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No confidence: Poll shows public's faith that Biden can save the economy from COVID waning

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Yes, well, when inflation and scarcity are both rising, that *does* tend to rattle a people’s trust that the guy in charge knows what he’s doing.

This poll is useful, though, as a reminder that the Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco may have been a necessary but certainly not sufficient condition for the steep drop in Biden’s job approval since August. The debacle in Kabul shook Americans because it proved in an unusually vivid way that the “team of adults” that was back in charge didn’t know what it was doing. Biden’s chief political asset, the perception that many years of experience necessarily meant competence, was badly damaged. But if COVID had continued to decline instead of surging in the south and more Americans had returned to work in the belief that the worst of the pandemic truly was behind us, I think his numbers would be meaningfully better than they are. Not 50 percent, perhaps, but closer to 50 than to 40, which is where he is now.

Axios-Ipsos asked Americans how confident they are that the Biden administration can ensure a quick post-pandemic recovery. In January, 52 percent expressed confidence. Now just 44 percent do. Republicans are basically unchanged over that period since they never had confidence in Biden but independents are down nine points, from 51 to 42, and Democrats are down 15(!), from 86 to 71. It feels like more than a coincidence that indies’ trust in Biden on this very important subject matches his overall average job approval nowadays. The public can probably memory-hole the withdrawal from Afghanistan in time, as it doesn’t like to think about foreign policy as a rule, but steering the ship of state smoothly through the end of the pandemic was Biden’s core campaign promise and can’t so easily be overlooked.

Here we are nine months into his term, still averaging 1,500 deaths a day, fretting about another winter surge, and hoping against hope that a third dose of the vaccine is enough to prevent any more mega-waves. Not great.

This spin on the poll’s findings seems ominous for the White House:

Biden’s messaging is “focused on the wrong problem” from a confidence-building perspective, said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs.

“The problem is not the unvaccinated. The problem is convincing those who are vaccinated that they have the tools to navigate a COVID world … [and reassuring] those who’ve been vaccinated that they can live a normal life again.”

“People are confused,” Young said. “There’s no sense of what the endgame is.”

Once we reach “endemic COVID,” when big waves are over and we have a baseline of infections and death that flares a bit seasonally, the White House could theoretically declare that the pandemic as we’ve known it is over and it’s time to return to something like normalcy. Two problems, though. One: Why would they dare risk telling Americans that the worst is behind us when there’s no way of knowing that? We’re perpetually one new variant away from another catastrophe. In May of this year, the CDC told vaccinated people it was safe to unmask and on July 4 Biden declared independence from the virus. By August Delta had arrived and Florida was mired in one of the worst epidemics any state has seen. Confidence in the feds has yet to recover.

Two: On top of that, as Young says in the excerpt, many of the vaccinated are so risk-averse that they might ignore reassurances from Biden that it’s safe-ish to resume pre-pandemic activities. That problem will solve itself to some degree over time; if the winter brings no new mega-wave, even some of the risk-averse will conclude that we’ve reached a degree of herd immunity at last and they can get back to normal life. But not everyone will. And now that COVID precautions have been politicized, some blue states may insist on restrictions long after the obvious case for them has receded. That could be a drag on employment and economic growth for the next year, if not longer.

The closest thing the White House has to an “objective” measure of the pandemic being over is the national vaccination rate. In Portugal they’ve eased restrictions because they’ve vaccinated pretty much everyone. Australian states spent 18 months following a “zero COVID” strategy but have now finally begun to open up as they’ve cleared the bar of very high vaccination thresholds. Biden could pick a number — 70 percent vaccinated, say — and declare that any state that reaches threshold should eliminate official restrictions. That might restore a sense of security and normalcy among those who are anxious, at least until the next wave gathers.

Although nothing will restore it quite like seeing cases and deaths tumble:

The number of new daily Covid-19 cases has plunged 57 percent since peaking on Sept. 1. Almost as encouraging as the magnitude of the decline is its breadth: Cases have been declining in every region

Past Covid increases have generally started in one part of the country — like the South this past summer or the New York region in early 2020 — and then gone national. Today, there is no regional surge that seems to have the makings of a nationwide surge…

In most colder regions, including both Canada and the densely populated parts of the northern U.S., cases are still falling. The biggest problem for Alaska and the Mountain West is probably not the weather; it’s the vaccine skepticism. Idaho is the nation’s least vaccinated state, and several other Western states are only slightly ahead of it.

If we end up with a raft of headlines circa February about the winter surge having been much milder than scientists expected, confidence in a looming economic recovery and in Biden may start ticking up in spring. That won’t help Terry McAuliffe next week but it may mitigate Democratic losses next fall.

In the meantime, businesses are still leaning on the White House to postpone the federal vaccine mandate until after the holidays. I wrote about that last week, noting that it’s a dilemma for Biden to choose between maximizing vaccinations before an expected winter wave and minimizing disruptions to business before Thanksgiving and Christmas. With COVID cases slowing down, though, and anxiety about inflation speeding up, maybe the dilemma isn’t that much of a dilemma. Trucking and retail lobbyists are meeting with OMB today to make the case that squeezing employees on vaccines now will trigger a wave of resignations that’ll hamstring the supply chain even more. I bet the announcement of a postponement will come soon, probably pegged to the decline in COVID nationally.