- A COVID spike, test the nation and the president.
- We're losing the war.
The COVID-19 pandemic is worse than ever.
ICU beds are full and patients are back in the hallways and waiting rooms.
- [Narrator 1] Omicron slams the nation straining test sites and overwhelming hospitals.
And President Biden rolls out a new plan to fight back.
- We should all be concerned about Omicron, but not panicked.
- [Narrator 1] Plus.
- So who is the real president in his country?
Is it Joe Manchin or Joe Biden?
- It's Joe Biden.
- [Narrator 1] Senator Joe Manchin derails President Biden's Build Back Better Act.
- I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation.
I just can't.
- [Narrator 1] As the president approval rating slides next.
- [Narrator 2] This is Washington Week.
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- [Narrator 2] Additional funding is provided by the Estate of Arnold Adams, Koo and Patricia Yuens with the Yuen Foundation committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities, Sandra and Carl DeLay-Magnuson, Rose Hirschel and Andy Shreeves, Robert and Susan Rosenbaum, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS Station from viewers like you, thank you.
Once again from Washington moderator, Yamiche Alcindor.
- Good evening and welcome to Washington Week.
It's the night before Christmas and millions of Americans are celebrating, but many are also on edge as a highly contagious Omicron variant surges.
On Tuesday, President Biden sought to reassure the country, but I questioned him about why it's still so hard for many to get a COVID test.
Mr. President, what's your message to Americans who are trying to get tested now and who are not able to get tested, and who are wondering what took so long to ramp up testing.
- Come on, what took so long?
What took so long is it didn't take long at all.
What happened was the Omicron virus spread even more rapidly than anybody thought.
- Meanwhile, this week, some good news, the FDA authorized two pills to treat COVID.
They could keep high risk patients from developing serious illness.
Joining me to talk about the challenges facing our country this holiday season, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Health Policy Reporter for the Washington Post, Jacqueline Alemanian, Congressional Correspondent for the Washington Post and Author of the Post Newsletter, The Early 202, Susan Paige, Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today.
And Ayesha Rascoe, White House Correspondent for NPR.
Thank you all for being here.
Yasmeen, I have to start with you.
As soon as Omicron started surging, I wanted to make sure that you were on the show because you have the reporting to sort of square what's going on here.
The president says no one could have seen Omicron coming.
Some experts say we should have been more prepared for variants.
What are you hearing from your sources about the president's response to COVID and whether or not it's been enough?
- Thanks so much, Yamiche.
I think there have been a lot of warnings all year that if we didn't vaccinate the world sooner, that this is exactly what was going to happen, that new variants were going to emerge, that this virus has outsmarted the world's top experts at every turn, it's outpaced them.
It's moved much faster than people have been prepared for it, every turn.
And as long as you have huge pockets of people that are unvaccinated, not just in the U.S. or in Western countries, but throughout the globe, that these variants were going to emerge and that they were going to spread globally within a matter of days, if not sooner.
And that's exactly what we saw with Delta and now what we're seeing with Omicron.
And I think people are really frustrated.
Obviously, this variant is highly transmissible by far the most transmissible one we've seen yet.
It's unbelievable that it's so much more contagious than Delta.
It doubles every two to three days, but it's spreading so much faster than the country was prepared for.
But I think there is some frustration that there hasn't been more of a long-term strategy with this virus.
And it seems like we're reacting at every single step of the way.
- And Yasmeen, you're talking about a long-term strategy, I wanna sit with you for a moment.
Let's talk about testing.
The president told ABC News' David Mirror that he wished he would have ordered 500 million tests two months ago, but that didn't happen, of course.
Why is it so difficult to get testing?
And should the president have done more when it came to this, is he sort of keeping up with the promises that he's been making over the last few months?
- My colleagues and I took a pretty deep look at the administration's approach to testing.
And what we found is when President Biden came into office, he vowed to take this FDR style approach to testing, to have a sort of war mindset about it, to resolve a lot of the supply chain issues.
Obviously things don't always go according to plan, but when they came in, in the winter, there was obviously the worst surge that we had been dealing with yet three or 4,000 deaths a day, some days.
So there was this overriding focus on vaccinations, and then cases started to come down very quickly.
