WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s Covid diagnosis risks upending, at least in the near term, the White House’s midterm strategy, costing him valuable time on the road and potentially raising questions about his age and fitness.
For a White House staff struggling to bolster his record-low approval numbers and help Democrats hold on to seats in Congress, there was a sense that the timing couldn’t be worse, one person close to the White House said. With Biden fresh off a string of overseas trips, officials had been gearing up to get him on the road back home in the crucial months before the midterms.
While Biden continued working from the White House residence Thursday, he was forced to cancel a trip to Pennsylvania where a key Senate seat is up for grabs and it’s unclear when he will be able to resume travel. He will isolate for at least five days and only leave isolation once he tests negative, the White House said.
“There is political concern here,” said one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named discussing internal White House matters. “Obviously, there’s the elephant in the room about how well he recovers. Does he have a pretty mild case, or does he have complications?”
Then there are also concerns that Biden may have lingering effects from the virus that could last weeks or months and whether it could perpetuate the narrative of him being too old for the job.
“There’s also some concern of making sure a 79-year-old president doesn’t look frail or doesn’t seem unhealthy,” the strategist said.
Given the confidence within the White House about the effectiveness of vaccines and antivirals, there appeared to be little concern over Biden’s health among those in the administration Thursday. White House Covid coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said the expectation is that Biden will continue to have mild illness.
“People are more annoyed than worried” about his health, the person close to the White House said.
Along with canceling remarks that he was planning to make in Pennsylvania on Thursday on reducing crime, Biden was also set to headline a fundraiser in Philadelphia that evening. He was also scheduled to attend a rally hosted by the Democratic National Committee in Florida on Monday, which would have been his first political rally of the midterms.
How the White House manages his public image in the coming days will be crucial, said two people close to the White House. There are some concerns that if he is out of public view in the coming days, the “hiding in the basement” narrative pushed by Republicans during the presidential campaign will re-emerge.
“What happens in the next week will be important,” one of the people said. “He needs to get outside moving around.”
The White House was quick to project the image that Biden was continuing to work — releasing a photo of him at a desk and a video of him from a White House balcony in a blazer and collared shirt Thursday afternoon while saying his symptoms were mild and that he was “doing well, getting a lot of work done.” Jha said Biden had been so busy Thursday morning he hadn’t been able to finish his breakfast.
Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview with MSNBC that the White House has been preparing for the possibility of Biden getting Covid for several months “given the percentage of people in the country who have tested positive.” But what the White House does in the next several days will be crucial, she said.
“What they need to do over the next couple of days is show him working and show him still active and serving as president. And I’m certain they’ll likely do that,” she said.
Psaki said she expects Biden to continue his travel schedule after he recovers heading into the midterms.
“A part of his job is to engage with the American people," she said. "And I have no doubt that that is going to weigh heavily and be important to him going into the fall as the Democrats are fighting to maintain control.”
While the White House said Biden was experiencing mild symptoms, including a runny nose, dry cough and fatigue, it could be up to a week before it is clear how mild or severe an illness he develops. In some cases, patients can experience a worsening of symptoms after five to seven days when they develop a hyperinflammatory immune response, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder, who advised the White House on Covid during the transition.
Biden’s age, 79, automatically puts him at greater risk for Covid complications, but infectious disease experts expect the president — who has had two booster vaccines and is in relatively good health otherwise — to recover quickly.
“He is a healthy 79-year-old-man who has been diagnosed rapidly, who’s having mild symptoms, who’s vaccinated and is on antiviral therapy. All of us expect a good outcome,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Biden is the second sitting U.S. president to be infected with the virus. Then-President Donald Trump was infected with Covid in October 2020 before the availability of vaccines, announcing in an early morning tweet that he and then-first lady Melania Trump had tested positive after it was reported that a top staffer he had been in close contact with was infected.
Trump was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center later that day and downplayed the seriousness of his condition. After his arrival at the hospital, he released a video saying he was doing well and the trip was a precaution. It was later reported that his oxygen level was falling and doctors urged him to go to the hospital while he could still walk on his own.
Biden’s White House announced the diagnosis in a statement Thursday just before 10:30 a.m. ET after he tested positive during a previously scheduled test. Two hours later, Biden’s Twitter account shared the photo of him at his desk and two hours after that he posted the video filmed outside on a White House balcony wearing a jacket and a collared shirt.
Later Thursday, the White House held a briefing for reporters with Jha to discuss Biden’s condition and released a letter from his doctor.
“I think they are going above and beyond to be transparent,” the Democratic strategist said. “Looking ahead to ‘24, they don’t want to be accused of hiding the ball on his health.”