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Is Biden's early declaration of 'independence from the virus' his 'mission accomplished' moment?

Will media, political elites hold Biden accountable for premature end zone dance the way their predecessors needled George W. Bush for celebrating Iraq War victory on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln?

Updated: August 4, 2021 - 11:24pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Little over a month ago, President Joe Biden was looking forward to an American celebration of the 4th of July with "independence from the virus" and, beyond, a "summer of joy and freedom." 

No sooner had the administration begun taking bows for having effectively vaccinated its way to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic than reports began multiplying of surging case numbers of the Delta variant.

Suddenly, mission accomplished became the mission continues for the Biden administration.

"President Biden absolutely declared a victory too soon," former Baltimore public health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen told Yahoo News recently.

Will the media and political elite hold Biden accountable for a premature end zone dance the way their predecessors a generation ago relentlessly needled President George W. Bush for celebrating "Mission Accomplished" in the Iraq War on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003?

Or are the renewed COVID-related challenges mere speed bumps on Biden's road to decisive ultimate victory over the mutating virus?

"America is starting to look like American again," read a White House fact sheet released in mid-June. Despite falling just shy of its goal to get 70% of adults at least partly vaccinated by Independence Day, the president maintained a sunny outlook as thousands of guests gathered on the South Lawn to celebrate the nation's birthday.

"It was a long winter, but the clouds have broken," declared Jill Biden in Philadelphia on the 4th of July. "We're not at the finish let yet, but summer has never felt more full of possibility. And doesn't the air smell so much sweeter without our masks?"

A few short weeks later, the clouds are massing again. Just as the reality of the Iraq War set in after Bush's famous speech, the new normal of the Delta variant is beginning to take shape in Biden's America, and rules that were established just weeks ago are already obsolete.

Breakthrough cases of the coronavirus variant are surging — though among the vaccinated those numbers comprise mostly asymptomatic cases and cases with very mild symptoms. Hospitalization and fatality numbers are mere handfuls on the thousand compared to what last spring and summer brought.

But mask mandates are also back (for vaxxed and unvaxxed alike) in so-called "substantial" risk COVID-19 spots. The president has made vaccines — or, failing that, regular testing — mandatory for all federal employees and contractors, and NIH Director Francis Collins is urging private sector employers to follow suit.

The mask reversals are reportedly creating significant tension among White House advisers and CDC personnel, who do not appear to be completely aligned on what they wish to convey to the American people. 

Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic party official, told Politico that "there is rancor and frustration in the air" among Democratic decision-makers. "School reopenings are going to be hard," he warned.

An administration official told the outlet: "We declared ourselves to be somewhat successful when we were able to say vaccinated people don't have to mask. It's hard to seem like we're going back."

Even among those who by and large support President Biden's COVID-19 policies, there is a sense that victory was declared too soon. Dr. Wen, currently professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, told Yahoo the "single biggest mistake that the Biden administration made during this entire pandemic response — and I would argue in the entire Biden presidency — was back in May when the CDC said that vaccinated people can take off their mask, but did not have proof of vaccination attached to it."

Public optimism about the pandemic outlook has plummeted recently, with a new Gallup poll revealing that more Americans now believe the situation in the U.S. is getting worse than believe the opposite.

The shift in attitude has occurred with striking rapidity. Last month, 89% of Americans believed the situation was improving; just 3% disagreed. In July, 45% said the situation was tracking in the wrong direction, while 40% disagreed.

Not since January have Americans felt so pessimistic about COVID. Americans now expect "societal disruptions related to COVID-19 to persist at least through the end of the year, or longer," Gallup found. In June, by contrast, almost half of Americans expected the pandemic would reach its conclusion in just a few weeks.

What some may not remember about Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment is that — thanks to a last-minute save by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — nowhere in his actual speech did he utter the words "mission accomplished." The president did, however, say that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," and "the United States and our allies have prevailed."

For a few brief moments, George W. Bush got to savor his "Mission Accomplished" moment. Unfortunately for President Bush and the nation he led, the heavy preponderance of U.S. casualties from the Iraqi insurgency — civilian and military — were still to come.

Likewise, President Biden enjoyed a weeks-long stretch during which the American people believed things were trending in an extremely positive direction. Just one month ago, the DNC was readying a bus called the "America's Back mobile" to drive around handing out ice cream and touting the achievements of the Biden administration. Even now, White House senior adviser Neera Tanden is reportedly planning a "Month of Action" for this month that will showcase Biden's agenda and what he's accomplished.

Hopefully, the worst of COVID-19 really is behind the nation. But in terms of case numbers, school closures, mask policies, and vaccine mandates, there is for now an uneasy collective sense that American life has once again been put on hold.

If the new public mood of anxiety persists long, Biden's declaration of independence from the virus may come back to haunt him much as Bush's "mission accomplished" shadowed the remainder of his presidency.

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