WASHINGTON — With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus having made landfall in the United States and with public discontent with the economy on the rise, the White House blamed Republicans for its woes.
“There are some forces against us,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki conceded at a Friday afternoon press briefing, which followed a lackluster November jobs report, as well as the fact that coronavirus infection rates are rising across much of the country. With only 60 percent of Americans vaccinated and Omicron likely able to break through natural immunity from a previous coronavirus infection, those rates could rise ever higher.
The president said earlier this week that new lockdowns are “off the table.” His battle plan for the months ahead, revealed on Thursday, reflects an inauspicious political scenario in which he has little room to maneuver without encountering an emboldened Republican opposition.
Democrats have recently pressed the president to more forcefully fight that opposition. He had done so earlier, when Republicans challenged federal health authorities on school-based mask recommendations in August and September, but his natural tendency is towards reconciliation, not attack.
Still, there were other signs this week that the administration is intent on taking the fight to Republicans. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, made stinging comments about Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accusing him of complicity in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He also criticized the Fox News personality Lara Logan for comparing him to a Nazi death camp doctor — a day before making his first appearance on Fox News in a month and a half.
“Any politician does better when they have a clear adversary. Right now, the president doesn’t have one,” a Democratic strategist, Joel Payne, told The Hill.
Psaki left little doubt that the forces she had in mind were the elements of the GOP aligned with former President Donald Trump, or else with the much smaller libertarian faction behind Sen. Rand Paul, R- Ky., which has a more principled opposition to vaccines and public health measures, even if it is one that experts say is misguided.
“For reasons I will never begin to understand,” Psaki said on Friday, “some members of the Republican Party have decided that their political platform is going to be running in favor of protecting people from getting vaccinated.”
This week, some senators threatened to shut down the federal government over vaccine mandates. Those mandates, meanwhile, have been put on hold in courts dominated by Republican-appointed jurists. The plan Biden introduced on Thursday had no new vaccination or masking mandates, leading some people to wonder if it was ambitious enough to meet the moment.
Many elected Republican officials at both the state and federal level do support vaccinations and pandemic-related safety measures. But they tend to be drowned out by louder, more prominent pro-Trump conservatives whose challenges to the Biden administration appear to be plainly motivated, in some instances, by political considerations.
“You know how divided our country can be,” Psaki said on Friday, seemingly acknowledging that reality.
An aide to the president sent Yahoo News a list of 17 different actions that Republicans at every level of government had taken, purportedly to undermine the president’s pandemic response. “Just a small sampling,” the subject line of the email read. The examples of Republican resistance ranged from the tiny Northern California hamlet of Oroville declaring itself a “constitutional republic” to Republican legislators in Pennsylvania trying to block vaccine requirements in the state (the effort was stymied by the state’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf).
“We know what works,” Psaki said on Friday. “And we know what’s standing in the way.”
The latest on the Omicron variant