Politico: Biden won't declare "mission accomplished" on COVID in SOTU after all

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Still leading from behind? Despite a sharp warning from Democratic pollsters last week that Joe Biden and his administration have to transform its messaging on COVID-19, Politico reports that Biden will instead advise Americans to stay the course. Biden’s worried about another “political setback,” and therefore is predictably walking into one:

Coronavirus cases are plummeting. Mask mandates are coming to an end. And for the first time in months, the pandemic threat that hung over Joe Biden’s presidency appears to be receding.

But as he readies his first State of the Union address, Biden isn’t planning a victory declaration — at least not yet.

The president on Tuesday is expected to stop well short of the mission accomplished moment on Covid that many members of his own party would like to see, stressing instead the need to remain vigilant against the virus, even as the nation enters what many people hope will be a pandemic endgame.

Biden’s remarks will emphasize that the nation has made significant progress toward reining in the pandemic, five people familiar with the planning of the speech said. Yet even as he touts how far the U.S. has come, Biden is likely to warn that it may still be a bumpy path back to normalcy.

“If you’re waiting to rip off your masks, this is not it,” said one of the people familiar with the planning.

The problem with that message is that relatively few people are waiting to rip off their masks now. Even the CDC finally offered a belated recognition of that reality, extensively revamping their masking guidelines to give Democrats — and especially Democrat governors and mayors — an excuse to end mask mandates in the blue states and cities that still had them in place.

That opening didn’t get missed on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue:

If America’s largest congregation of octogenarians can now gather indoors without masks, why not sound the all-clear? Democrat pollster Impact Research sent out a warning last week that the narrative and the momentum had escaped the Biden administration, and that they risk being seen as the Party Of Mandates unless they reversed course immediately:

If President Joe Biden joins Democratic governors from around the nation in backing off COVID restrictions at his first State of the Union address next week, we have found the scientific study that informed this completely objective and not in any way politically motivated decision. …

“Twice as many voters are now more concerned about COVID’s effect on the economy (49%) than about someone in their family or someone they know becoming infected with the coronavirus (24%),” the memo reads. “Six in ten Americans describe themselves as ‘worn out’ by the pandemic. The more we talk about the threat of COVID and onerously restrict people’s lives because of it, the more we turn them against us and show them we’re out of touch with their daily realities.”

Hard to argue with hard, medical scientific facts like that!

The memo also urges Democrats to take credit for reaching this new noncrisis phase of COVID, reasoning that “after two years that necessitated lockdowns, travel bans, school closures, mask mandates, and nearly a million deaths, nearly every American finally has the tools to protect themselves from this virus.”

This is complete malarkey.

True, but Biden specializes in complete malarkey. Furthermore, the State of the Union speech is the venue for political malarkey, given the tremendous optics imbalance in favor of presidents in this nonsensical imperial spectacle. No one would stand up and contradict him, at least not until the GOP rebuttal speech, and Republicans are the party that has argued for months to move away from mandates. The only people that might boo a Biden “mission accomplished” statement in the SOTU would be his own party.

Polling on the need to return to normal, or at least a shift to an endemic posture, has been consistent for weeks. The Associated Press added to that momentum with a new poll this morning, with the smallest percentage of concerned Americans in months over personal risk for COVID-19 infections:

As coronavirus pandemic case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths continue to plummet, fewer people now than in January say they are concerned that they will be infected after the rise and fall of the wildly contagious virus variant, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Just 24% say they are “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or a family member contracting COVID-19, down from 36% in both December and January, when omicron caused a massive spike in infections and taxed public health systems. Another 34% say they are somewhat worried. More than 140,000 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to COVID-19 since omicron became the dominant strain of the coronavirus in mid-December.

Ahem. The more accurate way to state that is that over 140,000 deaths have been correlated to a COVID-19 diagnosis in the Omicron wave. With a variant this transmissible, its spread will undoubtedly show up as a greater percentage of incidental deaths and hospital admissions than previous variants. So far, the CDC has still not imposed restrictions on reporting to causation.

Those numbers are increasingly meaningless not just statistically but also politically:

Signs the nation is ready to move on from the biggest COVID-19 wave to date are everywhere. Statewide mask mandates have all but disappeared, and on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s no longer recommending indoor masking for most Americans, based on current data.

Cities are lifting vaccine requirements to enter bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. Companies are bringing workers back to the office. California said it’s taking an “endemic” approach to the virus that leans on prevention and swift containment of outbreaks.

“I think it’s reasonable and appropriate for people to live their lives a little more as the risk of infection goes down but to do it in a way that recognizes that, at some point, we’re going to have another wave,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “And we’re going to need to be willing to buckle down just a little bit in the future.”

So why not just say that? Biden got burned over the summer for his prediction that July 4 would be America’s COVID-19 Independence Day, only to have the Delta variant emerge. The difference now, however, is that many more millions of people have been fully vaccinated (now at 215M) and boosted (94M). Also, the latest variants are much milder than Delta, while transmission is disconnected from vaccination status anyway. If Biden’s not willing to call the pandemic response complete by this point and call for unmasking at this point, he never will — and Americans will take note of that, surely.