'This Week' Transcript 1-23-22: Sen. Chris Coons, Sen. Joni Ernst & Dr. Anthony Fauci

This is a rush transcript of "This Week" airing Sunday, January 23.

ByABC News
January 23, 2022, 9:47 AM

A rush transcript of "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" airing on Sunday, January 23, 2022 on ABC News is below. This copy may not be in its final form, may be updated and may contain minor transcription errors. For previous show transcripts, visit the "This Week" transcript archive.

ANNOUNCER: "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" starts right now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC "THIS WEEK" CO-ANCHOR (voice-over): Reset.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did not anticipate that there will be such a stalwart effort to make sure that President Biden didn't get anything done.

RADDATZ: At the start of his second year in office, President Biden adjusts course, major setbacks compromising his domestic agenda, amidst a growing showdown with Russia.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We will continue building a very strong, united response to any renewed Russian aggression.

RADDATZ: How will the U.S. respond, and what does it mean for American security? Senator Chris Coons and Senator Joni Ernst join us this morning.

Signs of hope.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY (D-NJ): But it certainly looks like we have begun to turn the corner here.

RADDATZ: Omicron cases on the decline, as major cities pass their peak. Dr. Anthony Fauci is here with the very latest.

Counting the vote.

BIDEN: Oh, yes, I think it could easily be illegitimate.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He was not intending to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

RADDATZ: Voting rights legislation fails, putting election integrity under scrutiny. And we travel to Harris County, Texas, where they're preparing for a primary election that's just weeks away.

(on camera): It's harder for people to vote now.

ISABEL LONGORIA, ELECTIONS ADMINISTRATOR, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: The canary in the coal mine right now is the mail ballot voters.

RADDATZ (voice-over): What can we expect heading into midterms? Our powerhouse roundtable weighs in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, it's "This Week."

Here now, co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

RADDATZ: Good morning, and welcome to "This Week."

As we enter year two of the Biden presidency, the White House is attempting a hard reset after a challenging 12 months in office. In his press conference Wednesday, President Biden touted his early legislative accomplishments, while facing a barrage of questions about his inability to follow through on key promises, like defeating the pandemic and rebuilding the economy.

And, on Ukraine, the president set off a firestorm, suggesting a minor incursion by the Russians would not prompt significant consequences, the White House later clarifying the remarks.

So, with his approval rating at the lowest of his presidency, a shift in strategy. Biden plans to hit the road, speaking directly to Americans ahead of critical midterm elections. It comes after Democrats failed to pass a signature voting rights law amid an unprecedented wave of new restrictions across 19 states, making it harder for Americans to vote.

This morning, we look at the very first test of that in Texas. With a primary election just weeks away, already hundreds of voters have had their ballot applications rejected, alarming some election officials as voting day nears.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PROTESTERS: The people united will never be divided!

RADDATZ (voice-over): As the fight over voting rights plays out across the country, one of the fiercest battles is raging right here in Texas.

(on camera): This is the election warehouse in Harris County, Texas, just outside Houston, where they are already raising the red flag to voters with a primary election just weeks away.

LONGORIA: I will work 24/7. I have been sleeping at the warehouse to make sure we meet our deadlines.

RADDATZ (voice-over): Isabel Longoria is the official tasked with running every election in Harris County, the largest in Texas. And while preparations for the primary are still under way, she says there are already troubling signs.

LONGORIA: We are now having to flag for rejection and outright reject more mail-in ballot applications than we ever have in the past.

RADDATZ: In some of the state's biggest counties, more than one-fourth requests submitted so far are being rejected. One reason? For the first time, voters are required to submit their Social Security number or Texas driver's license number. And it has to be the same form of I.D. they used when they first registered.

LONGORIA: We have been told for years, you, me, everyone, don't put sensitive information on things you have to mail out.

RADDATZ (on camera): Do you think it affects both parties?

LONGORIA: I'm a nonpartisan election official, and so, absolutely. What we're seeing is both parties affected, all voters affected. This isn't a partisan issue.

RADDATZ (voice-over): But it is a partisan debate.

During the 2020 election cycle, amid some of the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, Harris County expanded access to the ballot box, creating drive-through voting and opening 24-hour polling places. Both are now illegal.

Republicans say those changes were only meant to be a temporary response to the COVID health crisis and that the new law will boost election security. But Democrats, like Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who oversees the local government, says it's suppression.

JUDGE LINA HIDALGO, (D) HARRIS COUNTY, TX: The folks that fail to turn out are generally the communities of color, working people. You know, people for whom climbing over these obstacles is no small feat. And so I think that the folks that have passed the laws that led us to where we are today know that.