And that focus on vaccination sort of remained at the cost of testing.
And what happens is if you don't, if the government doesn't make a big purchase of tests, and what we saw was countries like the UK, Singapore, other countries in Europe made these bulk purchases of tests in the spring, so that it wasn't dependent on consumer demand, that the manufacturers would keep producing them, even if cases fell so that they would be there in the case of a surge, the U.S. didn't do that.
And what happened was when the administration did put in these big investments in the fall in September and October, that was great.
It's obviously increased the supply of tests.
We have by quite a bit by hundreds of millions of tests a month, but we weren't prepared ahead of time for a massive surge like this.
And even you start putting the money and now, it's too late to deal with what we have right in front of us.
- Yeah, too late to deal with what we have right in front of us.
One other quick question for you.
What should we be learning now that we enter year three of this pandemic, especially when we think about the severity, there's still some reporting out there about how severe Omicron will be compared to Delta?
- Well, I think what's happening is these reports and early studies, which are encouraging that if you're boosted, if you're relatively healthy, that you're likely to have a pretty mild case of Omicron and not end up in the hospital.
But there are still millions of Americans who aren't vaccinated.
It's still not clear if boosted older people are boosted, at risk populations also phase milder disease.
That's not clear.
They probably do these early studies have suggested, but we just don't know for sure yet.
And health care systems are overwhelmed again.
So even if you're not dealing with COVID necessarily, you don't wanna end up in the hospital right now because these hospitals are so short staffed.
So I think there's so much focus on people's individual risk, and we need to think more about what we're dealing with as a country and as a society right now.
- And Ayesha, what's the White House saying about sort of how their approach to this has evolved?
- Well, part of this is that they have been very defensive of the way that they have approached this, but you did hear President Biden saying that yeah, he wished that he would've bought some tests earlier.
I remember asking about the surging seemingly, the threat of Omicron maybe a week or two ago.
And the response was the White House had put out it's a winter COVID plan and that they felt like it was working.
So it does seem like they were caught flat-footed.
We should say that this is a global pandemic, that this is something that the whole world has struggled with.
So it's not clear that every administration would have struggled with this issue, but when it comes to Omicron, it does seem like they were caught off guard, and now they're having to play catch up.
- Yeah, that definitely is what it seems like when I talk to White House sources.
And this week, former President Trump addressed the politically charged issue of vaccines.
Let's take a look at that.
- Did you get the booster?
- I got it too.
- Oh, no, no, no, that's always a very tiny group.
- Now former President Trump's admission was met with some booing, but President Biden credited Trump saying, this is one of the few things they agree on.
Trump later said he appreciated President Biden's comments, comments, which could help to quote, "Process of healing in this country now."
We don't often hear former President Trump speak this way.
Susan, I wanna come to you talk a little bit about how much power you think President Trump, former President Trump has at convincing people to get the vaccine, and also with the midterms coming up and maybe even 2024 coming up, do we think that President Trump will have sort of the political will to push back on his base, who a lot of them who don't wanna take vaccines.
- Yamiche, this may have been the best news on the COVID front that we had this week, because the people who have refused to get vaccinated so far are not gonna be persuaded by Joe Biden.
They are suspicious of the president, of Democrats, of government, who do they trust?
They trust Donald Trump.
So to hear President Trump finally come out in a public way and say, these vaccines are a good thing to get that they will keep you from getting very sick or even killing you from COVID, this is incredibly encouraging.
And a voice said we ought to magnify.
I don't think it really matters that President Biden welcome this because we have Trump speaking to an entirely different audience, and an audience that has been very resistant to the message from the administration.
I think we've seen a real pivot on the part of Donald Trump.
I think he's now trying to take credit for the vaccines and that could well be preliminary to another presidential run.
- It was striking and it is striking to hear the president, former President Trump, I should say, talk about this idea of vaccines being critical, even in an interview with a conservative host, he said the idea that people are protected by vaccines, Susan, I wanna stick with you.
You've seen a lot of stuff in Washington, covered a lot of presidents.
Do you think there's any chance that President Biden and former President Trump could work together, and what to say about this moment that former President Trump is getting booed while the current president, President Biden is also facing scrutiny for his own response to the pandemic.
