Essential Politics: What is ‘normal’ now? COVID’s trauma continues as U.S. searches for an answer

President Biden, wearing a black mask, rolls up the sleeve of his blue shirt as a nurse gives him a COVID-19 booster shot.
President Biden gets a COVID-19 booster shot this past September.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Two years into a pandemic that has taken nearly a million lives in the U.S., COVID-19 has profoundly scarred Americans, damaging the nation’s mental and physical health as well as its economy.

That collective trauma has had a major, sometimes underestimated, effect on the country’s politics.

With the death rate from COVID-19 now having dropped to the lowest level since early August, before the wave of illness associated with the Delta variant, the pandemic no longer dominates political debate the way it did in 2020 and much of 2021. Inflation, crime and the war in Ukraine have displaced COVID on the list of top voter concerns.


But the pandemic continues to shadow the national mood. Its continued impact, along with inflation, provides a major reason that President Biden has not gotten much political mileage out of a rapid economic recovery that brought unemployment down to 3.6% in March.

Pandemic’s impact

Some of the best evidence on the continued social impact of COVID-19 comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has conducted surveys of the public throughout the pandemic.

Parents report widespread concerns, Kaiser’s latest survey found. Almost two-thirds of parents (63%) said the pandemic had hurt their children’s education. Just over half (55%) said the pandemic had harmed their children’s mental health.

But children aren’t the only ones to have been hurt. Half the adults Kaiser surveyed said the pandemic has had a negative effect on their personal mental health, and 41% reported a negative impact on their physical health.

Although COVID has been most severe for older Americans, younger adults are more likely to report an impact on their mental health, with two-thirds of those 18 to 29 reporting a negative effect, compared with just over a third of people older than 50, the survey found. That may reflect another of the poll’s findings — young adults are significantly more likely than older ones to report that the pandemic has hurt their employment.

Among all adults, one-quarter said the pandemic had harmed their employment situation. That hit 36% among those younger than 30.

Four in 10 adults said the pandemic has damaged their financial situation, ranging from 46% of those under 30 down to 37% for those older than 65.

Those problems almost certainly account for part of the decline in Biden’s approval among the young — a serious problem for Democrats, who rely on big majorities of younger voters to offset the Republican advantage among those older than 65.


The fallout from the pandemic has been toughest on people with lower incomes, many of whom have jobs that don’t allow them to work from home and who live in crowded places that don’t give much opportunity for social distancing.

Nearly 4 in 10 adults with incomes below $40,000 a year (37%) said the pandemic had hurt their employment situation. That’s more than twice the share (15%) among those with annual incomes greater than $90,000 a year.

Those continuing impacts are only part of the picture. The other part is that even as the rate of death and hospitalizations has sharply declined, most Americans have not yet felt comfortable returning to their pre-COVID normal.

A majority (59%) also say that people should continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces, to limit spread of COVID and forestall another rise in cases. By contrast, 40% said that people should stop wearing masks in most public places so life can return to normal.

The public is evenly divided on mask mandates. Asked whether the government should extend the current masking requirement for airplanes, trains and other forms of public transit, which is set to expire on April 18, 48% said they favored an extension, 52% opposed one.

But asked about voluntary activities, a significant majority said they were still observing limits. Nearly 6 in 10 American adults say they are limiting their activities, with 42% saying they have returned to some, but not all, of their pre-COVID activities, and 17% saying they are doing “very few” of the activities they did before the pandemic.


Just over a quarter of Americans (27%) say they have basically returned to normal, while 14% say they never significantly changed their activities.

As you would expect, those figures show a big variation by party: Among Republicans, a majority say they either never changed their activities (20%) or have returned to normal (35%), while 28% say they’re limiting their activities somewhat.

Among Democrats, 56% say they are limiting their activities somewhat, while 7% say they never changed their activities and 21% say they’ve basically returned to normal.

The share who say they are doing very few of their pre-COVID activities is consistent at 17% across party lines.

Black adults are especially likely to be restricting their activities, with 75% saying they were not yet back to normal, including 34% who said they have returned to very few of the activities they engaged in before COVID. The share engaging in very few activities falls to 19% among Latino adults and 14% among white adults, the survey found.

Most voters don’t judge presidents or political parties on specific policy achievements — very few of those sink into public consciousness. Instead, they judge based on how they feel about their lives — as in Ronald Reagan‘s famous question in his 1980 debate with President Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”


In 2020, Biden defeated President Trump in part on the strength of his pledge to defeat the virus and return life to normal. But normality has proved elusive for most Americans. Until that changes, Biden will continue to pay a political price.

Jackson confirmed

The Senate, voting 53-47, on Thursday confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Nolan McCaskill and David Savage reported.

Jackson, 51, becomes the first Black woman to sit on the court; she’s the sixth woman and third Black justice. The high court will now have two Black justices, three members of color and four women, all for the first time.

Three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — joined all 50 members of the Democratic caucus in voting for Jackson. Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the historic vote.

Biden plans to celebrate Jackson’s confirmation with an event Friday on the South Lawn of the White House at which the newly confirmed Justice Jackson will speak, Eli Stokols and Courtney Subramanian reported.

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United States of California

A man on an electric scooter zips by a boarded up building
Hank Coca’s Downtown Furniture slated for redevelopment in San Jose.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

In the penultimate installment of his series of stories on the impact that California and Californians are having on public policy in the U.S., Evan Halper examined the problematic impact of Opportunity Zones and the role that Sean Parker, founder of Napster and first president of Facebook, had in pushing Congress to adopt them.

