By Blake Hounshell and Leah Askarinam
The omicron variant of the coronavirus struck at the most inconvenient time: as millions of Americans were traveling for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Suddenly, family gatherings were 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 Joe 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 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 6 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% reported feeling “frustrated” about the status of COVID vaccinations in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. One-quarter said they were “confused.”
— According to Gallup’s COVID tracking survey, optimism about the state of the pandemic reached 51% in October only to plummet to 31% in December. The percentage of Americans who said the situation had gotten worse shot up to 35% from 18%.
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 calculations.
When asked on CNN to explain why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reduced the recommended quarantine period from 10 to five days, Rochelle Walensky acknowledged, “It really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.”
Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA 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 detente between the president and his predecessor.
When Donald Trump recently told an audience in Dallas that he had 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 said.
In his national address 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.
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.
The GOP’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 gubernatorial 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 FDA commissioner, said Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses created a political target that outweighed 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, California, 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.”