By Susan B. Glasser
President Biden is moving on. His “summer of freedom” from covid didn’t work out. His politically popular end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan resulted in the return of the Taliban to power and a chaotic U.S. withdrawal that left behind tens of thousands of Afghan allies, whose lives are now in danger. His poll numbers have dropped so low that, as Politico’s Playbook noted, on Thursday morning, his approval rating now hovers at that of Gerald Ford at this point in his Presidency, and just above that of Donald Trump.
Biden’s September reset, after a traumatic August in Afghanistan and a catastrophic spike in covid deaths at home, includes a more aggressive approach to fighting the pandemic by pushing businesses toward vaccine requirements favored by solid majorities of Americans. In a speech on Thursday, Biden was in hard-sell mode for his three-and-a-half-trillion-dollar everything-but-the-kitchen-sink spending proposal, as Congress returns from summer recess and prepares to make crucial decisions about it. As for post-Afghanistan foreign policy, he rolled out, on Wednesday, a bold new alliance with Australia and Great Britain that will help Canberra develop nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the Indo-Pacific—a not-so-veiled counter to China. With much of his Presidency depending on how the politics plays out in the next few weeks, it all adds up to the most potentially consequential September for a Presidency that I can remember. But is Biden’s reset enough?
He came into office promising an end to the pandemic and a return to competent, commonsense governance. It’s why he beat Trump. But his first nine months in office have shown pretty conclusively that it is not possible to beat covid in a political environment that has arguably got worse, not better, since January. Consider the news this week that now one in five hundred Americans has died in the pandemic; total deaths in the country approach seven hundred thousand. What’s worse, covid deaths—the vast majority of them preventable, avoidable deaths, now that science and the federal government have provided us with free vaccines—are continuing to rise across large swaths of vaccine-resistant Trump country. This is not a tragic mistake but a calculated choice by many Republicans who have made vaccine resistance synonymous with resistance to Biden and the Democrats. The current average of more than nineteen hundred dead a day means that a 9/11’s worth of Americans are perishing from covid roughly every thirty-eight hours. To my mind, this is the biggest news of the Biden Presidency so far, and it has nothing to do with Afghanistan, or the fate of the budget-reconciliation bill, or Bob Woodward’s new book.
America spent twenty years fighting wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East because of 9/11. The 2001 attacks reordered American foreign-policy and national-security thinking for a generation. Does anyone believe that something comparable will happen as a result of the pandemic’s catastrophic death toll, which is far vaster than that of any other crisis in the modern era? It’s hard to imagine, especially because the continuing loss of life is a result of G.O.P. political strategies that intentionally undermine the success of Biden’s policies. How can this President, or any President, reset from that?
Biden’s challenge seems all the more clear to me after spending a few weeks away from the daily noise of politics to work on a book about his divisive predecessor. Trump is out of office, but Trump-style politics have decisively won over the Republican Party. A new CNN poll this week found that seventy-eight per cent of Republicans subscribe to Trump’s Big Lie that Biden was not legitimately elected—more than in some polls in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s traumatic exit. Nine months after the pro-Trump January 6th insurrection, Capitol Hill is bracing for a potentially violent gathering in support of the insurrectionists this weekend.
The partisan split has also translated into a deadly divide in vaccination rates—a tragedy given that vaccines are, for now, the only real way out of this mess. And no wonder this divide persists. It is not an accident or an immutable fact of American political life; it’s a fire built and stoked by Trump and his supporters. Among the top stories on Fox News’ home page on Thursday, I could not find a single reference to the pandemic, and little sense that covid even existed, beyond a link to a video headlined “Liberal host torched for labeling GOP ‘COVID-loving death cult’ in bizarre rant.” As I was writing this column, I received an e-mail from one Donald J. Trump. The subject was “Biden’s vaccine mandate.” “I totally OPPOSE this liberal overreach that requires Americans to be vaccinated,” Trump wrote. “The Left is working overtime to CONTROL you, Friend,” he warned. Biden, he added, “doesn’t care about you or your freedoms.”
As a matter of politics, of course, this is not necessarily a winning strategy for the Republicans. In California on Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom defeated a Republican effort to recall him by running a campaign painting the G.O.P. candidate as a Trump-loving extremist who would undo public-health measures to fight the pandemic. In Washington, Biden quickly released a statement proclaiming Newsom’s victory a vindication of his national policies. It was, the President said, “a resounding win for the approach that he and I share to beating the pandemic: strong vaccine requirements, strong steps to reopen schools safely, and strong plans to distribute real medicines—not fake treatments—to help those who get sick.” Even some conservatives have come around to the idea that, as Rich Lowry, of National Review, put it, “the stolen-election myth has become an albatross for the GOP.”
Then again, California is consistently among the most Democratic of Democratic states. Imagine Trump putting out a statement declaring a Republican victory in Alabama or Mississippi as evidence of a national trend. The tragic triumph of Trumpism is not that he has persuaded all Americans, or even a majority of Americans, to reject their way out of the pandemic; it’s that he has persuaded just enough of them to keep the disease wreaking havoc on the country.
The G.O.P.’s desire to see Biden fail has become a willingness to let the country fail. Nine months into Biden’s Presidency, the bottom line is that the Republican war on Biden’s legitimacy and the war on Biden’s covid policies are now inextricably linked. The consequences of this are so hard to contemplate that we often do not do so: a politics so broken that it is now killing Americans on an industrial scale.