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Hired to end pandemic, renew prosperity, Biden delivers mask and vaccine mandates, inflation

The president's approval rating has plummeted in recent weeks, and the outlook is bleak should the economy stall and lockdowns again take hold of the country. 

Updated: July 30, 2021 - 10:52pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

President Joe Biden was hired by the American people last November to restore public health, economic prosperity, civic freedoms and a sense of normalcy after a year of viral pandemic, lockdowns, business failures and historic levels of unemployment.

More than six months into his term, Biden has instead delivered: inflation rates not seen in the country in decades; sharply rising case numbers of the COVID-19 "Delta variant"; the abrupt renewal of briefly relaxed mask mandates; mandatory vaccinations for federal employees — and  bafflingly mixed messaging about the efficacy of the vaccines against the new strain of the virus.

The amount of stimulus the Biden economic plan would pump into the economy could "set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability," Clinton-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote in the Washington Post in February.

"This will be manageable if if monetary and fiscal policy can be rapidly adjusted to address the problem," he wrote. "But given the commitments the Fed has made, administration officials' dismissal of even the possibility of inflation, and the difficulties in mobilizing congressional support for tax increases or spending cuts, there is the risk of inflation expectations rising sharply."

Six months later, even those who doubted Summers at the time recognize there is a problem —and it could be a big one. Prices have surged more than 5%, an annual rate inflation that is the highest it's been in 13 years. The U.S. economy is suffering from a shortage of supplies and workers. Consumers are seeing higher prices at the pump and at the grocery store, where they're paying nearly double for some household items. And, when it comes to big-ticket items — cars, washing machines, furniture — prices are way up and so are wait times for delivery.

Second quarter GDP numbers were released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis on Thursday morning, showing an annual growth rate of 6.5% — well below the roughly 8% widely predicted by economists — and first quarter numbers were revised downward.

Adding to Biden’s economic woes, masks are now making an unanticipated — and decidedly unwelcome — return. On Tuesday, the CDC updated its masking guidance, now recommending that everyone — vaccinated or not — don a face covering in places where the virus is spreading widely.

How is "spreading widely" defined? Well, in Washington, D.C. — where an indoor mask mandate will go back into effect on Saturday and the mayor is encouraging the use of masks outside in large crowds — there are currently 59 cases per day being reported. There have been two coronavirus deaths in the past two weeks, seven people are currently in the ICU with the virus, and the 14-day average positivity rate is 1%.

While some states and localities will take a strong stance against remasking, many Americans (and their businesses) will be subject once again to the real issues and inconveniences that come along with strict masking policies.

Moreover, administration officials have hinted that they are open to going back into lockdown if it's what "the scientists" tell them is necessary. Muddled administration messaging has proved confusing to even some of its most vocal supporters.

On Thursday, the president announced he will require all federal employees to either get vaccinated or wear masks, physically distance, and submit themselves to regular virus testing. More than two million federal workers around the country will be impacted by the announcement, placing the government (the country's largest employer) squarely at the forefront of efforts to pressure the populace into boosting its vaccination rate.

Some say the administration's struggle to create coherent policy around vaccinations comes as no surprise. "They spent months [before the election] on this anti-vax rhetoric," said Jason Miller, Trump adviser and founder of the new social media platform GETTR. "And now they're wondering why everyone in the country is confused.

"If there were some universally accepted, universally recognized science and strategy behind what they were doing, then maybe it would be a different conversation, but it's all over the map." 

Biden, for his part, began his speech Thursday by saying, "You don't need a mask if you're vaccinated" — precisely the opposite of what the CDC said Tuesday.

Historically, there is precedent for a new president's popularity to take a tumble the summer of his first term, but going into office Biden had less margin for error than most. His approval rating has plummeted in recent weeks, and the prognosis is not good should the economy fail and lockdowns again take hold of the country. 

What happens in 2022 and 2024 remains to be seen, of course, but it should be no mystery what happens when an employee hired to provide a specific service fails to perform.

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