RADDATZ (ON CAMERA): What would you say to those people who say, look, what's the matter with asking for an I.D.? It's long overdue.

HIDALGO: The challenge with everything that's going on is it undermines trust in our electoral system.

RADDATZ (VOICE OVER): But the Texas Secretary of State's office says the law will actually give voters more opportunities to cast their ballot.

SAM TAYLOR, TEXAS ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE FOR COMMUNICATIONS: The new SB1 expands the minimum number of hours that early voting locations have to be open. Every time there's changes in the law, whether it's, you know, identification requirements, new requirements for mail-in ballots, it takes some time for voters to get used to.

RADDATZ (VOICE OVER): And with precious little time left until the primary, organizers like Annie Benifield are taking every opportunity to reach potential voters.

ANNNIE BENIFIELD, PRESIDENT, LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF HOUSTON: We're informing people to put all the information you can on there, put an email address, your telephone number, you put your Social Security number, driver's license number, put everything so just in case you cover all bases.

RADDATZ (VOICE OVER): Still even some of the most dedicated applicants are in danger of falling through the cracks.

PAM GASKIN, REJECTED ABSENTEE VOTER: I got this letter in the mail that says that my ballot by-mail application was rejected.

RADDATZ (ON CAMERA): Let me see. So it says, I received and reviewed your application. Through no fault of yours, I’ve determined that your application is defective. This is pretty hard to understand though, isn't it?

GASKIN: Yes.

RADDATZ (VOICE OVER): Gaskin reapplied but Longoria worries many won't.

ISABEL LONGORIA, ELECTIONS ADMINISTRATOR, HARRIS COUNTY, TX: That's a vote we never get to count on their behalf and that, ultimately, is elections and results that could be affected. This is the canary in the coal mine saying, there's a big fire here and there's an even bigger one coming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RADDATZ (ON CAMERA): And joining me now to respond to that is Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of President Biden. Good morning, Senator.

You know, those voters in Texas can resubmit the ballot applications but you heard the election official saying, this is a canary in the coal mine for the midterms. How concerned are you?

SEN. CHRIS COONS, (D-DE) FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I'm gravely concerned, Martha. We're seeing laws like SB1 in Texas passed in a dozen states across the country that are clearly designed to accomplish voter suppression.

There are legitimate concerns about making sure there isn't widespread voter fraud. There isn't. We've investigated it repeatedly in the Congress and under that veil that somehow requiring people to remember exactly what form of I.D. they used to register years ago, mail-in ballot requests can be invalidated as your reporting just showed in Harris County, Texas.

I'm concerned that similar tricks and moves are being used at the local level to suppress the vote and to make it harder for working people, for seniors, for those who are medically vulnerable during a pandemic to vote.

RADDATZ: You know, neither Senator Kyrsten Sinema nor Senator Joe Manchin supported changing the Senate filibuster rules to get voting rights passed nationally. Now the Arizona Democratic Party has censured Senator Sinema over this. Is that really appropriate? Is that helpful?

COONS: Well, Martha, what I hope your viewers get about what happened this last week in the Senate is that all 50 Democrats, including Senators Manchin and Sinema, voted for the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act and for the Freedom to Vote Act, which would tackle this problem of voter suppression and voter subversion around the country. And none of the 50 Republicans in the Senate joined us.

There are frustrations, of course, in the Democratic Party across the country, but the right to vote is foundational. It's not just foundational in the Democratic Party, it's one of the foundations of our democracy. We're going to keep trying. We're going to keep working at it. This was an important fight for us to show that sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans this last week on the floor of the Senate but, more importantly, we need to keep working to make sure that every American can vote and vote safely and vote securely.

RADDATZ: Have you really seen evidence of suppression? As I said in Harris County, for instance, they can resubmit that application.

COONS: Absolutely. We've seen abundant evidence that there are laws being passed that roll back things like ballot drop boxes, drive-through voting, 24-hour early voting, restricting access to the ballot box, particularly for those who in an ongoing pandemic are medically vulnerable, those who are essential workers -- we made significant progress in making it easier for folks to vote in the pandemic in 2020. Why would we be rolling that back in a dozen states when the pandemic isn't over? And why would be -- why would we be erecting new barriers for people to be able to vote?

We've seen cleverly crafted laws that will do things like automatically remove people from the voting rolls or make it harder for them to apply for mail-in ballots that I believe are designed to suppress the vote.

