Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on omicron variant, Build Back Better bill, midterm elections

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the fate of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill and how it may affect the Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With only a few weeks left in the year, the president has a full slate of challenges ahead, from passing his Build Back Better plan to tackling the new COVID variant.

    Here to assess the politics of it all, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Hello to both of you on this Monday. Very good to see you.

    So we're going to begin with what we're leading with in the program tonight, and that is this new variant of COVID.

    Amy, just when I think we thought maybe we were on the good side of this…

  • Amy Walter, The Cook Political Report:

    We were turning the corner, right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … it turns out that there is a big question mark out there. We don't know yet how serious, how severe the symptoms are, but we know that it is on the move.

    And President Biden is imposing a travel ban. He's saying no reason to panic. We know there are health reasons, health things he has to worry about. What about the political implications?

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

    I thought it was noteworthy that he said, be concerned, but don't panic, and also that he said, we're not going to do lockdowns, made very clear we can defeat this with vaccines and with boosters. We don't have to go into where we were in 2020.

    So, the challenge, though, for the president, as he noted also in that speech, is, he doesn't have any control over what other countries are doing. And this is, as we know, a global pandemic. So, yes, the U.S. can send lot of vaccines around the world, but you're still looking at countries in Africa that have — like South Africa, what is it, 6 percent or something, of a vaccination rate. So this is going to go on for quite some time.

    It seems to me the other challenge the president has though, is, he's dealing in real time with these mutations that are going to be with us, while the long tail of COVID is still with us, just like this piece that ran before us about the mental health challenges for kids.

    We watched this year where we have record number of overdose deaths, that we have people getting in fights on airplanes and punching flight attendants, right? There's still — we're still dealing with the effects of being in lockdown for 2020 that that haven't been resolved. We're still sort of getting back into society, while we're also dealing with the present reality of a mutating virus that is probably going to be with us for some time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Not to mention the economy.

  • Amy Walter:

    Not to mention the economy, exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, there's so many different pieces of this that the president has to think about.

    But it could affect — it is affecting him.

  • Tamara Keith, National Public Radio:

    Absolutely.

    And he did come out. He had to come out after this long weekend, where everyone at home got really frightening news, that there is a new variant of concern that has this name that we haven't heard, and we don't know how to pronounce. And he had to come out and say, basically, I'm president, I'm here to help, even though they have virtually no answers on all of the important and relevant questions.

    And he doesn't have a lot of levers left to push. He can beg people to wear masks. But outside of liberal urban centers, people just aren't wearing masks anymore. The CDC came out with new recommendations pushing boosters even harder than they were before. The president can continue sort of pushing boosters.

    But they have run out of big, bold things that they can do to move the needle to get much more of the population vaccinated. He's in a tough spot, and his political future rests on people feeling like there is some sense of normal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And just as we were having this semi-normal Thanksgiving, where we saw people we haven't seen — been in the same room with in a long time, just as this was happening, this news comes out that is a big, bad reminder that COVID isn't done with us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as we're heading into the holidays, people are asked to be patient.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's wait. We will find out later how serious it is.

    But, meantime, Amy, of course, this isn't the only thing the president is dealing with right now. He's got several things sitting before the Congress, first and foremost, Build Back Better, his big social spending program. Then there's a defense authorization bill. There's funding the government.

    What does it all…

  • Amy Walter:

    There's the debt ceiling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The — what does it all look like?

  • Amy Walter:

    Remember, it wasn't that long ago, Tam — but maybe it was 100 years ago, it feels like — that these would be considered a really big deal?

    There would be panic on Wall Street. People in Washington would be panicking. Oh, my gosh, we're getting to the end of the year and there's a debt ceiling, and we're going to fall off a cliff with government funding.

    And now it just seems like there's sort of a shrug, collective shrug, because this seems to happen every year. And it fixes itself, and we don't head into disaster area.

    But the bigger challenge for the president is getting his Build Back Better plan passed before we head into 2022, right? The majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said today we're going to get this done by Christmas, maybe. But he wants this done, so that 2022 starts off with, hey, everybody, look what Democrats have offered before you for the midterm elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, 28 days before Christmas — or I don't — I didn't count. I just made that up, Tam, however many days it is.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's — I mean, how much of this is in the president's control?

    Because we're talking about this at a time when his public opinion approval ratings are moving down.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes.

    And this comes at a time when Democrats really are convinced that they need this. Democrats believe that they need to be able to go out and say, look at all this stuff we did for you.

    I'm not sure that that is totally going to work. But they have become convinced that they need that. And, certainly, President Biden is going to be pushing for this. The White House is signaling that they are planning to be tougher on Republicans.

    The thing is, Republicans have pretty easily consolidated behind a message that is like, no, no, no, this thing could hurt inflation. No, no, no, this is just going to run up the debt. And Democrats haven't been quite consolidated behind a message of what's in it and why it's a good idea.

    And so the White House is signaling that President Biden is going to get tougher, and he's going to say, well, what is their alternative? So, that's sort of the phase they're moving into. I don't know that that's going to make Democrats all come together and hug before Christmas, but…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Amy, while Republicans are saying the country is going to be — fall apart if this passes, what is the secret potion that the president has?

  • Amy Walter:

    That the president is looking — you mean to get his own party on board?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, some of it is, hey, if I don't do well, if my approval ratings don't go up, then it's going to hurt everybody alongside.

    So you can try to distance yourself from an unpopular president when your party is up, but it is very, very difficult to do. And the really big flashing red light right now for Democrats isn't that Republicans are against what the president wants to do. It's that independent voters have soured a lot on this president.

    And, in fact, when you look at over the course of these last six midterm elections, the president going into that midterm election with approval ratings where this president sits with independents have lost seats in that midterm, lots of seats in that midterm election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Flashing red light.

  • Amy Walter:

    Flashing — it's the — yes, I — yes.

    I call it now it's the check engine light for American politics, independent voters.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to remember that.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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