COVID Vaccines Haven't Immunized Joe Biden's Weakening Presidency

President Joe Biden's attention is on Afghanistan after the Kabul airport suicide bombings killed at least thirteen U.S. troops and scores more Afghan civilians, but he has a COVID-related headache brewing at home: Breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.

During the election campaign, Biden had trumpeted his ability not only to bring the pandemic under control but to "end" it. Biden's plan for COVID was central to his overarching message of restoring normality in America after the turbulent Trump era.

"We're in a situation where there are a thousand deaths a day now. A thousand deaths a day. And there are over 70,000 new cases per day," Biden said at the second presidential debate last October. "Folks, I will take care of this. I will end this. I will make sure we have a plan."

Now, with the Delta variant burning through the states, last year's numbers cited by Biden look awfully familiar. In fact, today's case numbers are worse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) COVID Data Tracker had as of August 25 a seven-day moving average of 142,006 new cases, more than double the figure cited by Biden before the election—and it's rising.

Moreover, the seven-day moving average for daily deaths is also climbing and hit 864 as of August 25. The actual new number of deaths that day was 1,229 at the time of writing.

To be sure, there are important caveats to that data. One is that the U.S. population is substantially more vaccinated than it was last year, in large part thanks to the Biden Administration's efforts this year.

The CDC says 73.5 percent of America's over-18 population has now had at least one dose of a vaccine. This falls to 62.8 percent when accounting for those who are fully vaccinated with two doses.

Another caveat is that while the number of deaths is similar in absolute terms, they now represent a substantially smaller portion of cases in a testament to the vaccines' effectiveness. Very few of those who are vaccinated get seriously ill or die because of COVID.

But the vaccines do not stop infection with all COVID variants and Delta in particular has shown itself to be an alarmingly resistant strain. Troubling data from Israel—which led the world in vaccinating its population—suggests that immunity is waning as variants take hold.

Israeli data cited by Science magazine said that as of 15 August, 514 Israelis were hospitalized with severe or critical COVID-19, a 31 percent rise in four days. Of these patients, 59 percent were fully vaccinated, and 87 percent of the fully vaccinated were over-60.

In the U.S., the CDC published a report this week showing that 25.3 percent of cases in Los Angeles County between May 1 and July 25, 2021 were detected in fully vaccinated people.

However, the hospitalization rate for the fully vaccinated was 3.2 percent. Just 0.5 percent ended up in intensive care and 0.2 percent required mechanical ventilation. By comparison, the respective rates for the unvaccinated were 7.6 percent, 1.5 percent, and 0.5 percent.

It is clear beyond doubt that the vaccines are highly effective at curbing the worst of COVID, substantially reducing the risk of hospitalization, serious illness, and death. Soon, Americans will be offered a third booster shot.

But the sharply rising number of breakthrough cases and daily deaths—driven by new variants and the unvaccinated—is awkward for a president who vowed to end the pandemic.

The vaccines are delivering for America medically, but not for Biden politically. The president's honeymoon is well and truly over and voters are losing their willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt amid the Afghanistan and COVID crises.

His approval rating fell below 50 percent for the first time on August 16, day 209 of his presidency, according to FiveThirtyEight's tracker, which takes a weighted average of the polls. Biden's approval rating has been in decline, and his disapproval rating rising, since late July.

This dynamic is mirrored in his approval ratings for his handling of COVID as new variants send cases skywards. On July 20, per FiveThirtyEight's tracker, Biden's average approval for his COVID response was 60.2 percent and his disapproval 32.4 percent.

As of August 25, these ratings had worsened to 53.4 percent approval and 40.9 percent disapproval.

It will be tough to walk back from a firm and clear promise to "end this" as it becomes less and less likely such a result is achievable, and also to communicate the reassuring nuances that underpin worrisome headline data.

Against a wall of resistance to getting the vaccine from a large chunk of the American population, and facing an ever-evolving virus that spawns new variants, Biden may soon have to admit defeat and, as he has with the Taliban, learn to live with the enemy.

Newsweek has asked the White House for comment.

Joe Biden wearing a face mask
U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to end the pandemic, but new variants and anti-vaccine sentiment are thwarting his efforts. Photo: Biden arrives to speak about COVID-19 vaccines in the South Court Auditorium at the White House complex on August 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images