Amy Walter and Asma Khalid on the omicron variant, inflation and Dem agenda

Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and NPR’s Asma Khalid join Amna Nawaz to discuss the latest political news, including the American public’s views on the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation and how the Democrats’ agenda is faring on Capitol Hill.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the last twelve months, two political issues have remained dominant for Americans and the White House, COVID-19 and the economy.

    Here to dissect the progress and challenges for President Biden on both fronts are Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter and Asma Khalid of NPR. Tamara Keith is away.

    Amy, Asma, welcome to you both.

    This is the last Politics Monday of 2021. It is a good time to take a step back and examine those two big issues.

    So, Amy, wins for sure for the White House, right? You look at the impressive vaccine rollout. More than 70 percent of Americans now have a shot, millions of jobs back in the economy, unemployment at historic lows, and yet, and yet Omicron and inflation persist.

    Do you think most Americans feel like they're better off today than they were a year ago?

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    Yes, Amna, it is the question, right?

    And I go back to a quote that former Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour used to say about governing. The key to be successful in governing is to make the main thing. And the main thing since Joe Biden took office, of course, has been COVID.

    And perceptions of how well he is doing on tackling COVID or how confident people feel that we are really turning the corner on the pandemic were going to determine his — the fate of his presidency.

    And early on, Amna, we saw that people were feeling much more confident about how we were doing in battling COVID. I was looking back at Gallup data. And as you — as we went from February, March, through the early spring and into the summer, more and more Americans saying, yes, I am feeling better about the situation with COVID.

    By the time we hit July, almost 90 percent of Americans said they felts better about the situation with COVID. And then the Delta situation hit, and that confidence just collapsed. And, today — or, really, in early December, feelings of confidence about turning the corner on COVID or, as Gallup calls it, feeling like the situation is getting better, is basically where we were in January, at 30 percent of Americans feeling good about this.

    So, ultimately, it is like we had an entire year where, if you just knew what the numbers were in January and in December, you would think nothing happened. But what did happen, of course, is an incredible rise in optimism, and then the reality hit. And, of course, as the number of Americans said they felt worse about the situation from COVID, the confidence in the economy dropped and confidence in the president overall dropped.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Asma, here is the thing. We are still very much in it, right?

    I mean, Dr. Fauci has said it is going to get worse before it gets better. Economic projections say prices will continue to rise into the new year.

    What is your sense of how the White House is going to respond to this? Is it stay the course or change up how they are responding?

  • Asma Khalid, NPR:

    Well, I think, to date, what we have seen, at least through the economic response, has been, I think, an increasing sense of empathy about inflation.

    I remember going out to Pennsylvania in by June, July, and, at that point, you could spend hours outside of a grocery store just talking to folks. And the number one concern you would hear from people is the rising cost of gas, the rising cost of meat. In the beginning, the White House kept folks, this is transitory. I would argue that's a word or a phrase that just didn't mean much to people.

    But, increasingly, we have, I think, seen a greater sense of empathy from the White House, an acknowledgement of pain, inflation, and a recognition, I would say, that it's not necessarily going to go away as quickly as people have expected.

    When you talk about COVID, I think that situation is a lot trickier, because, as the White House says, I think accurately as well, the situation has improved. Many, many people in this country are vaccinated. And so even if they do catch a bout of COVID, they are less likely to be hospitalized or die from it.

    The challenge for them is that we all, myself included, have this just extreme COVID fatigue, that our situation — we're all doing this on — virtually again, yet again on Zoom. And I think that that has led to a frustration.

    But, at this point, the White House consistently tells folks the way out of this is largely to get vaccinated, to get boosterized. The challenge for them is that there is a subset of the population that has been resistant to getting vaccinated. And that doesn't seem to be changing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think we all know what that COVID fatigue feels like.

    But here's the other thing when you look back over the last year. There have been some big legislative wins, right? They pushed through the American Rescue Plan, got the emergency COVID funds out there, somehow, with narrow margins, got that bipartisan infrastructure bill through.

    But, of course, Build Back Better, BBB, the big one, that is not yet across the finish line.

