WASHINGTON — Encouraging jobs numbers for October and news of a highly effective new COVID-19 treatment about to hit the market gave President Biden an encouraging capstone to a week that saw Democrats lose control of the gubernatorial mansion in Virginia while failing to come to an agreement on the president’s domestic spending bill in Washington.
“It’s been a long week, guys,” principal deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre joked as she took to the podium at the White House Briefing Room on Friday afternoon. “It’s been a long week.”
The long but not altogether disastrous week began with the president in Glasgow, meeting with international counterparts on climate change. His own climate change agenda hangs in the balance on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have been fighting over the particulars of his multitrillion-dollar spending initiatives.
Tuesday saw an ominous development, with Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, losing to Republican insurgent Glenn Youngkin. Ahead of Biden’s departure from Glasgow, he predicted he would arrive back in Washington to news of McAuliffe’s victory. Instead, victory was in Youngkin’s hands while the president was on Air Force One somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
The loss was widely seen as a referendum on Biden, who campaigned with McAuliffe. Democrats were doing too much. Or not enough. They were moving too far left. Or staying too close to the center.
Republicans greeted Youngkin’s victory with glee, less because of who the candidate was — a middle-aged businessman of decidedly un-Trumpian demeanor — but what his success said about Biden and his agenda.
“The Biden regime is effectively over,” Peter Navarro, former top economic adviser to President Donald Trump, told Yahoo News as Washington digested the result from the far bank of the Potomac.
That appears to be a premature assessment, however. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the economy had added 531,000 jobs, causing the unemployment rate to fall to 4.6 percent. Economists also issued dramatic upward revisions of what had initially been sluggish gains for August and September.
In a Friday morning speech from the White House, Biden said that “this recovery is faster, stronger, fairer and wider than almost anyone could have predicted.”
The White House argues that the recovery is real but also fragile, and that passing Biden’s domestic agenda — a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a little less than $2 trillion in social-program spending — is the surest way to strengthen it.
That was the lesson of Virginia, too, White House spokeswoman Jean-Pierre said in an attempt to portray Tuesday’s defeat as a potential motivator to members of Congress. “They want us to move forward and actually deliver,” she said of voters during Friday’s briefing. “They felt we haven’t moved quickly enough.”
The Delta wave has prolonged the COVID pandemic into the fall, disrupting supply chains and forcing businesses into enforcing restrictions they had been hoping to leave off months ago. Economic concerns are beginning to eclipse coronavirus worries, new polling shows, but those worries are inextricably tied to the path of the pandemic. Even if people are no longer acutely worried about becoming sick themselves, there are enough unvaccinated people in the United States for public health officials to move cautiously, especially as winter approaches.
On that front, Biden has some reasons to hope, too. Childhood vaccinations began this week, meaning that millions of children between the ages of 5 and 11 could be immunized. Once they are, school closures — which seem to have infuriated suburban voters, driving them to Republican candidates like Youngkin — should be relegated to history, except in extreme cases.
Friday also saw an announcement that Pfizer’s new coronavirus treatment reduced the incidence of severe COVID-19 illness by 89 percent. The drug, administered in pill form, could soon be on the market alongside one from Merck called molnupiravir that is also highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
The effectiveness of the new Pfizer drug was so apparent that the clinical trial was stopped prematurely.
“The bottom line is we have an overwhelming toolbox right now to combat COVID,” said former Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Friday, adding a little later that “the end of the pandemic at least as it relates to the United States is in sight right now.”
Of course, much remains unsettled for both Biden and the contentious, divided nation he leads. Few have successfully predicted the course of a pandemic that seems to feature more twists and turns than a Hollywood blockbuster. And though it appears that Congress will soon vote on the president’s infrastructure and social spending packages, and that both packages will survive in some form, the moment when trillions begin to flow from Washington to individual states remains distant.
Still, given how the week started, it ended relatively well for Biden, who prepared to leave for a weekend at his beach house in Delaware with the knowledge that, all things considered, it could have been worse.