Biden’s summer of joy turns into frustration

President finds himself in a crisis of confidence of his own making

President Joe Biden’s promised “return to normal” now seems as likely as his promises of unity and bipartisanship, Winston writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden’s promised “return to normal” now seems as likely as his promises of unity and bipartisanship, Winston writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 4, 2021 at 6:00am

Seven minutes after an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft, flight director Gene Krantz asked his team a simple but crucial question: “What do you think we’ve got in the spacecraft that’s good?” Seems pretty basic when things seem to be spinning out of control, right?

Perhaps it’s time the folks in the Biden White House ask themselves a similar question — “Is anything working in the country?” — because for a growing number of Americans, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Like the process that rescued three astronauts from a disastrous outcome in 1970, President Joe Biden’s first step ought to be identifying and admitting what’s not working, in order to adapt and survive politically, and he could start with his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

In the spring, Biden got kudos for the federal government’s vaccination efforts. It seemed to be the one thing that was going right. People rewarded the new president with high marks despite everything else going wrong, from crime to inflation.

Biden’s assurance of the coming availability of a vaccine gave people hope and optimism that they would soon be able to resume their lives, see friends and family, go to restaurants, and enjoy things again after over a year of pandemic lockdowns. Things were looking up. 

On May 13, Biden stood in the Rose Garden and claimed a major breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus “made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”

Calling it a “great milestone” and “a great day,” he promised the American people, “If you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.  Let me repeat: If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.”

In June, the White House claimed “the virus is in retreat” and the country was “entering a summer of joy and freedom.” Then, on July 4, Biden declared that we have “gained the upper hand against the virus” and, thanks to the vaccine, “we can live our lives, our kids can go back to school, our economy is roaring back.” 

To paraphrase one of the president’s favorite expressions, “that was the deal” — vaccinations for a return to normal. But Biden’s optimism was a bit premature. 

Getting worse

The headline of Monday’s new Gallup poll says it all: “American’s Optimism About COVID-19 Dashed as Cases Surge.” In what it called a “dramatic shift from last month,” Gallup found that Americans, by 45 percent to 40 percent, believed the coronavirus situation in the U.S. is getting worse. Only a month ago, a “record” 89 percent said the situation was getting better, while only 3 percent said it was getting worse. 

This is not just a setback in public opinion; it’s a free fall. 

In June, just 17 percent of those surveyed said they thought the impact of the coronavirus would stretch into 2022 or longer. By July, that number had soared to 42 percent. Gallup also found that people are once again becoming more concerned about getting the virus, with 29 percent saying they are very or somewhat concerned, up from 17 percent last month. And these numbers reflect public sentiment before the CDC’s about-face last week on the need for vaccinated people to wear masks indoors again. 

People are tired of COVID-19, of one confusing message after another from what seems to be a reeling federal response. They are tired of wearing masks when illegal border crossers, by the thousands, scatter through the country unchecked, many with COVID-19. Tired of doing what was asked of them by a president who promised unity and a “return to normal.”

Instead, they find themselves back to mask mandates and the risks of breakthrough infections, many wondering whether their child will be forced to wear masks in school or even have a classroom and teacher to go to this fall. 

The way they see it, they were asked to be patient and they were. They were asked to get vaccinated and many did. But Biden’s promised return to normalcy is not happening.

Confusing messaging coming from both the White House and the CDC, coupled with a steady stream of news stories highlighting Democratic politicians violating their own COVID-19 rules, has only added to what is becoming a significant credibility problem for both Biden and his party.

Getting tired

But these days, the list of Biden’s bad decisions and resulting crises is a long one, and to coin a phrase, people are becoming increasingly “tired, tired with nothing, tired with everything.”

Tired of rising food and energy costs as inflation begins to explode. Tired of daily shootings that kill innocents caught in the deadly crossfire of progressive criminal justice policies. Tired of woke schools and academics, woke companies, and woke athletes and celebrities.

Tired of progressive federal spending proposals without a semblance of fiscal restraint or common sense designed to appease the Democratic Party’s ever-more-extreme base. Tired of word wars between political partisans that are destroying what little civility remains in this divided society. Tired of all the cable channels desperately trying to make their viewers as angry as possible to grab better ratings.

Biden finds himself mired in a crisis of confidence of his own making. His media appearance Tuesday did nothing either to clarify his administration’s shifting COVID-19 policies or fix the CDC’s inability to communicate information with the consistency and clarity needed to instill confidence.  

Blaming Republican governors for the COVID-19 surge, as Biden did, and mischaracterizing their actions and policies isn’t leadership. It’s a cheap shot to distract from the failure of his own administration to convince about a third of the population that it’s in their interest and the country’s to get vaccinated. Those slow to get the vaccination have seen that Biden’s promise of a return to normal is as likely as his promises of unity and bipartisanship.   

Senate Minority Leader McConnell took to the Senate floor Tuesday to ask a question that should have been put to Biden by the White House press corps: “What would this administration say is going well?”

It would be a short answer. The summer of joy has turned into a summer of disappointment and frustration.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.