RADDATZ: And, Senator Coons, I want to turn to President Biden.

Democrats have been united against former President Trump's efforts to cast doubt on the last election. But in his press conference, President Biden cast some doubt of his own about the next one.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It all depends on whether or not we're able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RADDATZ: He tried to walk that back. But was the damage done?

COONS: Well, Martha, what you're hearing there is President Biden's passionate commitment to making sure that we are pushing back on voter suppression and that we secure access to the ballot for as many Americans as is possible. That's something I’m also passionately committed to and we need to make it clear to the American people what's at stake here and why we're fighting so hard to secure the right to vote.

RADDATZ: And, Senator Coons, you are a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. I want to turn to Russia and Ukraine.

The State Department is preparing to approve the evacuation of some U.S. diplomats and their families.

How likely do you think this morning as we sit here an invasion is likely?

COONS: Well, the most important thing that President Biden has been doing is to deter Putin from invading Ukraine. He has pulled together our NATO allies. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, he's invested time and effort in rebuilding our European partnerships, our North Atlantic Alliance.

Six hundred and fifty million dollars in military assistance was delivered to Ukraine in the past year and, just this week, another $200 million in ammunition and small arms and javelin missiles and stinger missiles are being delivered. And our close NATO allies like the United Kingdom, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, are delivering materiel as well.

I think our work in the Senate and President Biden's work to strengthen deterrence is what is hopefully going to succeed. But I’m gravely concerned that Putin will show once again aggression in Europe and cross the boundary into Ukraine in the coming days or weeks.

RADDATZ: And, Senator Coons, you sponsored legislation supported by the White House to impose those crippling sanctions if Russia invades. My next guest, Senator Joni Ernst, said sanctions should come now.

Why not now?

COONS: I do think we should take up and pass a bipartisan bill that will show, resolve and determination and apply some sanctions now. But the very strongest sanctions, the sorts of sanctions that we use to bring Iran to the table is something that we should hold out as a deterrent to prevent Putin from taking the last step of invading Ukraine.

RADDATZ: And, Senator Coons, just quickly, if you will, there is a report out that British intelligence believes that the Russians plan to oust Ukraine's President Zelensky and install a pro-Moscow government. What do you know about that?

COONS: Well, I’ve also heard those press reports.

You know, one of the things that we are doing to show resolve and bipartisan determination is engagement with Zelensky to support him. Twenty members of the Senate and the House, Democrats and Republicans, spent two hours on a Zoom call with Zelensky on Christmas Eve and a bipartisan group just went to Kyiv to meet with him in Ukraine this past week.

I think it's important that we continue to show support for the duly elected leadership of Ukraine and that the United Kingdom and the United States that our intelligence communities call out in advance things that we are learning Russia is planning to make it clear to the rest of Europe just how aggressive and just how creative Putin intends to be in both overt and covert means in trying to overthrow Ukraine’s government, its independence and to violate its sovereignty.

RADDATZ: OK. Thanks very much for joining us this morning, Senator.

Let's get a response from Senator Joni Ernst, vice chair of the Senate GOP conference and a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Good morning, Senator Ernst.

What's the likelihood you see of a Russian invasion at this point, and why should Americans be worried about that?

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): Well, we need to be strong as America. And what we see with Russia amassing troops and equipment at the Ukrainian border is indicative of some sort of action. What that will transpire into is yet to be seen.

But what we can say is that we need to be very aggressive in pushing back against President Putin, whether that's in the form of sanctions, expulsion from the Swiss banking system certainly, sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, all of these actions need to be put in place, as well as continuing to equip our Ukrainian friends with not only defensive capabilities but also offensive weapons, just as Senator Coons had said.

A number of these things have been discussed for months now. And this administration is only just acting on the suggestions that are coming from Congress. We simply need to -- to let Putin know that the United States stands with our Ukrainian friends.

RADDATZ: And what happens if they do invade, if the Russians invade? The sanctions are put in place. What does Putin do next? He hasn't ruled out missiles to Cuba, Venezuela. Should a NATO military response be on the table if Russia invades?

ERNST: Well, first things first, and let's not put the cart ahead of the horse. We want to make sure that an invasion doesn't happen. And that's why I think diplomacy is very important at this point. But also showing a strong resolve from the United States of America. So far, with this administration, we have seen a doctrine of appeasement. And that certainly is not going to deter President Putin and Russia from invading Ukraine. So, let's make sure that we are pushing back right now with stiff sanctions, making sure that we are showing Putin we do mean business, but also making those preparations to pull out Americans that are in the most vulnerable area of Ukraine, which is that eastern part of Ukraine, the Donbas region. Let's make sure they are prepared to move out if necessary.