- Those booes were interesting because you do not see Donald Trump get booed very often by an audience of his partisans, but that may be part of the process of persuasion.
I think it is going to be hard for Joe Biden and Donald Trump to cooperate in any kind of big public way.
The trust level between the two of them is very low.
Donald Trump spends every day trying to undermine Joe Biden's presidency.
I think the Biden administration views Trump with some concern about how much you can count on him, That said, this is good news, that Donald Trump is delivering this message to his followers.
- Yeah, it is absolutely good news.
Jackie, we've seen a number of lawmakers, Republicans, and Democrats getting testing positive for COVID this week and in the last few days, what impact might this have on the mindset of lawmakers, what might get done?
And when Congress comes back and I also, I wanna ask you about Jim Clyburn in particular, who said it took him 56 hours to get a PCR test result.
- Yeah, Yamiche, thanks so much for having me.
Jim Clyburn taking this amount of time to get tested, and having to miss his niece's wedding, I think is very relatable to the average American.
And if someone who ostensibly is the most in the loop and in the know on how testing and the systems should work, and still can't get it right himself.
Imagine what it's like for other Americans who are in positions of less power.
I think that I've been thinking about the way lawmakers are reacting, while they've been on recess in a two-fold sort of way.
One, I'm very curious about the Republicans who are still unvaccinated house members, many of whom will not disclose their vaccination status.
We know a lot of the senators, all of the senators on the Republican side are vaccinated, but house members are very different and they've been noticeably silent on these breakout paces that have been happening.
I'm curious how they're fairing, if they're getting hit by this, since the people getting hit the hardest are unvaccinated.
And then I also have been wondering about how Democrats are going to come back from recess and recalibrate and get focused back on Build Back Better by using some of what's happening with the pandemic right now, the resurgence and the spread of Omicron to make a more persuasive case and potentially push Joe Manchin back in the direction of needing to spend more money in order to get the country back on track.
- And it's interesting to hear you talk about sort of the divide that we see going on in Congress.
It is of course, replicating across the country.
Yasmeen, I wanna come back to you.
What are you hearing about these COVID pills that have been authorized?
I was talking to a White House official who said that yes, it's good news that the pills are authorized, but then it's gonna be a hard, it could be a hard problem when people actually wanna get these pills that demand could basically outpace the supply here.
What are you hearing?
- That's absolutely true, Yasmiche.
And one of the challenges that we're facing with Omicron is some of the existing treatments that we have that are maybe more abundant supply aren't effective against this variant.
So two of the three monoclonal antibodies that the U.S. has don't work against Omicron, which means that U.S. officials are having to preserve and allocate the one that does work.
The one from GlaxoSmithKline, the two from Regeneron and the other one from Lilly do not work against Omicron.
And while these antiviral pills are undoubtedly good news, the more medications we have, the better, and the more ways to treat COVID the better.
These are also gonna be in really limited supply.
They were just authorized by the FDA this week.
And a lot of people who need it are not going to be able to get it.
It's gonna be a very limited supply for several weeks.
- That is it's important for people to really understand the context of these pills.
So thanks for that.
I also wanna ask you, there's not much appetite for people shutting down and being back in doors, especially during the holidays.
So many Americans are fatigued, but I wanted to talk about the science of this.
President Biden has been promising there will be no more lockdowns.
What's your reporting tell you about sort of whether or not that's a scientific decision, a political decision, some combination of both?
- Well, it's interesting 'cause I've heard a lot of people say it feels like March 2020 all over again, and it's not March, 2020, we're in such a different position now.
We have a full abundant supply of vaccines.
Anyone who wants to get one can go get one, you can get a booster.
It might be harder to make appointments right now, but you can go get them and they're free and accessible.
There are treatments that we know a lot more about how to treat this virus.
The rapid tests are not as available as we'd like them to be, but they are out there and people are able to get them.
So because there are so many tools at our disposal, I think most experts agree it's not necessary to go back to those full lockdowns again, and you have to weigh the cost and benefit of them.
There are severe mental health aspects of that when you have people locked in and not socializing, and there are steps that people can take to, to gather safely or to just be more safe.
Right now, we do probably have to put in restrictions on some of our activities, testing before we see family members, being much more careful around vulnerable and at risk family members and loved ones.
