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How a pandemic malaise is shaping American politics

When Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Donald J. Trump first vied for the White House in March 2020, American life was almost unrecognizable. A deadly virus and a public health lockdown reset daily routines at a frightening pace, leaving the country little time to prepare.

Four years later, the coronavirus pandemic has largely disappeared from public attention and is hardly discussed during the election campaign. And yet, as the same two men run again, Covid-19 quietly persists as a social and political force. Although weakened, the pandemic has become the background music of the presidential campaign, shaping voters’ attitudes toward the nation, the government and its policies.

Public trust in institutions—the presidency, public schools, the criminal justice system, the news media, Congress— collapsed in polls in the aftermath of the pandemic and still has to recover. The pandemic has increased voters’ distrust of government, a feeling that Trump and his allies are using to their advantage. Fears of political violence, even civil war, are at an all-time high Nation’s happiness rankings at record lows. And the country’s economic outlook and confidence in the future remain bleak, even as the country has defied recession expectations.

“The pandemic has stripped people of the ground — they were never quite as safe as you are,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We are starting to find our feet again. But I think it’s just hard for people to feel good again.”

High office vacancies have paralyzed urban city centers and reinforced the feeling that the country has not yet fully recovered. The incidence of depression and anxiety remains stubbornly high, particularly among young adults. Students are lagging behind in math and reading, part of the ongoing fallout from school closures. And even positive news was met with skepticism: FBI data published this month However, confirmed that crime fell significantly in 2023 Survey conducted Late last year showed that voters disagree.

Elected officials, strategists, historians and sociologists say the lasting effects of the pandemic are visible today in debates about inflation, education, public health, college debt, crime and trust in American democracy itself. They said the lingering trauma from that period is contributing to a sense of national malaise that voters are expressing in polls and focus groups — a kind of pandemic hangover that appears to be hurting Mr. Biden and helping Mr. Trump in his presidential rematch .

Mr. Biden’s administration passed a sweeping package of laws and issued executive actions that led the country out of the crisis. However, voters give the president limited credit for his achievements and remain pessimistic about the economy and the country’s development. Mr. Trump oversaw the most acute phase of the pandemic, but he casts himself as the president of a wealthier and safer country and continues to lead Mr. Biden in polls.

Philip D. Zelikow, the lawyer who served as executive director of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said the Biden administration acted too quickly to put the pandemic behind it.

“Because the Biden administration never conducted an investigation into the crisis,” Mr. Zelikow said, “and the Biden administration never developed a serious reform package to respond to the crisis, the administration essentially left the impression that it “I accepted that the government had failed but just didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Mr. Zelikow, who describes himself as politically independent and says he is an opponent of Mr. Trump, led a bipartisan team of more than 30 experts called the Covid Crisis Group that examined the response to the pandemic and published its findings in a book with the Titled “Lessons From the Covid War.” He said that the federal government’s failure to explain how the pandemic came about had increased distrust of institutions and that such erosion would most likely benefit Mr. Trump, who argues, often incorrectly, that American politics and government are “rigged” systems.

“If someone like Donald Trump is elected this fall,” Mr. Zelikow said, “the administration’s performance in the Covid crisis will be a significant cause.”

Many Americans of all political persuasions do not want to revisit that difficult and deadly time. Ryan Hagen, who leads an oral history project at Columbia University documenting the pandemic, said it became difficult to get participants in his study to continue talking to researchers as the crisis ended.

“The pandemic is general everywhere in this election and nowhere specific because it sets the conditions under which this election campaign unfolds,” he said. “Even though hardly any of us talk about it, we all live in its shadow.”

Mr. Biden has defended his role in rescuing the country from a moment of profound catastrophe, using his State of the Union address to call the pandemic “the greatest comeback story ever told.”

At a recent fundraiser in Dallas, the president blamed his predecessor for everything people remember with horror about the pandemic.

“Covid had come to America, and Trump was president,” Mr Biden told donors, adding: “There was a shortage of ventilators.” Mobile morgues were set up. Over – over a million people died. Our loved ones died all alone and didn’t even get to say goodbye.”

Biden aides said the campaign was aware of declining trust in government and increasing isolation. Much of their outreach efforts focus on reaching voters through family, friends or influencers, rather than the president or traditional political surrogates.

“Our campaign has a major financial advantage,” said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, “and that will allow us to spend the next eight months constantly communicating a very simple truth: Joe Biden is delivering “Where Trump failed: with the pandemic.” to building an economy that works for everyone, to protecting our fundamental rights and freedoms.”

The Trump administration took decisive steps, such as invoking the Defense Production Act, to accelerate the development of the vaccines that allowed American life to return to some semblance of normalcy. But Mr. Trump rarely speaks about the pandemic. When he does, he often blames China or the virus for ruining a strong economy. Only Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate who has attracted a wide following with his outspoken skepticism about vaccines and his promotion of conspiracy theories, continues to frequently address the virus as a candidate, often to level allegations of government corruption .

