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COVID-19 resurgence trips up Biden's agenda

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients set the tone for the weekend at Friday's task force briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFFREY ZIENTS: For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.

DETROW: And as the weekend progresses, the hits keep coming - record numbers of coronavirus infections in New York, strict new lockdowns in the Netherlands, NFL and NHL games postponed due to the virus. Even "Saturday Night Live" had to scramble last night with a bare-bones, nearly empty show. In short, the pandemic is very much not over. And to talk about what this means for the White House, let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So the White House now says that Biden will speak about all of this on Tuesday, and he's really been saying the same thing over and over each time he talks about COVID lately. Are we expecting a change in course here?

LIASSON: Well, we're not expecting a big change in course. We don't think that he's going to call for a return to lockdowns or shutdowns. As a matter of fact, last week, the administration announced a new stay in school protocol where kids who have been contact-traced or exposed to COVID can stay in school. In other words, they don't have to quarantine as long as they test negative.

But I do think on Tuesday the president is going to stress boosters. That - being fully vaccinated is really becoming to be defined as having your vaccination, plus a booster - a third shot for many people - because even though omicron, the new variant, is extremely contagious, studies show - excuse me - for people who have been vaccinated and had a booster, they are protected against severe disease. So again, you know, Biden is going to do what he can to convince people who haven't been vaccinated to get a vaccination and then to convince them to get a booster.

DETROW: But, I mean, let's take a step back. Getting COVID under control was the central promise of the Biden administration, right? And even if hospitalizations and serious illness may end up staying down with this wave, we are about to see more COVID than ever before.

LIASSON: Well, there's no doubt that that - that getting COVID under control was his No. 1 promise. The White House believes it's the promise that the public will really judge him on. And you're right. Hospitalizations and deaths might be down, vaccinations might be up, but the virus is still wreaking havoc on the economy and in people's lives. And it's - and if - until it's under control, he really can't climb out of the hole that he's in. Biden's approval ratings are at record lows. Why? Mostly because of the coronavirus. And also, the pandemic has gotten incredibly polarized.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: You have attorney generals around the country - one of them in particular in Missouri - telling local health departments to do absolutely nothing to mitigate COVID.

DETROW: And let's talk about one other thing that will likely be a blow to Biden's approval ratings. We learned this morning West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said today on Fox News he is a no on this key piece of legislation containing most of Biden's agenda - the Build Back Better bill. We've been parsing his words for a month. Today - not much to parse. The quote on the statement that came out along with this is "I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation."

LIASSON: Yeah, talk about a coal - a piece of coal - lump of coal in Biden's stocking for Christmas. He has been working very, very hard with his old Senate colleague Joe Manchin to get him to vote for the Build Back Better bill, which is this child care, climate, elder care package. Manchin seems like he's really a hard no now. And this is a big, important piece of Biden's agenda.

Manchin issued a very long, detailed statement. He said it was mostly about - he was worried the Build Back Better bill would add to the debt, even though numerous economists have said this is not going to add very much to the debt at all. It won't increase inflation, although Joe Manchin thinks it will, because it's going to be spread out over 10 years. And what was interesting - he said that the climate part of the bill - of course, he comes from a coal state.

DETROW: Right.

LIASSON: He says, the energy transition my colleagues seek is already well underway in the United States. In other words, we don't need to do this. We're already transitioning to green energy. That, of course, contradicts what most climate scientists say...

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...Which is that even the provisions in the bill wouldn't be enough to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming. So Joe...

DETROW: That's right. And...

LIASSON: Yeah, go on.

DETROW: And the context is Manchin had already gotten the White House to substantially scale back the climate language in this bill. It's been scaled back even more. Now he says it's still not enough.

LIASSON: That's right. He says it's still not enough. It sounds like he's closing the door, although you never know. I mean, Joe Manchin is sometimes a moving target. And maybe after the new year, who knows, maybe there's something that he could vote for. What's - yeah.

But there's no doubt that this is all because the Democrats did so badly in the 2020 elections. Biden won decisively, but he couldn't bring along a durable, functional majority in the Senate. And when you need all 50 votes because no Republicans will vote for your legislation, this is what you get. As the president has said, every senator is a president - every single one - and Joe Manchin is the president in this case.

DETROW: One of the many Senate seats Democrats thought they'd win last year but did not - would have come in handy for the party right now. That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.