Analysis: Biden faces a familiar foe -- uncertainty

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President Joe Biden had hoped to return from the Thanksgiving holiday bearing good news about his moves to get the economy back on track, his administration’s effort to fix the supply chain crisis and hopes for a holiday season where Americans could gather safely with families and friends.

Analysis: Biden faces a familiar foe -- uncertainty
© MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images US President Joe Biden delivers remarks to provide an update on the Omicron variant in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on November 29, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Instead, the President is stuck again in an uncomfortably familiar place: a zone of uncertainty.

Elected by voters who believed he could create a new era of stability, Biden is facing volatile markets, Americans anxious about the health of their families and a vacuum of information about how well the current vaccines will protect against the new coronavirus variant known as Omicron — placing his administration in a “wait and see” mode that could last for at least a week, if not several more.

About the only thing Biden can count on in this politically precarious moment is that he is still unlikely to get any help from Republicans in his effort to carve a path out of the pandemic by encouraging people to face down the new threat by getting vaccinated and getting their booster shots.

Instead of greeting the Omicron threat as a moment for the nation to pull together and redouble mitigation measures to fight the virus, Republicans like Texas’ Rep. Ronny Jackson, a doctor, leaped at the chance to gin up misinformation.

Jackson sent a ludicrous tweet suggesting that Democrats had invented a new “midterm election variant” so they could push “unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots” as part of a conspiracy to rig the elections next year. Jackson was helped along in pushing that unfounded theory by Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, who told his audience to “count on a variant about every October, every two years.”

At this point, there has been no concerted effort by the GOP to push back on those dangerous claims.

The President’s difficult position was evident throughout his appearances Monday — from his pleas for calm, not chaos and confusion, as scientists try to learn more about the severity of Omicron to the lack of any firm pronouncements emerging from his meeting on supply chains with CEOs and leaders of major retailers in the afternoon. Both underscored that he is trying to lead through a time when there are more questions than answers about whether things will get better as Americans yearn for normalcy.

Compared with last year’s dismal Christmas season, Biden said during brief remarks at the roundtable that Americans now have “a little more hope,” adding that more are employed, fewer are worried about putting food on the table and that early estimates indicate Black Friday sales were up nearly a third since last year.

But the White House abruptly postponed Biden’s planned remarks about his attempts at untangling supply chain problems and Americans’ frustrations with half-empty shelves after he heard from the leaders of companies like Best Buy, Food Lion, Etsy, Walmart and Mattel about how they were preparing for the holiday shopping season.

His remarks were rescheduled for Wednesday, but he may not have much news to share, as many experts note that his proposed solutions — like building out infrastructure and increasing port capacity — will take time, even as he leans on leaders of industry to take extraordinary measures to get Americans’ holiday presents to their doorsteps on time.

“A lot of what today was about was showing that he is responsive to the crises that he’s facing, even if he doesn’t have great answers right now,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday on “The Lead.”

“We learned in the Obama administration that you can be doing a lot of things behind the scenes, but if people don’t see you doing things — or at least talking about things — then they don’t know that you’re doing them, and I think that’s why he was out there so visibly today.”

Political polarization serves as roadblock to Biden’s pleas for more Americans to get vaccinated

This is at least the third time in Biden’s presidency when the unexpected twists and turns of the Covid-19 pandemic have upended his messaging strategy.

Without much certainty on how well the US is equipped to deal with Omicron, Biden found himself delivering much the same message Monday that he has for months — begging the unvaccinated to get their shots while asserting that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, believes the current vaccines provide “at least some protection” against the new variant. Boosters, he added, “strengthen that protection significantly.”

“I know you’re tired of hearing me say this,” Biden allowed Monday, but “the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there — the ones we’ve been dealing with already — is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot. Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted.”

Given the political polarization around vaccines, however, there’s not much reason to believe that Biden’s entreaties will sway the more than 60 million eligible Americans who have refused to get vaccinated thus far.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis showed that the political partisanship is a stronger predictor than other key demographic factors like age, race, level of education or insurance status — and unvaccinated adults were more than three times as likely to lean Republican as Democratic.

Biden’s more coercive efforts to boost the nation’s vaccination rate through mandates were dealt another blow on Monday when a federal judge issued an order partially blocking the administration from implementing its vaccine requirement for certain health care workers in 10 states that challenged the rule.

The mandate would have covered health care workers at facilities that receive funding through Medicare and Medicaid. While the case works its way through the courts, it will be blocked in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Cognizant of the partisan polarization around virtually all mitigation measures at this point, the President encouraged Americans to wear their masks in crowded indoor settings as they await more news about Omicron, but he said Monday that lockdowns are off the table “for now.”

“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there’s no need for the lockdowns,” he said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued new guidance on Monday urging all adults to get boosted six months after the second dose of Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or two months after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Previously, the CDC had said only those 50 and older, or 18 and older and living in long-term care facilities, “should” get a booster shot, while anyone 18 or older may do so. In its new guidance the word “should” applies to everyone 18 and older.

Though the White House did not offer a clear explanation for the postponement of the President’s remarks on the economy and the supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic, it was clear Monday that Omicron has injected greater unpredictability into the economic outlook for the months ahead — another challenge for Biden as Americans worry about the price of everything from gas to groceries.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is set to testify Tuesday that the emergence of the Omicron variant poses risks to employment and economic activity as well as “increased uncertainty for inflation.”

“Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions,” Powell wrote in his testimony.

Much of that will depend on the trajectory of the new variant and the severity of illness that it causes. Fauci told Tapper on Monday that US officials are in constant contact with their counterparts in South Africa, who first detected the variant. They assured public health officials in the US that they’ll know within about a week or a week and a half whether “we’re dealing with something that for the most part is more severe, equally as severe or less severe.”

“Right now it does not look like there’s a big signal of a high degree of severity,” he said, “but it’s too early to tell.”

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