As omicron fears grow, COVID-19 once again spoils Biden's plan to push his legislative agenda

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants to take a victory lap on the infrastructure deal he signed into law last month and to pitch Americans on his social and climate spending bill working its way through Congress, but the coronavirus has other plans.

The president was elected on the promise of bring the pandemic to an end, but fears over the global spread of the omicron variant prove the shadow of COVID-19 may loom larger than the administration anticipated.

Much like this summer, when the delta variant ripped across the country and undercut the White House's celebration in the pandemic fight, the latest strain is threatening to spoil plans to promote the benefits of Biden's legislative agenda, as well as his efforts to tamp down concerns over rising inflation and supply chain challenges that have sent his poll numbers spiraling.

On Thursday, Biden delivered remarks at the National Institute of Health, where he outlined the latest iteration of his COVID-19 strategy as Americans head inside for the winter months and crisscross the country for the holidays. Though White House aides say Biden was always planning to give an update at this time of year, news of the first confirmed omicron case in the U.S. is forcing administration officials to refocus their strategy on the new strain of virus, about which little is known about transmissibility.

"Experts say the COVID-19 cases will continue to rise in the weeks ahead this winter, so we need to be ready," Biden said.

More: Biden to reveal 'winter plan' on COVID, omicron variant. Here's what health experts want to hear.

His remarks come at a pivotal point for Democrats, who are facing several deadlines this month to avert a government shutdown, lift the debt ceiling in order to pay the federal government's bills, authorize defense programs and pass Biden's nearly $2 trillion package to expand the social safety net and tackle climate change.

"He needs to emphasize that we're in this adaptive recovery phase where there's going to be moments of restrictions, masking and travel bans because we always knew there'd be more variants, but that he has the confidence in the tools that are going get us to wherever we need to get, which is not a finish line, but to where we can begin to live around the possibility of COVID," said Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama administration Homeland Security official who coordinated federal and local responses to disasters including the H1N1 pandemic. "People are tired and people want to know that we have a handle on this."

More: Biden to reveal 'winter plan' on COVID, omicron variant. Here's what health experts want to hear.

More: Omicron isn't a surprise to advocates who have fought for global vaccine equity

Plans expected to include tighter travel rules, free at-home tests

Though the severity of illness omicron causes and whether the vaccines remain effective protection against it are still unknown, the Biden administration is adamant that inoculating the minority of unvaccinated Americans and getting a booster shot remain the best defenses against omicron and other strains.

As part of the winter strategy, Biden announced all international travelers entering the country will need to test negative for COVID-19 a day before boarding their flight, shortening the window from the current requirement of testing up to three days before departure.

He also detailed new measures to expand access to free, at-home testing and extended the mask mandate on all public transportation from Jan. 18, when it's due to expire, through mid-March – a tacit acknowledgement of the endemic nature of the pandemic.

"My plan I’m announcing today pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19, and it’s a plan that I think should unite us," he said.

The president again vowed that the latest strategy wouldn't include lockdowns or shutdowns as a pandemic-weary public remains on edge about the threat omicron and the specter of more COVID-19 restrictions.

Visual story: Understanding omicron: How the latest coronavirus variant, now in the US, is mutating and spreading

While there's still a lot of uncertainty about whether omicron could be worse than delta, Kayyem said Biden's message needs to focus on promoting the tools already available to combat the virus including vaccines, booster shots, anti-viral treatments and other therapeutics that weren't available in the early days of the pandemic.

"We can focus on the downsides, but I think they've accomplished quite a lot in terms of combinations of mandates, distribution of the vaccine and the booster campaign," she said, noting that New York City reported zero COVID-19 deaths earlier this week and a nearly 90% vaccination rate among adults. "I think they need to begin to get people to see that there's no declaring victory, you're paving a policy forward. And it's going to be a rough winter, but that's the nature of living through a pandemic."

The Biden administration was unable to reap the benefits of its successful policy over the summer when Biden prematurely declare the country was close marking its "independence from the virus" on the Fourth of July, she said.

"No dates. No numbers," Kayyem said. "We're responding because people are still getting sick, but there's no reason to think that we're not moving forward. This is a process."

Learning from delta, White House moved faster with omicron

White House officials insist getting the pandemic under control is key to resolving problems that have rankled the administration, including inflationary costs on everything from groceries to gas and supply chain bottlenecks. But failure to do so has taken a toll on Biden's own political standing, and omicron threatens to overshadow his latest efforts to regain his footing with the American public.

A Washington Post-ABC poll released in November found that 47% of Americans approve and 49% disapprove of the president's handling of the pandemic, which was one of his strongest issues in the early months of his presidency. In June, the same poll found 62% approved of his handling of COVID-19 and 31% disapproved.

"We’re still in the middle of fighting a pandemic, and people are sick and tired of that. We are, too," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week.

Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary under the Obama administration, said part of getting the pandemic under control is getting a handle on the messaging.

The administration faced criticism for confusion over its booster campaign after Biden announced a need for them before the Food and Drug Administration approved the third shot for most people.

"I think this can be an important moment to reassert the president's messaging on this and to reassert the leadership of having a plan to get this under control," Gibbs said, "which allows them to be able to talk about other things like infrastructure and the build back better plan."

In August, the White House planned to fan out Cabinet members across the country as part of a campaign to promote the president's legislative agenda as the administration looked to pressure Congress to pass key parts of the president's domestic agenda. But the plan was quickly thwarted as delta variant caused cases to surge across the country, wreaked havoc on the economy and Biden's approval ratings began to falter.

This time, the White House has moved quickly to address anxiety over omicron by imposing travel restrictions from eight countries in southern Africa to slow the spread and give U.S. officials more time to learn more about the variant. White House officials have declined to say how long the travel ban will last or if other countries that have reported cases of omicron, including in Europe, will be added to the list.

And concerns have yet scuttle the administration's plans to hit the road and highlight how the massive $550 billion in new federal spending on roads, bridges, internet and other public works will impact local communities. The president on Tuesday traveled to Minnesota to pitch the legislative win along with his social spending plan. Psaki said there's no plan to change Biden's road tour.

At the same time, he's delivered remarks on how the White House is tackling supply chain concerns and the omicron variant, a move that Gibbs said helps Americans connect the dots on how the pandemic overlaps with some of the other issues vexing the administration.

"I think the lesson is to continually be out there and on top of concerns that people really have and talking about the agenda and reducing costs for people is important in a world in which they're seeing their costs go up just like it's important to talk about COVID," Gibbs said. "The modern landscape of the White House and the news environment is to power through regardless of the potholes that are in front of you because there's always going to be some."

As for omicron, variants were always part of the equation in the fight against COVID-19 and omicron should come as no surprise, according to Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

"We've taken to the 'prepare for the worst, hope for the best' kind-of-approach and with that in mind, I think it's probably time to start preparing people a little bit that if some of the things we don't know about this variant turn out to be problematic, then it would be helpful to begin preparing the public that we may have to move back to other strategies," Plescia said.

"It's going to continue to be a struggle, and people are just going to have to come to terms with that. It's not going to be the same kind of struggle it was back in early 2020 because we have a lot more that we can work with, but it's not going to go away and we're going to continue to have these challenges for a while."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Omicron COVID-19 variant overshadows Biden's plans to promote agenda