The idea of the zones was to steer investment to low-income areas by giving large tax breaks to investors who put money in them. But the legislation, passed under Trump, was written so broadly that many wealthy areas can qualify, and a big share of the money has gone into them.

“This has been perverted into a huge gift for people who did not need it,” Aaron Seybert, managing director of social investment at the Kresge Foundation, told Halper.

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The red-blue divide on abortion

America’s Democratic-majority and Republican-majority states are increasingly moving in opposite directions on policy, and some of the most striking differences involve abortion.

Antiabortion lawmakers expect that the Supreme Court this year will give states the authority to once again ban the procedure, and they are racing ahead to get laws on the books.

In several cases, those laws have no exception for rape, as Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, breaking a long-standing consensus that abortions should be legal in those cases. In Arizona, the governor recently signed a ban on abortions after the 15th week of a pregnancy without rape or incest exceptions, although it is not yet in effect. Similar 15-week bans without the exceptions are awaiting the governor’s signature in Florida and Kentucky. Oklahoma’s Legislature this week approved an almost total ban on abortion except for medical emergencies. It has not yet been signed by the governor. Ten states have passed such bans in recent years, but most have been blocked by courts. That could be about to change.

Official Washington’s COVID outbreak

Washington has been going through a mini-outbreak of COVID-19 among prominent elected officials and other public figures. Democratic lawmakers stopped routinely wearing masks on March 1, for Biden’s State of the Union speech; most Republicans had stopped earlier. Since then, positive tests have begun to trickle out, and this week, the trickle turned into a flood.

On Thursday, as Jennifer Haberkorn reported, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tested positive; her staff said she had no symptoms and that she had postponed a planned trip to Asia.

Pelosi stood near Biden at a bill signing event on Wednesday. The White House said that the encounter was not considered a “close contact.” Biden tested negative on Wednesday. Sen. Collins also tested positive, she announced just hours after casting her vote to confirm Judge Jackson.


Vice President Kamala Harris’ communications director, Jamal Simmons, tested positive on Wednesday, the second close contact of the vice president to become infected in less than a month, Noah Bierman reported. Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, tested positive last month. Harris’ office did not announce test results for the vice president, who received her second booster shot on April 1, but she continued with a full schedule of public events on Thursday, a strong indication that she has not tested positive.

Simmons was one of at least three dozen officials and journalists who tested positive after attending the annual white-tie Gridiron Dinner, which drew about 640 people to a hotel ballroom in Washington on Saturday night. Among the attendees testing positive were Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who spoke at the dinner, Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, and Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).

Pelosi and Collins did not attend the dinner.

The latest from the campaign trail

Sarah Palin announced recently that she’ll run for Congress from Alaska, seeking to fill the vacancy left by the death of Rep. Don Young, who represented the state for 49 years. As the state’s former governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Palin has a lot of name recognition, but as Mark Barabak wrote, she may have trouble getting through the state’s new “top four” voting process.

The latest from Washington

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is spending hours on the telephone with leaders of strategically important countries whose reluctance to join the campaign against Russia has most perturbed the administration, Tracy Wilkinson reported. Among this group are strong U.S. allies like India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

As consumers fume over skyrocketing prices for gasoline and other commodities, congressional Democrats held a hearing to question executives from big oil companies about why they appear to be making unseemly profits during an international crisis. As Don Lee reported, the House hearing was in part a response to Republicans’ campaign to blame Democrats for inflation, now running at a 40-year high and rising.

The administration on Wednesday imposed a fresh round of sanctions on two Russian banks and wealthy individuals, including President Vladimir Putin’s daughters, after revelations of atrocities in Ukraine. As Courtney Subramanian reported, the package, which was coordinated with the European Union and Group of 7, stiffens sanctions on state-owned Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, and on Alfa Bank, the nation’s largest private bank.

The House approved more than $40 billion in COVID-19 assistance for restaurant owners who tried but failed last year to receive help from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which quickly ran out of money. As Anumita Kaur reported, prospects for the legislation in the Senate are unclear.


The latest from California

Rick Caruso has lent his campaign $10 million as of this week, using the money for a barrage of advertising that has upended the race for mayor, Julia Wick and David Zahniser reported.

In 1978, Gwenn Craig helped lead the fight against Proposition 6, a California ballot measure that would have banned gays and lesbians from working in public schools. It’s defeat was one of the first major electoral victories for the gay rights movement. Today, Mark Barabak writes, events, if not exactly repeating, are traveling full circle and landing with blunt force. “There’s a significant portion of the country that just wants to turn back the clock,” Craig said.

Los Angeles City Hall will reopen on May 4 after being closed to the public for more than two years, Dakota Smith reported. Visitors will be required to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative test within the previous 72 hours to enter the building, officials said. Masks will be also required.

Voters in parts of Fresno and Tulare counties held a special election Tuesday — the first round of a contest to fill the final seven months of former Rep. Devin Nunes congressional term. Which two candidates will go to a June runoff may not be known for several days because of mail-in ballots, Seema Mehta and Priscella Vega reported. Nunes resigned on Jan. 1 to take over Trump’s social media company. The current, heavily Republican, congressional district will disappear after this year because of redistricting, so whoever wins the runoff likely won’t have a long tenure. Connie Conway, 71, a Republican and former legislative leader, has gotten enough votes to be sure of making the runoff. Three other candidates remain in the running to oppose her.

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