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Biden struggles with his image as COVID-19 proves difficult to stay ahead of


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We should all be concerned about omicron but not panicked. If you're fully vaccinated and especially if you got your booster shot, you are highly protected. If you're unvaccinated, you're at a higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, getting hospitalized and even dying.


That's the president speaking this past week on the subject from which all things flow these days, and that's the pandemic. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Hey there, Tam.


PERALTA: Good morning. So Tam, the coronavirus has dominated Joe Biden's presidency, which I know isn't even a year old, but it definitely doesn't feel that way.

KEITH: Yeah, absolutely. Biden came into office racing to get a mass vaccination program in place. Democrats in Congress passed that big COVID relief bill, and for a while there, it looked like Biden was helping the nation move past COVID. But now his approval rating is underwater, and even people who aren't afraid of the virus are worried that there could be shutdowns or another economic hit. Cornell Belcher is a Democratic pollster who told me that COVID is just a big, wet blanket on everything.

CORNELL BELCHER: You have a population that's sitting around, anxiously waiting for the next shoe to drop, and that's a terrible place to be. So, yes, Americans are in a bad, sour mood. Yes, they think things are headed in the wrong direction because of all this, quite frankly, understandable anxiousness and uncertainty. I mean, hell, I'm uncertain.

PERALTA: We're all uncertain. And there have been failings in health policy during this pandemic. I'll point in particular to the availability of testing, which is something that Biden has addressed in that speech this past week. But these past few days have been - have seen some actual hopeful developments, right?

KEITH: Yeah. In addition to what Biden announced, which is that the administration is now buying half a billion home tests to be shipped out starting in January, two antiviral pills that can prevent hospitalization with COVID were authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. But that's a mixed bag, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said. The good news is that the treatment, especially from Pfizer, is highly effective. But the discouraging news is that there aren't that many doses available yet because it requires a complicated and time-consuming production process to make them.

PERALTA: So this pandemic, COVID, obviously isn't just a Biden thing. I want to play remarks that former President Trump made in an interview with the Daily Wire, posted this past week.


DONALD TRUMP: Forget about the mandates. People have to have their freedom. But at the same time, the vaccine is one of the greatest achievements of mankind.

PERALTA: The former president earned praise for urging people to get vaccinated. What's happening here?

KEITH: Oh, there's a lot going on here.

PERALTA: (Laughter).

KEITH: He was always pro-vaccine, but he wasn't always so forceful about it. In fact, this time last year, when other politicians were rolling up their sleeves on camera to convince people that the vaccines were OK, Trump was nowhere to be seen. He's occasionally mentioned being vaccinated, but this was much more forceful. He was peppered with anti-vaccine talking points, and he pushed back on them. Then, at an onstage event, he said he had gotten his booster, and the crowd booed, and he didn't care. President Biden even gave him some credit, saying that it may be one of the only things they agree on. It's not clear what prompted this from Trump, but a recent analysis from NPR found that since vaccines have become widely available, people in pro-Trump counties are far more likely to die from COVID, due to low vaccination rates.

PERALTA: So as this year ends and a new one begins, when it comes to COVID and the success or failure of the Biden presidency, is there any way of knowing where this is headed?

KEITH: COVID is going to be that political wet blanket that Belcher described until it fades into the background or otherwise improves. I recently interviewed Andy Slavitt, who was a senior adviser for the COVID response in the early part of the Biden administration, and he said that with this pandemic, when cases are going down, we all think it's going to end. And then when cases go up, we all think it's going to be terrible forever. And right now, we're in the midst of one of those case spikes.

ANDY SLAVITT: I think anybody who pretends that they know how this is going to end really doesn't. I think each time you get lulled into the sense that you see the end in sight, we get surprised by something.

KEITH: All of which is to say that we all probably want 2022 to be the year that we thought 2021 would be, but it's not clear whether that will really happen. If it does, that would help Biden and Democrats, who are heading into what could be a really tough midterm election year.

PERALTA: That's NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.