President Biden has finished his first year in office on a bad note. Polls show public disapproval of his handling of, well, just about everything. Of course, we are hearing endless comments about his political mistakes, along with the occasional acknowledgment that public expectations were too high given the narrow Democratic majority in Congress.
However, I think that there is not enough emphasis on the extent to which the president has been harmed by the tiresome perseverance of the pandemic. Ok, it is true that the messages could have been clearer, that more tests and more masks could have been provided, etcetera. But Biden's biggest mistake in relation to covid-19 has been to underestimate the cruelty of his opponents, who have done everything they can to undermine the country's response to the health crisis.
Before we get into the politics around the COVID response, let's talk about how the persistence of the pandemic permeates the country's mood.
Some effects are direct and obvious. Without a doubt, most Americans, even if they have not developed symptoms, know people who have become seriously ill or have died.
In addition, covid continues to make life difficult. Closed schools have been a nightmare for many parents, and although most places have reopened, they are still subject to unpredictable closures. The world of work also continues to change. According to the latest Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, 8.7 million Americans were not working because they were sick with the coronavirus or caring for someone who was, and another 3.2 million for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. . In addition, covid worsens our economic problems. Fear of contact has diverted consumer spending from services to goods, straining supply chains and fueling inflation. Fear of infection and worker burnout are likely to be the main drivers of labor shortages, which are also contributing to inflation.
One of the puzzles surrounding the latest polls is why public opinion rates the economy so poorly despite falling unemployment. It is true that rising prices have detracted from real wages, but George HW Bush campaigned in 1988 on the grounds of a strong economy despite the fact that wages had fallen throughout most of the second term in office. Ronald Regan. And as some of us have observed, there is a big disconnect between the assessment that Americans make of their own economic situation – which is quite positive – and their pessimistic assessment of “the economy”.
Partisanship certainly plays a role, with Republicans claiming that the economy is as bad now as it was in early 2009, when we were losing 700,000 jobs a month. But the pandemic is also clouding perceptions: in addition to a general sense of malaise, people see closed shops and empty office buildings, making things seem worse than they are.
What makes all of this especially daunting is that 2021 began with the hope that miracle vaccines would end the global epidemic. Despite the efficacy of preparations in preventing severe disease, expectations were not met even in countries with high vaccination rates. But in the United States the situation is particularly bad because it is not a country with a high percentage of immunized people; after a good start, its vaccination campaign lagged far behind those of other rich countries.
And while there are different reasons why certain people do not get vaccinated, on a national scale the delay has to do with politics. In Democratic states, vaccination rates are similar to those in other advanced countries, while in Republican states they are much lower. At the county level, there is a staggering negative correlation between the percentage of votes for Donald Trump in 2020 and the percentage of people immunized.
Why do many Republicans reject the vaccine? Because they receive a constant flow of disinformation from the right-wing media, at the same time that politicians in that sector have gradually gone from stating that they were against mandatory immunization to being directly anti-vaccines. For example, recently the director of the Orange County Health Department in Florida was suspended from his job only for encouraging staff to get vaccinated, not for requiring them to do so.
But why are right-wing elites so hostile to vaccines? Could it be that they have carefully examined the evidence? Let's not talk nonsense. His real motivation is the desire to prevent the Democrats from achieving any kind of political success. And is the insinuation that some prominent figures on the right want to do whatever they can to make things worse, in the belief that public opinion will blame Biden, totally implausible?
Although public opinion does indeed tend to blame presidents for everything bad that happens under their watch, they can fight back. In 1948, Harry Truman successfully campaigned against Republicans who were blocking his economic program. Biden could campaign against Republicans whose anti-vaccine stance is endangering the country's economy and the lives of thousands of Americans.
Would it work? Nobody knows. What we know is that a year trying to reconcile and integrate has not worked. The time has come for Biden to put up a fight.
Paul Krugman is a Nobel laureate in Economics. © The New York Times, 2022. Translation of News Clips.
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