Joe Biden’s struggle to resist mounting calls from fellow Democrats and media commentators to withdraw from the presidential race is just the latest, if most dramatic, wrinkle in a 2024 election campaign filled with oddities. One of the least discussed has been how a decisive issue four years ago—Covid policy—seems to have mostly disappeared in a rematch between the 2020 candidates. It’s rare to see a recently crucial concern vanish so quickly from electoral politics, but it has happened largely because voters overwhelmingly have put the virus in their rearview mirrors.

The Biden campaign, however, wants to revive the subject. In recent speeches and a widespread television advertising  campaign, President Biden has scored Donald Trump’s pandemic management, an apparent effort to stem what his campaign sees as growing nostalgia for the former president’s tenure. Biden is taking a risk, though, given that his own ratings on containing the virus plummeted after he took office in January 2021—perhaps for good reason, since subsequent research has undercut much of what his administration and its health experts advocated, which largely echoed the prevailing policies in blue states.

It may be hard to remember just how much the virus dominated public discussion during the 2020 campaign, as health officials and politicians groped for solutions and as strategies varied widely around the world. But polls show just how decisive a factor it was in Biden’s victory. In a national exit poll, nearly a quarter of the almost 16,000 voters surveyed said that the rise of Covid cases was the most important issue in the election, and more than six in ten voters who thought this way cast their ballots for Biden. By contrast, Trump easily won the votes of those who rated the economy and crime, two traditional bread-and-butter issues, as key. Rarely do closely contested presidential elections turn in such a way on an idiosyncratic issue.

Depending on your view of Trump, Covid was either bad luck in sinking his reelection chances or fortuitous in exposing his presidency’s weaknesses. In early 2020, before Covid hit stateside, Trump was enjoying the highest approval rating of his tenure—an enviable position just months before a reelection campaign. Shortly after the virus landed on America’s shores, his rating plunged, and by November a decisive margin of voters rated Biden as a better bet than Trump to deal with the pandemic.

Trump earned some of that flak with early mistakes, including mixed messaging. First, he dismissed the threat of Covid, then warned that it would hit hard, only to urge states to reopen quickly. He warred publicly with some governors, notably Andrew Cuomo of New York, despite embracing early on the advice of Anthony Fauci, who later pushed extreme lockdown strategies. Democrats changed their tune, too, initially claiming that they wouldn’t trust “Trump vaccines” but supporting vaccine mandates under Biden.

Trump’s Covid legacy is complicated. He was criticized for deferring to states’ decisions on when to reopen and for refusing to impose draconian national lockdowns; subsequently, those states that opened schools and their economies earlier did no worse—and, in some cases, better—than places where lockdowns endured. The former president spent much of the summer of 2020 refusing to wear a mask, even when some Republicans urged him to do so, though ensuing research has shown that masks were ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Public-health officials and the press scorched Trump for advocating experimentation with unproven therapies like ivermectin, which the FDA’s Twitter account infamously derided as medicine for horses and cows but not humans; later studies, however, have suggested that the drug may have a role in fighting Covid. All the while, the scientific community piled on, branding Trump as the leading purveyor of Covid misinformation.

Candidate Biden had the luxury of watching Trump flounder and advocating the opposite of much of what the then president was doing. Biden promised, if elected, to “[l]isten to science,” to enforce national masking policies, and to urge social distancing. Though Biden cast doubt on Trump’s vaccines, he subsequently promised a national rollout more efficient than Trump’s plan—neatly playing both sides of the fence. Despite Trump and Congress passing a massive Covid spending bill in early 2020, Biden promised to spend trillions more to dig the country out of the pandemic and trigger economic recovery. The press, unsurprisingly, widely praised Biden’s approach.

In retrospect, what’s striking is how quickly Biden’s credibility on Covid eroded. When he took office, his favorable rating on Covid policy stood at a robust +27 points, according to YouGov’s historical polling data; just a year later, in January 2022, that figure stood at –12 points. By then, many Americans had grown weary of lockdowns and enraged by continued school closures as evidence mounted that they were unnecessary and harmful. Migration data showed a huge upswing in Americans moving from locked-down Democratic states to reopened-and-thriving Republican states. The press increasingly referred to a “post-pandemic” America even as Biden kept wearing his mask. Covid rapidly receded as an electoral issue.

Perhaps more significantly, as Covid faded into the background, voters’ perception of Biden on other matters soured. By September 2022, polls rated the president’s performance on a dozen issues—including the economy, education, foreign policy, government spending, immigration, and crime—even lower than his work on Covid. This may tell us something about why his campaign wants to talk about the virus again.

Biden’s latest gambit seems an exercise in wistfulness by his campaign, which managed to pull off an election victory that seemed unlikely early in 2020 thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. The Biden campaign is counting on Trump to ignore its attacks because what the former president once touted as his biggest Covid success—the fast-track campaign to develop and approve vaccines—is now regarded with much more public skepticism, something he doesn’t want voters to remember as they cast their ballots this fall. Even so, stressing how bad pandemic life was under Trump may serve only to remind voters of how much they’ve despised Biden’s Covid sequel.

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images


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