A few days after the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden pledged to be “a president who seeks not to divide but to unify,” a theme he’d campaigned on. “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end here and now,” he said in his victory speech. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again.”
So much for all that. As Biden’s first year in office comes to a close, he has proven to be one of the most divisive presidents in generations, surpassing even Donald Trump in his vindictiveness and willingness to demonize Americans who disagree with him — even if it means lying about COVID-19.
Consider the events of the past few days. Following a White House briefing last Thursday on the spread of the omicron variant, Biden said, “We are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for the unvaccinated — for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm.”
The next day, White House COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients repeated this line, saying, “We are intent on not letting omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this,” he said. “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.”
So that’s the official administration line: opened schools and businesses for the vaccinated and “severe illness and death” for the unvaccinated, who will overwhelm hospitals with the omicron variant and, by implication, bear responsibility for the pandemic from here on out.
It’s one of the most bizarre and appalling statements from a presidential administration in American history, breathtaking in its dishonest scapegoating and shocking in its callous disregard for the millions of Americans who have decided, for reasons of their own, not to get the Covid shots.
Bullying these people will not persuade them, and neither will lying about the omicron variant. There’s no evidence right now that omicron is going to bring “severe illness and death,” or that it’s even going to cause a surge in hospitalizations. The evidence so far suggests just the opposite.
In South Africa, where omicron first emerged last month, hospitalization rates have fallen by 91 percent amid the current wave. Just 1.7 percent of all Covid patients were admitted to a hospital in the second week of the omicron surge, compared to 19 percent in the same week of the delta surge, according to South African health officials.
What’s more, the omicron variant appears to be milder than earlier strains of Covid-19. “We are really seeing very small increases in the number of deaths,” said Michelle Groome, head of health surveillance for South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Others have also noted a decoupling of new Covid cases and deaths in South Africa, whereas in past surges they have been closely aligned.
More evidence of this decoupling comes from the United Kingdom, where Covid deaths haven’t surged along with a rising case count from omicron. Indeed, there is no data anywhere to suggest that the omicron variant is anywhere near as deadly as previous strains of the virus, or that it causes more severe illness. The data so far show just the opposite.
Indeed, if omicron is a more contagious but also a milder strain (as we would expect with a mutating virus in a pandemic), then it makes sense that cases would surge but severe illness and death would not.
Here in the United States, that appears to be what we’re seeing so far: a surge of new cases but a slight decrease in hospitalizations. So instead of freaking out about omicron, prognosticating death and doom for the unvaccinated, maybe it’s time to do what some states, like Florida and Texas, have been doing all along: work to protect the most vulnerable and prevent deaths, ensure hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, and keep schools and businesses open.
In other words, manage the pandemic, which at this point is looking increasingly endemic. (Even The Atlantic has at last come around to this way of thinking — except for science writer Ed Yong, who bizarrely canceled his own birthday party over omicron. Sad!)
Scapegoating The Unvaccinated
So much for Biden’s dishonesty about what a winter surge of the omicron variant will bring to the United States. What about his callousness and contempt for unvaccinated Americas?
It’s hard to imagine a message more calculated to divide the country than what Biden’s White House has put out, essentially diving Americans into an ingroup of vaccinated and an outgroup of unvaccinated, then blaming the entire pandemic on the outgroup — including whatever happens this winter.
The only possible explanation for such messaging is that Biden feels his presidency is in chaos and his legislative agenda has stalled out. If that’s the case, he’s not wrong. Over the weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, announced he won’t support Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, a massive entitlement expansion that would cost some $5 trillion over the next decade. It was the signature piece of Biden’s agenda, and now it’s dead.
On the border, illegal immigration is still surging at historic levels, with the promise of another surge and an ever-deepening crisis this coming spring. Biden has done his best to ignore the crisis, even as a growing number of Americans say they disapprove of his handling of the border.
The economy is struggling, inflation remains high, and Biden’s popularity is sinking to dangerous lows just a year into his presidency. So his last resort, it seems, is to scapegoat the unvaccinated.
Never mind that many of the unvaccinated have already gotten and recovered from Covid, and have foregone the shot because they have natural immunity (a reality that never seems to factor into the Biden administration’s pandemic policies or messaging). Never mind that some people, having seen over the course of nearly two years that Covid is not as dangerous as the media and political elites have made it out to be and that Covid treatment has vastly improved, have assessed their risk and decided not to get the shots.
Never mind any of that. For Biden, blaming the unvaccinated is a way to deflect from the manifest failures of his administration on almost every other important issue.
These are not the actions of a great “unifier,” or even a marginally competent leader. After his inauguration, Biden embraced comparisons to Democratic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, who enacted titanic government welfare programs amid great changes in American society.
But more apt comparisons, at this point, would be to inept 19th-century presidents like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, one-termers whose blundering tenures were marked by chaos, division, and dangerous incompetence.