RADDATZ: And, Senator, I want to go back to my first question. It may be obvious to some, but I would like you to say why -- why is this important to your constituents, to Americans?

ERNST: Well, number one, we do need to fight for democracy. And understanding that Putin's goal is to retain some of what he had during the Soviet era, that power and control, to expand his reaches across Europe. We know that if he's able to go into Ukraine, and there's very little pushback from the United States or from NATO, it allows him to move into other countries in eastern Europe. And we know that when -- when Soviet Union expands, as -- as he wants to see it, it's, you know, a new form of the Soviet Union, as it expands, democracy will constrict. It is important that we step up for our allies in Europe.

When democracy is stable, that means our troops, our citizens are much more safe. So, this is a concern to our constituents. We need to make sure that democracy is prevailing around the globe and that socialism, communism, the old Soviet Union is not regaining territory.

RADDATZ: And, Senator, I want to move to voting rights. You heard that piece. I went down to Texas. You heard what the non-partisan election official said, this is a canary in the coal mine for the midterms.

Do you agree with that?

ERNST: Well, every state will put in place its own voting systems. Their election systems. That is a state's right. We should not be federalizing our election system, as the Democrats had attempted to do.

I am an expert when it comes to Iowa elections. I did serve as a commissioner of elections. And I can tell you, even Iowa has been targeted by the left because they have changed their voter laws. But I will also say that even with those changes in our law, our voting election systems are much more liberal than President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware, as well as Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's home state of New York.

So, I think we need to look at the systems as a whole and support our voters.

RADDATZ: Let's talk about Iowa. Let's talk about Iowa.

ERNST: Yes, absolutely.

RADDATZ: Let's talk about Iowa and you state.

ERNST: You bet.

RADDATZ: According to the Brennan Center, when enacted laws -- at the 19 states which enacted laws that make it harder to vote, in Iowa that includes significantly shortening the early voting period and closing voting sites an hour earlier.

How do those changes make voting any more secure?

ERNST: Well, it is the same level of security.

What I would say is we still have three weeks of early voting before our Elections Day, which is far more liberal than the state of New York. So, I would love to see the Brennan Center actually focus on New York. I think they only have 15 days of early voting.

So it's still three weeks to go in and vote.

RADDATZ: But why shorten what you already had?

ERNST: Because, when you do that, you are manning election centers. And in rural communities like mine where it really does make sense, simply local governments can't afford to step out there and continue to man as they would during a smaller election season.

But, Martha, I will push back. Our -- our right to vote is important, and individuals need to know and understand what those time frames are. So shortening it by seven days, five days, whatever it was, and allowing for that three weeks, it is still three weeks prior to an election, Martha, and so I would encourage all of those voters to get out.

But, again, my point is that we have Democrats that are targeting red states like Iowa again, when our voter policies are far more liberal than blue states' voting systems. So the emphasis seems to be on red states, but not where there's actually the most restricting voting rules. So let's turn our attention to those states and make sure that those voters have the access necessary.

I would also say, since we have put a number of the voting laws into place over the last several years -- voter ID is one of those -- we've actually seen voter participation increase, even in off-election years.

So I think it's a false premise that the Democrats are promoting out there that this is restricting access. Because, in Iowa, we've only seen voters get out in higher numbers to participate in their very safe elections.

RADDATZ: OK, but we have the midterms ahead of us. But thank you very much for joining us this morning, Senator Ernst.

Up next, while the U.K. investigates a new Omicron subvariant, cases are peaking in many states here at home. Is the U.S. approaching a turning point in the pandemic?

Dr. Anthony Fauci joins us live.

ANNOUNCER: "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," sponsored by Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NIAID: It's not going to be uniform throughout the country because we have different dynamics in different regions of the country. But I would imagine, as we get into February, into the middle of February, first few weeks of February, it is very likely that most of the states in the country will have turned around with their peak and are starting to come down with regard to cases and then, obviously, hospitalizations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RADDATZ: An optimistic note there about the Omicron surge, as cases begin to fall nationally, offering a glimmer of hope that the highly infectious variant is beginning to recede.

But with the country still averaging more than 700,000 new cases per day, what do the next few weeks hold?

Joining us now live to discuss is the president's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

It's good to see you again, Dr. Fauci.

Really encouraging news in some places. New York, Chicago, here in D.C. may have reached their peak or just about to reach their peak. But you said there that, by mid-February, most states may reach a peak. Are you still confident about that?

