How a Pandemic Malaise Is Shaping American Politics

In March 2020, when Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Donald J. Trump competed for the White House for the first time, American life became almost unrecognizable. A deadly virus and a public health lockdown remade daily routines with startling speed, leaving little time for the country to prepare.

Four years later, the coronavirus pandemic has largely receded from public attention and receives little discussion on the campaign trail. And yet, as the same two men run once again, Covid-19 quietly endures as a social and political force. Though diminished, the pandemic has become the background music of the presidential campaign trail, shaping how voters feel about the nation, the government and their politics.

Public confidence in institutions — the presidency, public schools, the criminal justice system, the news media, Congress — slumped in surveys in the aftermath of the pandemic and has yet to recover. The pandemic hardened voter distrust in government, a sentiment Mr. Trump and his allies are using to their advantage. Fears of political violence, even civil war, are at record highs, and rankings of the nation’s happiness at record lows. And views of the nation’s economy and confidence in the future remain bleak, even as the country has defied expectations of a recession.

“The pandemic pulled the rug from people — you were never quite as secure as you were,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We’re starting to get our grounding back. But I think it’s just hard for people to feel good again.”

High rates of office vacancies have crippled urban downtowns, adding to the sense that the country has yet to recover fully. Depression and anxiety rates remain stubbornly high, particularly among young adults. Students remain behind in math and reading, part of the continued fallout from school closures. And even positive news has been met with skepticism: F.B.I. data released this month confirmed that crime declined significantly in 2023, though polling conducted at the end of last year has shown that voters believe otherwise.

Elected officials, strategists, historians and sociologists say the lasting effects of the pandemic are visible today in the debates over inflation, education, public health, college debt, crime and trust in American democracy itself. The lingering trauma from that time, they said, is contributing to a sense of national malaise that voters express in polling and focus groups — a kind of pandemic hangover that appears to be hurting Mr. Biden and helping Mr. Trump in their presidential rematch.

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