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.