FAUCI: You know, I think as confident as you can be. You never want to be overconfident when you're dealing with this virus, Martha, because it has certainly surprised us in the past.

But, if you look at the patterns that we have seen in South Africa, in the U.K., and in Israel, and that, as you mentioned just a moment ago, in the Northeast and New England and Upper Midwest states, they have peaked and starting to come down rather sharply -- there are still some states in the Southern states and Western states that continue to go up.

But if the pattern follows the trend that we're seeing in other places, such as the Northeast, I believe that you will start to see a turnaround throughout the entire country. Since it's a large country and a great deal of variation in the degree of vaccinations that we have in one region compared to another, ultimately, they're all going to go in the same direction.

There may be a bit more pain and suffering with hospitalizations in those areas of the country that have not been fully vaccinated or have not gotten boosters. But we do know -- and that -- these are the recent data that have come out from the CDC -- that, even with Omicron, boosting makes a major, major difference in protecting you from hospitalization and severe outcomes.

So things are looking good. We don't want to get overconfident. But they look like they're going in the right direction right now.

RADDATZ: But then what should life look like? How do we stop going from surge to surge, from peak to peak, from variant to variant? What's the long-term strategy here?

FAUCI: Well, the long-term strategy, we hope, Martha ,is that we will get to the point, particularly now with the turnaround of Omicron, which fundamentally looks like it is, on a case-by-case basis, less virulent, in the sense of causing severe disease -- it's by no means exempt from making people sick and putting them into the hospital, particularly those who are not vaccinated.

However, what we would hope that, as we get into the next weeks to month or so, we will see throughout the entire country the level of infection get to below what I call that area of control.

And there's a big bracket of control. Control means you're not eliminating it, you're not eradicating it, but it gets down to such a low level that it's essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with.

I mean, we would like them not to be present, but they're there. But they don't disrupt society. They don't create a fear of severe outcomes that are broad. You will always get some severe outcomes with respiratory infections. Even in a good pre-COVID era, you have always had that. We'd like it to get down to that level where it doesn't disrupt us, in the sense of getting back to a degree of normality.

That's the best-case scenario. We have got to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but we have to be prepared, which is, I think, what you were alluding to a moment ago, that we get yet again another variant that has characteristics that would be problematic, like a high degree of transmissibility or a high degree of virulence.

But, again, the more people that we get vaccinated, the more people we get boosted, the supplies of therapies, which are going to be really important in preventing people from progressing to advanced disease, we're stocking up on that, getting many, many more tests, in the form of what we have been talking about over the last week, a half-a-billion tests coming out now and another half-a-billion very soon thereafter.

If we have those things in place, vaccine, testing, masks, therapy, we could keep it at that low level. That would be the best-case scenario.

RADDATZ: Let's talk about the vaccines and the boosters.

You have talked about how effective especially the boosters are, risk of severe illness reduced by as much as 94 percent with Delta, 84 percent with Omicron.

What about the next booster shot? For a substantial part of the population, they're now moving into the fifth month of their booster. So does it lose its effectiveness and how soon should they get another one if that's your advice?

FAUCI: Well, the answer, Martha, honestly, is we don't know because we don't know the durability of protection from the third shot boost of an mRNA and the second shot boost of a J&J.

Certainly, you are going to see the antibody levels go down. That's natural, but there's an element of the immune response, B cell memory and T cell responses, where even though you do see a diminution of antibody levels, it is quite conceivable -- and I hope it's true -- that the third shot boost will give a much greater durability of protection. We're following that very carefully.

And when I say protection, Martha, I mean protection against severe disease. You are going to see breakthrough infections as we've seen now, even in boosted people, but for the very most part, they're mild or even asymptomatic.

That's where we would like to be is to have that where you don't have to get more and more, always, every six months with a booster. We may need to boost again. That's entirely conceivable, but before we make that decision about yet again another boost, we want to determine clearly what the durability of protection is of that regular boost, that third shot that we're talking about.

RADDATZ: And, Dr. Fauci, just quickly I want to talk about children. Nearly 1 million children tested positive for COVID last week, over 28 million eligible children are not vaccinated. There are some schools who are removing the mask mandate and leaving that up to parents.

Are those kids safe? Is it safe to send your kids back to school without masks?