    I just want to read for you a quote from an op-ed today that came from the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. That is, of course, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Here's what she said about the negotiations and the reluctance so far of Senator Joe Manchin to get on board.

    She said: "We can't be naive about the difficulty of once again negotiating with someone who has not kept his commitments. But legislation remains the best path for delivering enduring relief. Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, that we can produce tangible economic assistance."

    Asma, what does all this tell you about the chances of Democrats getting this done in the new year?

  • Asma Khalid:

    I mean, the White House remains optimistic that they can get back to the drawing board with Joe Manchin and potentially carve out some sort of alternative Build Back Better bill.

    Democrats across the country, I would say, do feel like they need to have and they would like to have two pieces of legislation that they can point to. This is a very challenging midterm year for Democrats across the country. The map was always going to be a challenge. I think if they don't have big legislative wins to show to voters, it's even more difficult for them next November.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, how do you look at all this, especially given how the White House is sort of balancing some of those legislative priorities?

    Build Back Better isn't done yet. But neither is voting rights. Neither is police reform. Right?

  • Amy Walter:

    Right, though, again, it comes back — all the way back to COVID and COVID fatigue.

    And the fact of the matter is, our lives aren't back to normal and that whether it is doing this broadcast once again remotely, we're going to be on more Zoom calls, so many flights were canceled over the holidays because of flight attendants and other staff members who are sidelined over COVID, I mean, we just are reminded over and over again that we have not turned the corner.

    And this is the challenge for a president in pushing policies, especially on things like Build Back Better, or even the infrastructure bill, that don't seem to many voters to be directly related to the challenges that they're having right at this very moment.

    Now, there's only so much any president could do in beating back the pandemic. But, as I said, I think the challenge for this president will always be finding some success there. He had early success, or at least people were giving him credit in part because we were getting people vaccinated, we were getting past that early phase.

    Delta put that in a very different context, and now Omicron just a reminder that this thing isn't going away for quite some time. I think the other challenge that the White House has had is, they have been promoting an agenda that is really expansive with a majority that is tiny, tiny.

    In a 50/50 Senate, this was always the reality. It was always going to be a challenge even to get some of the basics through, but to push Build Back Better especially, something that has such a big price tag, so many pieces that have to fall into place for this to happen, and doing it, again, at a time where people are feeling pessimistic about the state of the economy because they're pessimistic about the state of the pandemic, that is the challenge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy, before we go, I want to see if I can get you both to weigh in briefly on this intersection.

    Of course, I know you have been following the redistricting efforts, the redrawing of states' congressional maps, but also what we have seen from former President Trump, which is fueling money and resources and energy into primarying fellow Republicans who don't agree with him, who voted against him, who don't show sufficient fealty or loyalty.

    That will happen as early as spring and summer of next year. There's an intersection of those two things there. I just wanted to get you to weigh in on those.

  • Amy Walter:


    No, I think it's really important. As we talk about the midterms, there's going to be — there is going to be the talk about seats that are going to change, who will be in the majority, but it's also the kinds of people that win those seats that's very important to understanding how Congress is going to work or not work next year.

    My colleague David Wasserman has been crunching the numbers. We have had about 27 states that have completed redistricting. What he's found is that there's been an increase in the number of dark red states and dark red seats districts, dark red — or dark blue districts, a very big decrease in the number of competitive districts, which means that primaries once again are going to be critical.

    And what we could see, as the president weighs in, as some others come in, is to weigh in, in these, that we're going to find some very Trump-like candidates coming into the Senate, coming into the House. They will have an impact on just what Congress looks like, regardless of what the majority is.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Amy, briefly before we let you go, if you're President Biden looking at that political landscape ahead and the Democrats, what are you thinking at this moment?

  • Amy Walter:

    What you're thinking is, you need a reset.

    There has been a point at which the president's narrative and the message has gotten caught up in process, a lot more talk about Joe Manchin than about the successes of the administration. I hear Democrats saying to me constantly: We need to be proactive, talking about what we have been successful at, instead of talking about the things where we have fallen short.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Amy Walter joining us for Politics Monday.

    I apologize. We lost the connection with Asma Khalid of NPR, but a thank you to her for joining us as well.

    Amy, as always, good to see you.

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