But I think most people agree, it's not necessary to go to a full lockdown again, but there are important steps that people should be taking to try to mitigate the impact on the healthcare system and to not be contributing to these huge chains of transmission.
- And what are quickly some of the steps that you'd be taking you?
I know you were talking to our producers about sort of young people versus older people.
What should people be trying to do here?
- Well, I think there's a mindset among a lot of especially healthy vaccinated or boosted people that if I get it, it's not that big a deal.
And the good news is it is probably going to be a mild infection, but you have to be really careful about who you might be spreading it to in the meantime.
So I think rapid testing, if you have them and they're available before you see family members or PCR tests, whatever is accessible to you and affordable, wearing masks in indoor settings, avoiding crowded settings avoided crowded settings unnecessarily.
I think all of those are really important steps.
And some people are canceling travel plans, some people are not, but I think just not taking unnecessary risks while we're dealing with this wave for the next few weeks is probably the biggest thing people can do.
And using the stuff that we know works, that the masks have not big indoor gatherings, testing fairly frequently and making sure you're not spreading it to other people.
It's not full proof, but it's better than that.
- Well, thank you so much Yasmeen for your great reporting.
I appreciate you coming on and joining us this Christmas Eve.
- Thank you so much, Yamiche.
- Happy holidays.
Now, let's turn of course, to the big story on Capitol Hill.
On Sunday after weeks of back and forth, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia went on Fox News and announced he was not supporting the Build Back Better Act.
The White House, of course immediately pushed back in a biting lengthy statement saying, Manchin stands and represented a quote "Breach of his commitment to the president and the senator's colleagues in the House and Senate."
It's a rare sort of bluntness from the White House.
Some Progressive's including the chair woman, I should say of the House Progressive Caucus, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington also reacted angrily.
- The only thing we have to trust worth around here is our word.
And it's unfortunate that it seems we can't trust Senator Manchin's word.
- Later, the White House and some Progressive softened their tone.
The president vowed to work with Senator Manchin to get something passed.
Ayesha, I wanna come to you first.
What do you make of the change in tone, the White House put out this sort of really biting statement and then they sort of walked it back.
They didn't walk back sort of their criticism, but they definitely soften the tone.
How much do you think also are you hearing from White House officials and lawmakers about whether or not Build Back Better can actually be passed here, Ayesha?
- Well, they're gonna try to get something done.
The question is what Build Back Better will look like now.
The reason why you got that softening of the tone is because they cannot get something passed without Joe Manchin.
That's just the fact.
Like they don't have the numbers.
So in the Senate, anyone can jam up what's happening because they need every single Democrat.
And so if you're going to get something on the level of change that President Biden has been talking about, he is going to have to make friends, make kind, get close.
The holiday season is upon us and try to get close to Joe Manchin because that's the only way that you get it done.
You can talk about executive orders and yes, there are things he can do via executive orders, but it will not be on the level of what they are trying to do.
And so I think that's why you saw that softening of the tone, and that's why you will continue to see outreach.
And this is really the test of a president is when the chips are down, can you take what has happened and build something out of the ashes.
That is the test of a president.
- Well, Jackie, Ayesha smartly talking about the fact that this is a test of the president.
Talk a little bit about what you're hearing about where Build Back Better stands, and also how lawmakers are viewing President Biden in particular, who of course made promises to Progressives that Build Back Better would get passed through the Senate.
- Yeah, Yamiche, I think this has been a case of whiplash for everyone reporters and lawmakers included since Joe Manchin threw what one lawmaker described to me as his temper tantrum on Fox News last week, but the frustration on Capitol Hill and in calls with Democratic staffers and lawmakers that I've been on the phone with throughout the whole week, the frustration has been palpable.
This is not the message that they wanted to go home with to their constituents, to show up empty handed at the holidays while people are again going through this coronavirus surge once again, and there is a feeling as Ayesha said that something though needs to get done.
So they're taking this cooling off period to go back to the drawing board and make really hard decisions on what they are going to cut from Build Back Better in order to appease Joe Manchin.
Now that Manchin has also more explicitly laid out his red lines.
He does not want the Child Tax Credit expansion included in Build Back Better, any Build Back Better bill, he will knock over 1.75 trillion.