FAUCI: Well, Martha, as we know, the CDC strongly recommends that when you're in a situation in the school we want to get the children back to school. And the way you do that, you do it by multiple things that you do. You surround the children with people who are vaccinated. For the children who are eligible to be vaccinated get them vaccinated, and providing the school masks where you can have children protected, as well as ventilation to make sure that you can get a respiratory infection at its lowest level of infectivity. All of those things go together and masking is a part of that.

RADDATZ: OK. So good to see you this morning, Dr. Fauci. Thanks for joining us.

As we mentioned, omicron may be receding but its effect on President Biden's standing with the public may have long lasting implications.

We asked FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver what it could mean as the midterm election season gets under way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NATE SILVER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: If you have to sum up Joe Biden's problem in a nutshell, it's this -- he promised a return to normal and we haven't really gotten one yet.

The biggest part of that is COVID, especially in the wake of the omicron variant. In the most recent Ipsos poll, 52 percent of Americans said either they never expected to return to pre-COVID normal or that it will take more than a year. That's actually the most pessimistic that Americans have been at any point in the pandemic.

It also may be why in a new poll this week, 36 percent of voters say Biden has done a worse job of being president than they expected, as to just 5 percent who say he's done better.

Meanwhile, Biden's overall approval rating, which initially declined late this summer as the delta variant surged, has now fallen to 42 percent. In the FiveThirtyEight average, the lowest of his presidency so far.

But there is a potential silver lining here for Biden and the Democrats. Early indications are that omicron will come and go pretty quickly. Scientists initially observed this in South Africa. It took only about three weeks when the WHO first named the omicron variant on November 26th, the highest day of cases on December 12.

And we're also seeing this in New York City where cases have already fallen by well more than 50 percent from their peak just two weeks ago.

Now, I won't predict what comes next after omicron. Still, Americans are so pessimistic about COVID now that if you're playing the odds, the situation is more likely than not to improve.

So while I think Democrats are in plenty of trouble for the midterms, I don't buy that omicron necessarily dooms them. It may provide an exit strategy from the acute phase of the pandemic to a more endemic one, where life is more normal again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RADDATZ: We'll hope for that. Our thanks to Nate.

Coming up, the roundtable looks ahead to year two of the Biden presidency and whether the Russians can be stopped. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RADDATZ: President Biden's inaugural address just over a year ago, and what a difference a year makes.

Let's talk about this with our roundtable.

Former DNC chair Donna Brazile; Sarah Isgur, a veteran of the Trump Justice Department, now an ABC news analyst; Michel Martin, weekend host of NPR's 'All Things Considered,' and David Sanger, New York Times White House and national security correspondent.

RADDATZ: Welcome to all of you.

And, Donna, I want to -- I want to start with you: unity, unity, unity. That is what Joe Biden talked about in his inaugural address just over a year ago. That is not what he has gotten. And this week it's clear he's changing course.

DONNA BRAZILE, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: There's no question that what the president called for last year is something that we should all aspire to. We want to be a united country, especially now, given the threats that we see abroad.

He also said that he wanted to reach out. He has tried and, of course, we got -- the result is the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But this is an opportunity for all Americans to really rally behind the president as we try to get this virus under control, keep this economy growing, keep our schools re-opened.

Look, I think the president has a lot to brag about. And, yes, I say "brag," because for the first time in my lifetime, we have a president who is going to eliminate lead pipes, a president that is going to ensure that every child gets a head start and a healthy start. But while we're not celebrating all of his successes, we are basically focused on the next election. And we know that that's 289 days away.

So I give him high marks for the first year. He hasn't accomplished everything he wanted to, but by the way he's only in the first year of a four-year term. So this is going to be a key year for President Biden.

RADDATZ: It is, indeed.

And, Sarah, he said in his press conference that he did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important things, that President Biden didn't get anything done. How do you see it?

SARAH ISGUR, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think what donna said is -- it just doesn't fit with reality. You had the president also say a week ago in Atlanta, I mean, just haranguing Republicans as standing in the way of voting rights, and then at his press conference acknowledging he had never called a single Republican. He hadn't reached out to Mitt Romney.

And so the idea that he was going to try to unify the country without ever speaking to Republicans, it boggles the mind. And so instead you see a president who is ignoring the things that Americans care about. You know, poll after poll, is Biden focused on the things that are most important to you, which are clearly the economy, inflation, the pandemic.

And the answer is no. They think he is more focused on partisan Democratic talking points like the voting rights legislation that he was pursuing. If you're not going to reach out to Republicans, then the only thing you were trying to do was, A, have a campaign talking point heading into 2022, or, B, use it as a stalking horse to get rid of the filibuster, both, you know, perhaps things that people support, but don't then say you're there for voting rights. Clearly, you weren't.

