It’s a disgrace that congressional Republicans are prolonging this pandemic by recklessly spreading disinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and masks,” Kalla said. “Meanwhile, every single House Republican opposed the economic relief that’s getting our country back on track and getting folks back to work.”

The House tends to flip against the president’s party during their first midterm election cycle. But Democrats could be boosted by former President Donald Trump, as Newsom and the Georgia Senate runoff candidates were. The 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race will provide another test case.

Biden’s approval ratings began tanking over the summer when the delta variant caused an uptick in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, mostly among unvaccinated people. And related economic pressures have created other concerns.

What the White House initially spun as transitory inflation has become higher gas prices and supply chain kinks that could play havoc with the holiday season. The president has also touted the unemployment rate, despite job numbers remaining low.

An Axios/Ipsos poll published Tuesday found 3 in 10 people expect they will not return to their normal lives for more than another year, a percentage that has more than tripled since early June. The pollsters similarly found 4 in 10 trusted Biden “a great deal” or “a fair amount” as a source of accurate COVID-19 information, a 7 percentage point drop compared to a month ago and 16 points since inauguration. Trust in him has even declined among Democrats.

Democrats, buoyed by Merck and Ridgeback applying for Food and Drug Administration emergency-use authorization covering their antiviral COVID pill, have defended their COVID-19 vaccine mandates. But Axios and Ipsos found that 14% do not believe employees who defy or break Biden’s pending rule, which requires most federal workers and those with private businesses that have hired more than 100 staff to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, should be dismissed. The regulation was popular for specific workplaces, especially those connected to the healthcare industry.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Emma Vaughn latched on to Biden’s vaccine mandate and campaign pledge to “shut down the virus” as reasons that will make next year painful for the president and Democrats.

“Instead of getting Americans back to work, Biden has politicized COVID-19, divided Americans, and forced unconstitutional vaccine mandates on small businesses already struggling because of his failed economic agenda,” she said. “Americans will soundly reject Biden’s broken promises and elect Republicans up and down the ballot in 2022.”

The White House leaned into the vaccine mandate political drama on Tuesday after Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning vaccine requirements, creating its own version of a “culture war.”

Abbott’s unilateral vaccine mandate action will likely be challenged in court because it conflicts with Biden’s pending requirement. But that did not stop White House press secretary Jen Psaki from ripping the governor for “taking steps that prevent the saving of lives.”

“Gov. Abbott’s executive order banning mandates, and I would also note an announcement by [Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis] this morning essentially banning the implementation of mandates, fit a familiar pattern that we’ve seen of putting politics ahead of public health,” she said.

For Glen Nowak, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication, people are yearning to be free of masks, physical distancing, and “hearing about new vaccination recommendations every week.”

Whether there is a political fallout depends on what happens this winter and fall, according to the former Centers of Disease Control and Prevention spokesman.

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“If we can get on top of this, I think it becomes a positive,” he said. “If, however, we are going into the next political election cycle, where it looks like not that much has changed, that will be a challenge for the Democrats and for President Biden.”

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