Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
After South Africa sounded the alarm on a new Covid-19 variant, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 900 points on Black Friday, marking a dire start to what was forecast to be a record-shattering holiday spending season.
News of the Omicron variant, which has an unusually high number of mutations, will certainly throw a spanner in the works for the Biden administration as the President struggles with flagging approval ratings and a pessimistic view of the economy.
The administration will need to work quickly to get ahead of the new variant. The administration has already announced it will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries, but the president needs to do more, as the new variant has already been detected in places including Belgium and Hong Kong.
While the world waits for more data on vaccine efficacy against the Omicron variant, Biden needs to continue the push to vaccinate those who have not yet gotten the jab and to direct funds to ramp up the production and development of medical treatments for Covid.
Despite the news that sent stock markets tumbling on Friday, there are plenty of positive signs for the US’ economic recovery. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported the real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.1% in the third quarter. Meanwhile, last week’s unemployment claims totaled 199,000 when adjusted for seasonal swings – marking the lowest level since November 15, 1969. With 62% of the eligible population fully vaccinated, the US has enjoyed a return to some semblance of normality – especially with most children back in school and kids ages five and up now eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine.
Yet the good news doesn’t seem to be breaking through to many Americans.
Under more normal circumstances, we would expect the President to enjoy some political benefit from the economic recovery and strong legislative wins, including the passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. But Biden’s approval ratings remain in the 40s and Democrats are likely to get pummeled in the 2022 midterm elections.
What’s going on? Some of Biden’s supporters have argued the media has systematically ignored the positive, focusing instead on the turmoil and conflicts plaguing the Democratic Party. While there is certainly some truth to the notion many media outlets tend to emphasize bad news, this analysis misses a number of other relevant factors.
The pandemic is far from over, and after nearly two years and more than 775,000 deaths, many Americans are traumatized and on edge. One does not have to be watching “The Morning Show” to look back at the horrible months of February and March 2020 and remember what it was like when the world shut down and the deadly virus swept through the world. With the Delta variant stymying hopes of a full recovery during the summer, it has become increasingly difficult to embrace any good news, as fear and uncertainty continue to dictate so much of our lives.
There are also, of course, real economic problems such as inflation and supply chain issues Americans are confronting every time they go to the supermarket or gas station. Even if these are, as the economist Paul Krugman recently argued, temporary problems akin to the price spike from 1946 to 1948, they are very much the lived experience of millions of families trying to restore order in their lives after mass layoffs and other economic disruptions.
In a polarized polity, it’s also difficult for any president to break through to the other side. With a Democrat in the White House, Americans who consume information from conservative media outlets like Fox News are likely to view Biden through a partisan lens. There is little the commander in chief can do to change this. But Biden still has to try to get his message across and explain in plain language exactly how the infrastructure and reconciliation packages will have a positive impact on people’s lives.
It is also worth noting many of the structural issues exposed last year have not been fully addressed. The reconciliation package, which would lower the cost of health care and childcare, and help fight climate change, still faces an uncertain future in the Senate after months of infighting among Democrats. And despite the racial reckoning after George Floyd’s death in May 2020, progress on policing reform on the federal level has stalled, while conservatives have tried to stir up a backlash over “critical race theory.”
Meanwhile, extreme weather events like Hurricane Ida have ravaged the country, all while world leaders squabble over how best to “phase down” – rather than “phase out” – the use of fossil fuels.
Given the ongoing pandemic and the major problems our country faces, the horrible memories of the times we have all lived through will continue to lurk in our psyches. Despite the economic recovery, we may be a long way off from feeling good about the state of our nation.