ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden, a black mask covering his face to guard against COVID-19, shared a moment on stage with also-masked Vice President Kamala Harris at a Monday White House event commemorating Black History Month.
He leaned in to say something to America’s first female and Black and AAPI VP, and the pair appeared to smile — their faces crinkling over the tops and straps of their face coverings. Just over 24 hours later, however, their grins were on full display in a striking policy change.
To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic was still here Monday, shaping life in Washington and many other U.S. communities. But it was gone by Tuesday evening — kind of.
Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stood in the well of the House chamber Tuesday night awaiting Biden’s arrival for his first official State of the Union address, neither masked. First lady Jill Biden arrived before her husband, wearing a blue dress to honor Ukrainians after their country was invaded by Vladimir Putin’s Russian military forces. She came sans mask, as well.
There was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democratic progressive who frequently posts videos and photos on her social media accounts from events back home masked. She took a balcony seat, her smile visible to all and uncovered. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, also of New York, entered the chamber also bare-faced, eventually joined by Senate Democratic mask enthusiasts like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse.
Biden’s Cabinet was announced and marched slowly down the center aisle, not a face covering among their ranks ahead of the night’s main event.
“Madam speaker, the president of the United States,” loudly declared House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker. In strode a grinning Biden, without the dark mask he had worn just a day earlier.
“Thanks to the progress we’ve made in the past year, COVID-19 no longer needs to control our lives,” Biden proclaimed to bipartisan applause during his address.
But despite being burned last summer by two White House events declaring the pandemic essentially over, first by the delta variant and then the highly transmissible omicron strain, Biden rolled the political dice one more time — on perhaps the biggest night of any year for any chief executive.
“I can’t promise a new variant won’t come. But I … can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does,” he said to more loud applause. “You can end the shutdown of schools and businesses. We have the tools we need. It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people.”
Then came what might be described as Biden’s COVID-19 “mission accomplished” moment, delivered in a quintessential Washington setting, rather than George W. Bush’s premature aircraft carrier deck declaration.
“People working from home,” Biden said, “can feel safe and begin to return to their offices.”
Minutes later, Biden finished his big speech with what has become an annual — and, so far, through four presidents split equally between the parties, mostly fruitless — applause-garnering plea for unity. In another striking scene, the affable Biden, a senator for 36 years and professional politician for nearly 50, almost glacially hugged and cheek-kissed his way out of the House chamber.
That, as the saying goes, escalated quickly.
Biden’s maskless State of the Union show came seemingly out of nowhere. Cases are falling in many areas, including the National Capital Region, and hospitals are not being overrun. But all the Democratic uncovered faces also amounted to a preemptive strike against GOP gripes about mask mandates heading into the midterm elections.
Think Republicans across the land are not ready to pounce on Biden, Pelosi and Democrats as mask-obsessed and out to control voters’ lives with COVID-19 restrictions? Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, on Wednesday lashed out at a group of college students who were masked ahead of remarks he delivered at the University of South Florida.
“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please, take them off,” DeSantis told them as he approached his lectern, before roaring: “Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve gotta stop with this COVID theater. So, if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous.”
Biden’s own bit of “COVID theater” the previous night was rooted in science and data, White House officials and Capitol Hill’s top doctor contended. But it also showed a shrewd political calculation from Team Joe.
“I fully accept the fact that the American people are more ‘show me, not tell me,’ and what they want to see is we really have reached a new way of managing COVID,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said Wednesday during an event at the Economic Club of Washington. “They want to see that the economic recovery is real and sustained. I think the political credit will follow from that.”
The president has not been getting much of that during his first year, with an approval rating stuck just over 40 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s metric using several polls. But perhaps more ominous for the White House is Biden’s disapproval rating, which has been above 52 percent since Jan. 16 in the FiveThirtyEight metric and has been underwater since October.
That could be one big reason why the 79-year-old Biden went maskless to his big speech and used it to trot out what his aides dubbed a “unity agenda” — and why he devoted so much time to stressing that the country should move beyond COVID crisis and mask mode.
“I do think our approval rating will go up in the months ahead,” Klain said the next day, “as the economic recovery and the progress on COVID become more permanent, more lasting and internalized more by the voters.”
The Democrats’ shift on masking comes as a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority (56 percent) of Americans already have returned to “your normal, pre-coronavirus life.” The same survey delivered a bit of a surprise: Just 50 percent of those polled mostly blame Biden for rising inflation. More blame corporations increasing prices (68 percent) and disruptions caused by the pandemic (73 percent).
This is a president, White House and Democratic leadership that appears to sense a moment. Not necessarily to keep control of the House and Senate, but to minimize losses history suggests are coming and set their party up to take back one or both chambers in 2024 or 2026.
Some veteran Republicans, however, implied that the maskless SOTU was a cynical political tactic. “Biden cured COVID-19, pandemic’s over,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said sardonically, according to one dispatch from Capitol Hill.
Optical hurdles and health concerns for the nearly octogenarian president remain as he tries to thrust the country into a post-pandemic era: When Biden appeared in Wisconsin for a Wednesday event to sell the address, his black mask was back.