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A look at how President Biden has handled the pandemic through his 1st year in office

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One year ago today, President Biden took the oath of office with beating COVID at the top of his agenda. Since then, another 450,000 people have died from the virus, and managing the uncertainty of what comes next remains the greatest challenge of the Biden presidency.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been there following every twist and turn. She joins us now. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: Hey. So I want to start from the very beginning because, you know, President Biden came into office during some of the darkest days of the pandemic with a plan to ramp up vaccinations quickly. Were there early signs that this wouldn't be enough?

KEITH: You know, he came in with big but achievable goals, at least when it came to vaccination. Here he was about a week into the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: One hundred million shots in 100 days is not the endpoint. It's just the start. We're not stopping there. The end goal is to beat COVID-19.

KEITH: And they easily met that first goal and increased it. And for the first several months, when it came to COVID, things were more or less going as planned. Biden was able to under-promise and over-deliver. They built systems for getting vaccines to people in convenient locations all over the country. Gradually, those vaccines went from scarce to widely available. And so Biden set a new goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Our goal by July 4 is to have 70% of adult Americans with at least one shot and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated.

CHANG: Yeah, but they didn't meet that goal by July 4. Can you just remind us what was the main obstacle there?

KEITH: You know, in early May, when Biden set that goal, people were getting vaccinated at a steady clip. But then it just slowed down. And the administration really underestimated the well of vaccine resistance, largely among Trump voters, people in rural America. And it just got very political. Those positions have only hardened over time.

CHANG: Right. But I mean, like, do you remember June? Because June was amazing. Everyone was going out, hanging out. Vaccinations were rolling out. Cases were down. There was this feeling like COVID is over, right?

KEITH: Yeah, there was this taste of post-COVID life. And if President Biden could have frozen time right then and there, his handling of the pandemic would have been seen as an overwhelming success.

But there were hints of trouble to come. You had the White House governors, everyone offering free beer, donuts, million-dollar lotteries, $100 checks, all kinds of enticements to get people vaccinated. And for that last group, it just wasn't working. So Biden missed that July 4 vaccination goal, but he held a big party at the White House anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Two hundred and forty-five years ago, we declared our independence from a distant king. Today, we're closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus. That's not to say the battle against COVID-19 is over. We've got a lot more work to do.

CHANG: Wow. That's kind of eerie to listen to today in the middle of the omicron variant because it sounds like this was something of a mission accomplished moment at the time. But the mission was not actually accomplished, right?

KEITH: As the president was talking about independence that day, case numbers were already rising, the delta variant was taking hold, and the idea that Americans could get back to their lives if everyone just got vaccinated, it was slipping away. Biden has become increasingly frustrated with the 25% of adults who still aren't vaccinated. And he, over the summer, started calling it a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I know this is hard to hear. I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think we're still in this fight. And I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges. But that isn't real life.

KEITH: So Biden turned to vaccine mandates, which moved the needle a little, but also caused backlash. And now the most wide-reaching mandate has been blocked by the Supreme Court.

CHANG: OK. But, you know, when it came to messaging around vaccinations, there was some confusion, like especially around booster shots, right?

KEITH: Yeah, this is another case where the Biden White House insisted it would follow the science. The science wasn't black and white initially. Now the message is that boosters are necessary. But getting to that point, there was a lot of back and forth, and that muddle left the country less prepared than it could have been for the omicron variant.

CHANG: Yeah, and the Biden administration almost seemed caught off guard by the surge in demand for COVID testing when omicron started taking over.

KEITH: Right. I mean, it hit at a terrible time - just as people were traveling to visit family for the holidays. There weren't enough COVID tests available to keep up with the record numbers of people getting sick. And President Biden admitted yesterday that this was a shortcoming.

So now the federal government is preparing to ship free tests and hand out higher quality masks all over the country. But it's looking like most of this will arrive after the worst of the omicron variant has passed.

CHANG: OK, well, we are now one year in to the Biden presidency. How has he changed the way he's talking about the pandemic at this point, given all that's happened?

KEITH: Yeah, he isn't talking about getting the pandemic behind us like he was a year ago. Now he is talking about living with it, as he did yesterday at his press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Some people may call what's happening now the new normal. I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better. We're moving toward a time when COVID-19 won't disrupt our daily lives.

CHANG: I mean, where does this leave President Biden, who came into office promising to manage the pandemic with utter competence? Where do things stand for him politically now?

KEITH: The failures and missteps and let's just say sheer bad luck are all a problem for him. An average of polls looking at approval of his handling of COVID just crossed into negative territory. His management of the pandemic had been one area where his approval ratings had held up, even as other numbers fell.

I spoke with Mo Elleithee, a former longtime Democratic operative who now leads the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown. He says the problem now is anxiety - not so much even about getting sick as just everything else.

MO ELLEITHEE: People are anxious over rising inflation, and they are anxious over whether or not their kids will be able to stay in school, whether or not their small businesses are going to - you know, there's going to be another lockdown.

KEITH: He says President Biden has to speak to that anxiety.

CHANG: OK, so how does he do that?

KEITH: Well, he's sort of trying to do that now. You can hear it in his speeches. But people I talked to say he needs to do it even more and more directly. Pollster Christine Matthews at Bellwether Research told me part of his task now is guiding the American public to whatever the new normal looks like.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: People are just done with it. They're done. And the problem is, of course, COVID's not done with us, but people are so done with it.

KEITH: She sees this in focus groups, and the sentiment crosses all party lines. And Biden and Democrats have just a few months now before sentiments get locked in ahead of the midterm elections in November. More than anything Congress might pass, giving voters a feeling of stability, that sense that Biden projected at the beginning of his presidency, that's important. But easing anxiety and projecting stability in this environment is easier said than done.

CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.