RADDATZ: And, Michel, you know, he did give himself a pat on the back. Donna -- Donna did, too, there, in the press conference, about what he's done. But that does not seem to be translating in the polls, lower than they have been before.

MICHEL MARTIN, NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED HOST: Well, no, no, it isn't at the moment. But I go back to the Reagan administration. I mean, I go back to Ronald Reagan, who came in on a high. I mean, I think Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan have some similarities, in the sense that they are both confronting some difficult economic conditions. I think that there is, sort of, regard for them personally as people who have the interests of the country on the whole at heart, even if everyone doesn't agree with their methods of achieving that.

It is true that this, the current president, is in a very different media environment than Ronald Reagan confronted, but I also remember that, you know, Ronald Reagan's approval ratings -- of course, there was the terrible incident, you know, where he was shot in his first term, which, of course, sent the country into, as you would expect, a sort of a collective concern for his well-being. But his approval ratings were in the 40s in his second year in office, which is something that I think people forget.

And, yes, his party did take a drubbing at the midterms, but his approval ratings recovered because, as people saw that he was addressing their core concerns like the economy, then it recovered, and as, of course, the country achieved some level of stability. But it was a very polarizing presidency. And I predict that this one will continue to be as well.

I mean, the infrastructure built was a significant achievement. That is a fact. It is something that the prior president promised and never achieved and never, apparently, made any significant effort toward achieving. So that is an accomplishment.

The voting rights bill is important. It is important to people who see their access to the ballot being curtailed. I mean, and the fact that Republicans continue -- Republicans and the people who support their point of view on this continue to point to the massive turnout in 2020 ignores the fact that Republican-led states have been aggressively litigating in this area, aggressively legislating in this area, for the entire year, throughout 2020 and continuing into the 2021 legislative session.

And so the circumstances under which people will vote in this year are going to be different in a number of states. I mean, 19 states have passed, like, some, what, 400 different pieces of legislation.

So, it's -- the circumstances are different. People are concerned about this. They don't need Joe Biden to tell them to be concerned about it, just because they are concerned. And I think the tell here is that there is no factual basis for these bills, which makes them not conservative.

I mean, it seemed to be a core conservative principle was, if it isn't broke, don't fix it. Well, what -- then these legislators are legislating based on feelings, because there is no factual basis for it. Even the people who support them say and will assert that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

It's become more rare because there is so -- it's so difficult to accomplish. So what is the factual basis upon which these laws are being passed?

It's -- is it feelings? Is it the feeling that Republican officeholders might not win? Is it the feelings that have been stoked among Republican voters that they're not getting a fair shake?

So, these are real things. And they don't really...

RADDATZ: Lots of real things, Michel.

MARTIN: Voters who...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: ... these views don't need people to tell them to feel that way.

RADDATZ: And I want to pull David in here.

And Sarah brought up a point. One of the problems for Biden is that the issues in this country, inflation, the pandemic, affect everybody every single day. So, how do you look at this?

SANGER: They do.

And it was interesting that, in that same inaugural speech and throughout the first year, Biden said that America's strength around the world depends largely on its strength at home. And I think, when people look around the world at the United States today, they see a country that is divided. They see a country that's worried about inflation.

They see a country that has such partisanship that the president's having a hard time getting his own agenda through, not only because of his disagreements with Republicans, but because of divisions within the Democratic Party itself.

And so I think that's part of the reason he's having a hard time right now simultaneously juggling a huge agenda at home, one that is critical to his reelection and to the Democrats' future, and the reemergence of superpower conflict around the world.

It's interesting that one of the few things that has actually managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together has been a common understanding of the competition with China. And I think that, while the president made a good start in that, he still hasn't gotten through the key piece of legislation, which did pass in a bipartisan way in the Senate, that would basically create an industrial policy in the United States to begin to rebuild in those technologies where China has made the greatest efforts forward.

And I suspect...

RADDATZ: David, I want to -- you're...

(CROSSTALK)

SANGER: ... in his press conference, that that was his moment.

RADDATZ: And, David, you brought up foreign affairs.

So I'm going to -- I'm going to turn now and get back to politics in a second, but I want you to talk about Ukraine. I want you to talk about these reports that Zelensky would be overthrown by a pro-Russian candidate, not really a candidate, just somebody the Russians wanted to put in there.

What are you hearing? And what effect did President Biden's comments about minor incursion have?

