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Politics chat: Biden faces handling another winter of the pandemic

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Here in the U.S., 60% of the people are fully vaccinated, and more than 70% - we're talking all ages here - have had at least one dose of a vaccine. That's great news and something President Biden is taking the credit for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We enter this winter from a position of strength compared to where America was last winter.

RASCOE: And yet we enter this winter without the pandemic behind us. Could that be a political problem for the president? Let's put that to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: That sound we just heard from the president was from this past Thursday in Minnesota, when he laid out his winter COVID plan - no to shutdowns, no to lockdowns, yes to vaccinations and boosters and testing. Is ruling out things like lockdowns, even before we know all we need to know about the omicron variant, a political decision? Is he just bowing to the political reality?

LIASSON: Well, he's ruling out lockdowns based on what we know now. And, of course, everything the president does is political. But right now, there is no scientific evidence yet about whether the new variant is more lethal than the previous ones. There's even some anecdotal evidence that this variant is perhaps more contagious but less lethal, which is the pattern of viruses in the past as they transform themselves over time into something like the common cold, which is also a coronavirus. So for now, the science and the politics both suggest that the best approach is no more lockdowns but, as you said, much more vaccinations, more masking on public transportation, like airplanes, which is something the president announced, and much, much more testing.

RASCOE: The unemployment rate is now 4.2%, lower than it was in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. And for reference, the April 2020 number was 14.8%. And yet Friday's economic numbers weren't all good news for the White House. Why is that?

LIASSON: Well, it was a mixed jobs report and a confusing one. Average hourly earnings were up 8 cents - that's 4.8% higher than a year ago. As you said, the unemployment rate was 4.2% - really good. It was 6.7% last December, so a big drop. But only 210,000 jobs were created. And that is less than analysts were expecting. But that's a number which usually gets the most attention, and it's the one that's often revised upwards later. It has been recently. Remember the September and October jobs numbers were revised to show 82,000 more jobs than originally reported. And this one will possibly be revised upwards, too, because, for one reason, it's just very hard to collect economic data in a pandemic. And the frustration for the White House is when those jobs numbers are revised upwards later, no one pays as much attention to the revised numbers as the original ones. I think the bottom line here is that by almost every measure, the economy is improving rapidly, but we still have inflation to contend with, and that is a real political problem for the president.

RASCOE: So then how much of this is just perception? Dana Milbank has a piece in The Washington Post in which he says he used artificial intelligence to analyze Biden's coverage. And he found that coverage of the president, according to him, has been unfairly negative.

LIASSON: Well, according to this artificial intelligence analysis that he had done on press coverage, it has been more negative at times than the equivalent time in Trump's administration. Whether it's been more unfairly negative is a political assessment. But there's no doubt the White House is frustrated. It's pushing back against a press corps which, especially when the picture is mixed, tends to accentuate the negative, accentuate conflict. It wants to show its even-handed. And one example that is being cited by the president's supporters is an AP report from January of 2018 during the Trump presidency that said the 210,000 jobs were created was very strong. Now the AP report says the 200,000 jobs created were sluggish.

RASCOE: OK, so very quickly, what are you looking out for this coming up week?

LIASSON: For headlines, I think the big story will be the video call between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, where the president says that he is going to tell Putin that he is putting together what he believes will be, quote, "the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very difficult for Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do" - translation - invade Ukraine.

RASCOE: We'll leave it there. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "NEW YEAR'S EVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.