That does give Democrats a little bit more clarity and guidance that they've been looking for to get something done.
That being said, this is gonna be really hard, I think for lawmakers and the White House, quite frankly, to let go of a policy baby, the Child Tax Credit is really a bit important to people like Brian Disck, Senator Michael Bennet.
And I think that it's gonna be a hard decision for them to get something through without such a transformational policy.
- Yeah, and Susan, there's a power struggle going on right now between President Biden and Senator Manchin.
I wonder what you make of sort of who has the power here and what does it say that some see Senator Manchin as sort of being the president, even of course he isn't actually the president, but even President Biden himself said when you have 50/50 Senate, any Senator can be president.
- No, that's exactly right.
Joe Manchin has certainly put that to your test.
This has been a train wreck on Sunday.
And the question is, can they get cars back on the track early in the new year to get something big passed?
The fact is $1.75 trillion package that included things like climate change and universal pre-K, that would be a pretty big thing to passing and achievement, but the risk now is it because it's not likely to include the Child Tax Credit and some of the other provisions that progressives in particular wanted, maybe it won't be seen as such an achievement.
There is a real expectations problem here.
And I think the other peril for the White House is that Joe Biden was elected with the argument that he really understood Washington.
He really understood the Hill.
He could get things done.
And in this case, he overestimated the leverage he had with one critical member of the Senate, and that is Joe Manchin.
- And Ayesha, as Susan's talking about how the president is abusing his power, what's the concern among Democrats and maybe some in the White House that President Biden is leaning so much into Build Back Better that it's coming at the expense of other things like voting rights, immigration reform, you're hearing some lawmakers talk about the fact that African-Americans, especially who are critical to the Democratic base, that they're not getting some of the policies that are really important to them.
- Yeah, that's the concern that you hear over and over again, is this idea that you're talking about Build Back Better, but what about police reform?
What about voting rights?
And it comes up over and over again.
And you hear from the White house, they'll say things like nothing is more important than voting rights, but that is not what you see in the legislative schedule.
That is not what you see as far as action, right?
Like they say the White House defenses that they're doing what they can do, and it is up to Congress, but that is very frustrating to people who voted for Democrats and who expected action on these issues that they say are paramount to democracy.
And so not having that push is a big issue.
- Yeah, it's a big issue.
And Susan, I wanna come back really quickly to you, we have about a minute left, but I wanna come back to you and just say, talk a bit about the fact that now in this new NPR, Marist, PBS News Hour poll, President Biden's approval rating has sunk to 41%.
What's that say, what's your reporting reveal about this moment for him?
- It's the lowest approval rating for a president at this point in his tenure, except for Donald Trump.
It is a warning sign.
It reflects our polarized politics, but it also reflects some disappointment in the job that Joe Biden has done so far.
Doesn't mean he couldn't recover.
Presidents always have tough patches.
Sometimes they come back as Bill Clinton did.
Sometimes they don't come back as Jimmy Carter did not during his term, his one term in office.
And I think at this moment, as we head into Christmas and the New Year, we are watching to see whether Joe Biden can turn things around.
- Yeah, and Jackie, we only have about 15 seconds, but I just wanna ask you, there's also of course, inflation, there's all these different things that are weighing down on President Biden, but also on Democrats.
What's your sense of what next year will look like?
- Yamiche, I think that lawmakers are gonna try to recalibrate and come back and go full steam ahead and get things done.
But there is an expectation from Democratic lawmakers right now that the White House needs to do a better job in shaping the messaging and actually applying more real pressures on lawmakers who will not go to the ends of the earth to get some of these priorities done like voting rights and to make real changes to the way the system works right now, like the filibuster.
- Yeah, well, that's there.
Of course these huge challenges for next year, I'm thankful that everyone watching will hopefully stick with us as the president.
And of course, Democrats and Republicans navigate this.
That's it for tonight.
Thank you to Jackie, Susan and Ayesha for joining us this Christmas Eve and for sharing your reporting.
Tonight, there's no Washington Week Extra, but we'll be back in the New Year with that.
Thank you for joining us, and from all of us at Washington Week, Merry Christmas to those who celebrate.
We hope you have happy and healthy holidays.
I'm Yamiche Alcindor.
Good night from Washington.
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