SANGER: Well, I think ,to take your last question first, Martha, his statement at the press conference that the U.S. and its allies might not put full sanctions in for a minor incursion led to such a reaction in Ukraine and in Europe that it's actually hardened the government's position, the U.S. government's position now.

And you have heard that in recent days, as Secretary Blinken has said that, if even one Russian soldier goes over the border in an aggressive way, that could trigger all of this.

But I think what that gets at is the larger question of, what do we think the Russians are doing here? And I think the answer is pretty simple, that Putin really does see this as the moment to extend the sphere of influence that Russia has back to something more approaching what the Soviet Union had, but certainly prior to 1997, when NATO began to expand.

And he sees Ukraine as the right target, because it's not a NATO member. And he knows one thing. The United States and NATO are not going to put its own military forces into this fight. So, then it becomes a question of whether he thinks he really can tolerate the sanctions that the U.S. is threatening, that Europe is threatening, whether he can get through all of the international condemnation.

And, basically, what you are seeing happen right now is the U.S. in a giant mind game with Putin, in which they're saying, yes, you could run through Ukraine, but the cost will be so high that it will destabilize you at home.

(CROSSTALK)

RADDATZ: OK, David, I'm going to have to stop you there.

We're going to -- we’re going to come back momentarily for more.

The roundtable returns in a moment to discuss the Supreme Court's latest refusal to block Texas' six-week abortion ban.

Stay with us.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They don't often get applauded for standing for life. So let's do that one more time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RADDATZ: Anti-abortion protesters at the March for Life rally in D.C. yesterday.

Back now with more of the roundtable.

Donna, I want to -- I want to go back to you on this. We saw thousands come to D.C. over the weekend. Is this year Roe versus Wade, is this the year Roe versus Wade gets dismantled?

BRAZILE: Well, 49 years after the court ruled that a pregnant woman had the right to choose, we may be at the end of Roe v. Wade. But it will not be the end of women resisting and women fighting for their legal protections. We believe that women should have the full range of reproductive choices and the right to make this decision. I pray that the Supreme Court allow the existing law to stand.

RADDATZ: And what do you see happening, Sarah?

ISGUR: Well, remember, we have the Texas abortion law which, of course, the Supreme Court once again refused to step in and deal with today. That case interestingly mostly about legal, you know, procedure, not really about abortion,

But the Supreme Court is deciding a big abortion case even if they overturn Roe v. Wade, of course. That just leaves it to the states to decide whether to protect a right to abortion and at what point. It does not, of course, make abortion illegal across the country. I think, based on the argument, most people think that Roe v. Wade is in some amount of trouble at this point.

RADDATZ: And, Sarah, I want to stay with you for just a second on the January 6th commission. Former President Trump got a blow there. He does have to return -- he does have to turn all over -- over all those records from the National Archives.

ISGUR: Yes. And, you know, it's one of those things where looking at the Supreme Court from a conservative to liberal lens can be very unhelpful because in this case the Supreme Court said it doesn't even matter whether Joe Biden would say, don't hand over these documents from his predecessor, or even if they were his own documents, the Supreme Court said in the balance between Congress and the president, Congress wins. And if you look at the Supreme Court's record over the last year, in many cases they are saying Congress wins over the executive agencies. For instance, OSHA and the vaccine mandate and others. And so interesting to look at the Supreme Court, again, outside that political lens and more about separation of powers, checks and balances.

RADDATZ: And, Michel, we have just a few minutes here.

When you look forward and you see that President Biden is changing course here and going to approach this, get out in the country, do you think that will make a big difference?

MARTIN: I think it will. Although, just going back to something that Sarah said, this is just -- not to diminish the substance of any of the cases before the court, but Republicans have succeeded in making the Supreme Court a voting issue in a way that Democrats have not. And this kind of -- this issue cannot be ignored. And there is an opportunity here for Democrats to -- I'm not taking a position on whether they should or should not, but this is an opportunity for Democrats to elevate the Supreme Court as an issue in a way they have not succeeded in doing.

But, yes, I think that Biden's strength, for all of his missteps, for all of his misspeaking, which he does do, he does communicate that he cares about the country on the whole when the country on the whole gets to see him. And presidents throughout history have done this. They've talked over the heads of the media as (INAUDIBLE), the intermediaries and that's what he's --

RADDATZ: I've got to stop you there, Michel. I'm so sorry.

MARTIN: He's successful at doing.

RADDATZ: OK, thanks very much.

We'll be right back.

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RADDATZ: That's all for us today. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. Check out WORLD NEWS TONIGHT. And have a great day.

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