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Christmas Covid surges and a failed Build Back Better plan moved Biden into a new phase

Without the progressive bill to boast about and evidence that the pandemic is far from over, the president will be evaluated heavily on the virus.

​A measure that White House press secretary Jen Psaki seemed to scoff at just two weeks ago will soon be a reality. Starting in January, the federal government will begin mailing out 500 million rapid at-home Covid-19 test kits for free.

The demand for Covid tests has outweighed the supply this holiday season. It’s unclear what could’ve changed the administration’s mind, but getting these tests out to the U.S. population starting next year seems late when folks have long been complaining about the price and access to these kits.

Getting these tests out to the U.S. population starting next year seems late when folks have long been complaining about the price and access to these kits.

While the move to mail them out is better late than never, the latest disappointing blow to the Build Back Better Act from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., means a major part of Biden’s legislative agenda has come to an end — and so has the initial phase of his presidency.

Accordingly, the administration will have to start thinking a few steps ahead to preserve any chance of winning the confidence of the U.S. population.

The president has managed to pass two significant pieces of legislation: the Covid relief bill in March and the infrastructure bill in November. But with Manchin making his views on any further progressive legislation clear, and with the near certainty that the Democratic Party will lose its majority in at least one chamber of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, Biden will most likely not have another chance to pass any transformative legislation.

The president spent much of his 2020 campaign seeking to convince Democratic primary voters (and, later, key swing voters) that his more than 40 years of experience in Washington — over 35 of them spent in the Senate — gave him the unique set of skills necessary for passing legislation and overcoming the deep partisanship in Washington.

Whatever hopes anybody may have had of that being true were dashed by Manchin on Sunday.

Instead, like many presidents following the initial rush of lawmaking, Biden’s presidency will now be largely reactive and focused on managing crises. And the major problem facing the country is still Covid-19. He ran for president and may have even won the office based on the promise that he could manage the pandemic better than his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. However, despite Biden’s initial success in getting vaccines out and the administration’s much stronger grounding in scientific reality than the Trump administration, the news on Covid is not good.

When Biden took office, the discourse around the pandemic was dominated by vaccines. Earlier this year, the primary concern about vaccines was not right-wing anti-vaccine sentiment but questions of whether the vaccines could be manufactured and distributed quickly enough. At the time of his inauguration, Biden set a goal that seemed almost impossibly ambitious: 100 million vaccinations in 100 days. The administration exceeded that goal handily, and by late spring, it looked like the U.S. had gotten ahead of the pandemic.

During those months, Biden was very popular. It looked like he would be able to leverage that popularity to pass his ambitious legislative agenda, including the Build Back Better Act. Around that time, Biden famously declared during a speech that “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” While the optimism of that moment is understandable, it is now apparent that it was a mistake. Some have noted it was Biden’s version of then-President George W. Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” moment, but that’s an overstatement — though they are both examples of extreme presidential overconfidence.

The highly partisan anti-vaccination movement, which has benefited from the support of many Republican politicians (particularly at the state and local levels), and the rise of the delta and omicron variants have combined to make a mockery of any optimism around Covid from a few months ago.

It is now clear that Covid will be with us for quite a while longer and that deaths related to the virus will keep accumulating. For much of the last few months, more than 1,000 Americans have died of Covid every day. There is little reason to think that number will improve in the coming days. More Americans have died from Covid in 2021 than in 2020.

Biden has limited options in the current fight against Covid.

In other words, while by any measure Biden’s Covid policy has been smarter, more rational and more informed by science than Trump’s, the pandemic persists. With each passing day, voters will care less about how Trump handled Covid and more about what Biden is doing.

This is the nature of politics and the presidency. It is also the nature of politics that most voters will not ask themselves how much worse things would be if Trump were still in the White House. Instead, they will look at the state of the pandemic, see that things are not going well and blame who is in office now.

But Biden has limited options in the current fight against Covid. The administration has continued, rightly, to stress vaccines, masks and other public health measures. Moreover, the recent announcement that it will be opening new testing sites and making at-home test kits available for free will help, as well. However, nothing the White House says or does will convince those strongly opposed to vaccinations and throwing political fuel on that toxic fire to take necessary health and safety precautions. A large number of unvaccinated Americans all but ensures the pandemic will continue.

Biden’s Covid policy is also constrained by a population that is exhausted with the pandemic, particularly with regard to school closures. So America will likely stumble along for a while in this half-normal, half-pandemic state with around 1,000 people dying a day and millions more concerned about getting sick, grieving for lost loved ones or working in health care systems that are becoming overrun again.

This bad situation is made worse because Manchin decided that, after negotiating for months and forcing the administration to whittle down the Build Back Better Act, he would withhold his vote for a bill that would have begun to improve the lives of millions of Americans. As Biden enters his second year, this has left him with little to offer the public other than a failed legislative agenda and an ongoing pandemic.

Still, it remains undeniable that despite these problems under Biden, things would be exponentially worse if Trump, whose pandemic policy amounted to ignorance, were still in the White House. But that may not be enough for voters come 2022 and 2024.