WASHINGTON — A year into his presidency and months away from the midterm elections, President Joe Biden is hoping some free stuff will help turn around two inextricably linked trend lines — his approval rating and the Covid situation.
“Some people may call what’s happening now a new normal. I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better,” Biden said Wednesday at a news conference as his administration rolled out programs to distribute hundreds of millions of free Covid tests and high-quality N95 face masks.
"Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes. But we're doing more now,” Biden conceded, vowing that things “will get better" soon.
Critics say Biden needed to do much more, much sooner — before opinions about his administration's handling of the pandemic began to set. But allies say the move will save lives and show the White House is taking the initiative to get solutions directly to Americans.
“It’s critical for the well-being of everyone — and critical for Biden’s political future — that he continues to meet this pandemic with action,” said Sean McElwee, the founder of the progressive group Data for Progress, whose new polling shows free masks and tests to be widely popular.
Others say it may not be enough to save Biden’s political fortunes or those of his party’s tenuous congressional majorities.
“Too little, too late,” said Republican strategist Matt Gorman. “The point was to have the masks and the tests before the peak of the omicron wave. When they’re not jumping the gun proclaiming Covid over, they’re behind the ball and unprepared for a winter wave.”
Biden had hoped to put Covid behind him this summer, declaring “independence from Covid-19” on July 4, only to see the delta and then omicron variants keep schools and offices closed and large gatherings canceled.
The administration kept its Covid policy focused on vaccines, even as Americans struggled to find tests and authentic N95 masks, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki just a month ago mocking the idea of sending Americans free tests.
"I wish the White House had started this nine months ago, before delta and omicron infected millions of Americans and killed hundreds of thousands, instead of scoffing at the idea,” said Evan Sutton, a liberal strategist who works with labor unions. “But this is a great step and I'm glad they're ramping up now."
"If we want people to believe government can work, and that Democrats can deliver on our promises, then we need to address their needs," he said, adding that he hopes the White House will "dramatically expand these programs.”
Compared to major social programs like the ones proposed in Biden’s stalled Build Back Better package, free tests and masks are relatively cheap and modest. And no one claims four tests and a few masks per household will end the pandemic.
But some on the left argue they could have an outsized political impact because the benefits are so tangible and the deliverables from government so clear.
“I look forward to voters seeing Biden leadership result in tests in mail boxes and masks on faces,” said Melissa Byrne, an alumna of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ two presidential campaigns who then joined Biden’s camp. “When folks see these results, it will build solidarity to win bigger victories together.”
That fits with a long-running idea among some scholars and advocates that views on government are often informed by the parts Americans actually interact with, even if they may not be the most consequential, such the DMV or clunky government websites.
There are still questions about whether the embattled Postal Service can actually handle the logistics of processing and fulfilling hundreds of millions of requests for tests. Former President Donald Trump’s administration scrapped plans early in the pandemic to send masks directly to Americans.
But, so far at least, the website used to order tests has been generally well-reviewed for its simplicity.
Politically, Gallup’s Jeff Jones doubts the free tests and masks themselves will help Biden much — unless they make a meaningful impact on the pandemic itself.
“To my mind, Trump was fired because a lot of people didn't like how he was handling the Covid situation,” Jones said. “It's clear that things really aren't happening now with Covid the way that people hoped or thought.”
Gallup’s latest survey on the pandemic found that Americans are more worried about getting Covid than they have been since last winter and that most Americans say the pandemic situation is “getting worse.”
Biden’s approval rating only began to fall from its initial honeymoon phase when Covid cases rose with the delta surge last summer, Jones said, adding that Covid numbers will probably need to come down for Biden’s numbers to go up.
“People are really attentive to Covid rates,” Jones said. “If the Covid situation stays where it is, it's going to be very hard for him to see his approval rating get better.”
Not long ago, the government giving away “free stuff” was seen as politically risky, with conservatives from to Mitt Romney to Fox News’ Sean Hannity seeing many government benefits as little more than socialistic bribery of lazy voters.
But then Trump, unbound by ideological orthodoxy, gave away lots of free stuff to counter the pandemic — stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, a refundable child tax credit.
On his way out the door after the 2020 election, Trump even threatened to shut down the government unless Congress increased direct payments to Americans from the “ridiculously low $600 to $2,000.”
Free stuff may not be the political poison it once was, but it’s not clear it’s a political cure-all either.
Recent polls have found the child tax credit, for instance, to be less popular than many experts expected, with many voters saying it didn’t help enough or cost taxpayers too much.
Either way, Republicans don’t seem worried about the new White House program.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Wednesday he doesn’t even see a need at this point to articulate a GOP agenda.
“I’ll let you know when we take it (the Senate) back,” he said Wednesday, asked about his party's plans if he regains control. "This midterm election will be a report card on the performance of this entire Democratic government — the president, the House and the Senate.”