“Americans know that Biden was a disaster and they were far better off under President Trump, which is why President Trump continues to crush Biden in the polls,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign.

Any political discussion of the crisis is complicated by the very different ways in which Americans have experienced the world’s most disturbing event in a generation.

There is no uniform pandemic narrative. In California, New York and other Democratic-controlled states, schools and businesses kept restrictions in place well into 2021. In Florida, Georgia, South Dakota and other Republican-led states, life returned to a semblance of normality far more quickly, even as the death toll rose.

Since then, memories have been shaped by partisan politics. A study The study, published last year in Nature, found that people’s memories of the severity of the pandemic were distorted by their later views on vaccines.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt like everything was up for grabs,” said Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of a new book about the pandemic in New York, “2020: One “. City, seven people and the year in which everything changed.” “What we are left with today is the emotional experience of having the feeling that something is wrong in the country. We are experiencing Long Covid as a social disease.”

Frustration with Mr. Biden’s handling of the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery is high among many Republicans and even some Democrats.

Kristin Urquiza spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2020 about her experience watching her father die from complications of Covid. She founded a political advocacy group, Marked by Covid, and said she supported Mr. Biden in 2020 because she believed he would comfort victims and console families. She feels differently now.

“He broke his promise to take care of him,” Ms. Urquiza said of the president.

Instead of emerging from the pandemic with renewed hope, the country has become a far less unified place, she said. She was deeply frustrated that there was no effort to create a permanent national memorial to the more than 1.1 million Americans killed by the disease.

“The families I speak to – those who have long suffered from Covid and those who have lost loved ones – express a deep sense of abandonment,” Ms Urquiza said.

For many Republican voters, the pandemic has also solidified their belief that government does more harm than good.

Michael Jackson, 47, a waiter in Las Vegas who has been unemployed for nearly a year, was angry that large parts of the state were not reopening more quickly. “I think most politicians have shown that they are completely unaware of what is currently happening outside of their office,” Jackson said.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Christian, a retired breast cancer surgeon who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is part of Ms. Urquiza’s “Marked by Covid” group, has remained isolated during the pandemic and still wears a mask in public. She avoids restaurants and some of her favorite activities, such as attending gymnastics meets at Louisiana State University, to which she had a long-time season ticket.

Her vaccinated parents broke their isolation for a dinner to celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary in July 2021. Within three days, both tested positive. They died within two days of each other in August.

Dr. Christian said she has lost trust in all levels of a government that she says has failed to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

“I was a pretty staunch pro-life Republican and I can say that I was disappointed in the Republican Party,” Dr. Christian, adding that she plans to vote for a third-party candidate in November. “I was very disappointed that a party that has a defense of life platform did not do what was necessary to defend the lives of people who were exposed to Covid.”

Democrats say continued dissatisfaction with high food prices and other everyday worries is one reason Mr. Biden has struggled to win widespread recognition for his legislative successes even as the economy has recovered.

“There is still some instability that is testing the nerves of Americans weathering the pandemic,” said Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, a Democrat. “I think given the trauma of Covid and the devastation it has wrought on people’s lives, it’s natural for people to think that way.”

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has achieved lasting legislative milestones, including a $1 trillion infrastructure package, a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package and major investments to combat climate change.

But some of its post-pandemic programs with the greatest impact on people’s daily lives are not sticking. Congress failed to extend a child tax credit that sent monthly checks to families. Tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to support child care facilities expired, causing some providers to close. Millions of borrowers whose student loans were suspended during the pandemic will now have to make payments after the Supreme Court rejected an administration plan to forgive $430 billion in student debt. The government is now taking a more piecemeal approach to debt relief.

Alida Garcia, a Democratic strategist and mother of twins, said she has had a “hot temper” during the pandemic and is almost constantly angry “at the lack of support for mothers in particular.”

“Now I’m just as exhausted, if not more so, than I was back then, and it feels like it’s getting harder and harder for women,” she said.

For others, the anger of these pandemic days has expanded into a deeper lack of trust in politics.

Julie Fry, a public defender in New Jersey, spent months urging administrators and politicians in her state to reopen shuttered public schools. Three years later, her young daughters are successful in school.

But she feels angry and resentful — toward politicians of both parties — as she remembers the long months of homeschooling and the psychological damage it caused to so many children.

“I feel like Trump was a mess and Biden was a coward when it came to doing the right thing for children,” said Ms. Fry, who describes herself as a staunch liberal. “There were no adults willing to advocate for the children’s needs.”

Above all, Ms. Fry is trying to move forward.

“I try not to be bitter,” she said. “I just have to live with the fact that this happened and people who I thought were allies and had the same values ​​abandoned me and my children.”

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