We don’t make excuses for politicians. And big errors sent Biden’s approval ratings plummeting: He downplayed raging inflation, overpromised on a pandemic that mocks political timetables and presided over a debacle in Afghanistan. But it’s also fair to ask whether any other modern president has faced the crescendo of crises that have haunted Biden.
He’s fighting a virus that has proved uncannily adept at exposing the social and political fault lines in US society. Many economic problems that are making him unpopular are global, not local, including the supply chain crunches making goods more expensive. He is also opposed by a Republican Party and right-wing misinformation machine that is a stranger to truth and democracy, whose contempt for science makes managing the Covid-19 disaster harder. All the while, Biden’s defeated predecessor, Donald Trump, undermines his legitimacy every day with lies of a stolen election.
The figures were never in Biden’s favor. A 50-50 Senate and a tiny House majority don’t make for easy success. And despite passing some impressive legacy laws, including a rare bipartisan overhaul of creaking US infrastructure, a dark national mood may be depriving him of due credit. Americans are exhausted, divided against one another, fed up with rising prices and fearful about the impact of lost months of school for their kids. It’s dawning on them that a disease that emerged in 2019 is going to dominate their lives deep into 2022.
It’s always dangerous when a White House looks overtaken by events. And when the President is 79, any sign of lost grip is magnified. Whispers are growing about Biden’s prospects in 2024. Both uncontrollable events and his own choices have put him in a perilous position as the year ends. But America itself also looks increasingly ungovernable.
‘A significant step forward in our path out of the pandemic’
A glimmer of hope: Biden on Tuesday touted a report by US pharma company Pfizer that an experimental pill cuts the risk of hospitalization or death from Covid-19 by 89%, if given to high-risk adults within a few days of their first symptoms.
“This news provides another potentially powerful tool in our fight against the virus, including the Omicron variant,” Biden said in a statement, adding that his administration has “already placed an order for enough of these pills to treat 10 million Americans.”
Vaccination remains the most important preventative measure, he cautioned, “but if this treatment is indeed authorized — and once the pills are widely available — it will mark a significant step forward in our path out of the pandemic.”
Postcard from London
While Biden is having a terrible time, his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, is thrashing through a political nightmare that even his hyperbole-saturated vocabulary would struggle to describe.
Early in the pandemic, Meanwhile would often pass along anecdotes about politicians caught breaking the very rules they inflicted on everyone else — by popping out for dinner or a haircut during lockdown, for instance. The British Prime Minister has elevated the genre to an art form: Multiple recent sightings of Johnson without a mask at public events where they are recommended only underscored impressions that the Eton-educated PM thinks rules for normal people don’t apply to him.
Now devastating revelations of parties inside Downing Street last year — at a time when Brits were told not to comfort dying relatives in hospital or celebrate Christmas — have pitched his government into mayhem. A limp Labour opposition is finally gaining traction.
The timing of the crisis is especially damaging. Johnson is imposing new restrictions to counter the ravenous Omicron variant of Covid-19, raising the question of why citizens should comply, given his past flouting of public health ordinances. (By the way, it’s not surprising that Omicron is surging. Crowds thronging Oxford Street, packed pubs and jammed trains heading into London last weekend were disorienting for a visitor used to Washington’s still sparsely populated streets and watering holes that now declare last call midway through the evening because of a lack of custom.)
Johnson’s plight deepened on Tuesday with a rebellion by nearly 100 Tory lawmakers who voted against new Covid-19 restrictions. If the party loses a massive majority in a by-election in the Conservative heartland of Shropshire on Thursday, there will be outright panic on the backbenches.
Johnson may be hanging on now only because of his reputation as the ultimate political escapologist — he once turned being stuck on a zip line before a massive press pack into a political triumph. But his credibility is shredded. Time could be running out for the leader of a party with a record of ruthlessly dispatching prime ministers whose electoral magic fades.