With the midterm elections in sight, President Biden and fellow Democrats in Congress and governors' mansions nationwide are completing a 180 on their COVID-19 response, abandoning the president's promise to "shut down" the virus as Americans say they want to "get on with their lives."
In the process, Democrats have begun to lift key COVID-19 restrictions and return to normal life — the same approach, long embraced by red states, that they once rebuked as cruel and dangerous. Yet Biden and his Democratic allies are now taking credit for ending the pandemic while adopting these same policies.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats, announced they will end mandates in their states requiring face coverings in most indoor public settings. However, masking rules for schools will remain in place.
Several other blue states — New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and California — are also lifting their indoor masking requirements in the coming days. All but California said they'll no longer require masking in schools.
The decisions by Democratic governors to ease COVID-19 restrictions come amid a larger push by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to contain — rather than defeat — the pandemic and prepare the country to live with it.
"We are moving toward a time when COVID won't disrupt our daily lives, a time when COVID won't be a constant crisis," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, adding that the president is looking to turn the page on the pandemic.
"We are internally discussing, of course, what it looks like to be in the phase of the fight against the COVID pandemic where it is not disrupting everyone's daily lives, where people are moving on and living, lives free of, hopefully, masks at some point and many of the restrictions that we've all been living through over the past two years," Psaki said.
Her comments came after Politico reported the Biden administration is plotting to adapt to a "new normal" and condition Americans to live with COVID-19 in a bid to increase his low approval ratings and "boost [Democrats'] midterm prospects" amid soaring inflation and a stalled legislative agenda.
"But in order to get people to view the pandemic differently, they have to feel differently about the pandemic," said one senior administration official, echoing a belief among at least some on Biden's team that Americans are living in fear and are pessimistic about returning to their normal lives.
This belief appears to be out of touch with the pulse of the American people, 70% of whom agree "COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives," according to recent polling.
Still, the White House may find it difficult to explain to Americans why it's fine for them to return to normal now after two years of Biden and other Democrats advocating strict pandemic restrictions.
The problem could be worsened by a series of recent embarrassing stories of top Democratic officials making excuses for not wearing masks despite long pushing mask mandates.
Nonetheless, Biden and Democrats are crediting themselves for ending the pandemic while beginning to look to policies implemented by red states as early as the summer of 2020.
"Democrats' plan to fight COVID is working — cases are down & vaccines are widely available. Now, it's time to give people their lives back," Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday. "With science as our guide, we're ready to start getting back to normal."
Another New York Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, praised Biden as blue states began dropping their mask mandates.
"Well, here's where we are in America: Job creation is up, wages are up, unemployment is down, and the omicron variant is in retreat. And that's not by accident," Jeffries said, according to the Daily Caller. "That's because, under President Biden's leadership, a public health infrastructure was put into place beginning with the American Rescue Plan without a single Republican vote, to ensure that we can do everything possible to crush the virus, and that is what has been happening."
"When President Biden took office, there were 2 million Americans vaccinated," Jeffries continued. "One year later, 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. That doesn't happen by accident. It's because President Biden and the Democrats in the House and the Senate have leaned into the science, to the evidence, to standing up a robust public health infrastructure, and now we are seeing the fruits of that work."
Jeffries failed to note when discussing the number of Americans vaccinated that the Food and Drug Administration didn't grant its first emergency use authorization to a COVID-19 vaccine until December 2020, just one month before President Trump left office. Biden has had the vaccines available to the public throughout his presidency.
Biden's new push to portray the pandemic as part of a new normal is in stark contrast to what he's said consistently about the pandemic from the 2020 presidential campaign to last month.
Biden campaigned on the promise that he was "going to shut down the virus," attacking Trump for suggesting Americans should accept COVID-19 as a part of life and adapt accordingly — as opposed to a more heavy-handed response.
At the final presidential debate in 2020, Trump said the country was "learning to live with" the virus. Biden derided Trump for striking an optimistic tone.
"My response: We're not learning to live with — we're learning to die with it," Biden wrote on his campaign website after the debate. "And there is a dark winter ahead."
Once in office, Biden pledged one day after his inauguration, "We will defeat this pandemic" — a message he repeated often over the next year.
Prominent Democrats, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), similarly made clear the goal had to be total victory by eradicating the pandemic.
"Our most urgent priority will continue to be defeating the coronavirus," she declared. "And defeat it we will."
Governors of blue states employed identical rhetoric. "Thanks to the dedication of hard-working New Yorkers, we continue to make progress every day in defeating the COVID beast once and for all," former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said last year.
When discussing their response to the virus, Democratic leaders frequently spoke of the pandemic as a battlefield, and the war could only be won with COVID-19's unconditional surrender.
As a result, several blue states kept in place COVID-19 lockdown measures — first implemented nationwide in the early spring of 2020 — long after red states, which opened up much earlier, most notably Florida.
"It seemed like the narrative was no one could talk about individual rights," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told the conservative legal group the Federalist Society on Friday. "It's all about lockdown. You can't have an open state. You can't have kids in school. You can't do all that. We viewed it the opposite. The default needs to be freedom."
In large part due to loosening pandemic restrictions, states led by Republican governors are overwhelmingly leading the economic recovery, according to data from the Federal Reserve and the Labor Department. States led by Democratic governors have been lagging behind with steeper job losses and higher unemployment.
However, the record when it comes to death rates from COVID-19 is more mixed. Deep red Mississippi, for example, leads the nation in deaths per 100,000 people, while deep blue New Jersey ranks third.
After the lockdown measures eased up even in blue states, Democrats pushed to continue mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates, castigating Republicans for resisting.
They "are passing laws and signing orders that forbid people from doing the right thing," Biden said last summer of DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other Republican governors who opposed such measures. "If you aren't going to help, at least get out of the way."
This week, however, the White House is signaling it intends to follow blue states easing restrictions and embrace a new posture toward the pandemic. Biden and fellow Democrats say it's due to reductions in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. But critics argue the pivot is based in politics, not science.
"The data did not change. You guys changed," conservative pundit Ben Shapiro said this week, referring to Democrats. "This is all about: 'Trust us, give us the power, and we will protect you.'"