Let's be clear about one thing up front: The resurgence of COVID-19 — there are now over 100,000 hospitalizations for the first time since January — is not President Joe Biden's fault. He is the victim of Republican sabotage. The blame primarily belongs to Fox News and other right-wing media outlets for encouraging their audiences to eschew vaccination. It belongs to Republican politicians like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who keep getting in the way of serious efforts to get people vaccinated. The blame lays with Facebook, for choosing profits over aggressively fighting COVID-19 disinformation on their platform. The blame lays with everyday Republicans, who are so consumed by bitterness that they are willing to draw out this pandemic, using their own bodies, just to stick it to Biden and take away the freedoms of the vaccinated Americans who voted for him. But above all else, the blame should be pinned on Donald Trump, who made it a station of the right-wing cross to deny that COVID-19 is a serious threat and now can't even get his own people to listen to his pleas to vaccinate.
Polling up until now has shown that most Americans do, in fact, blame these saboteurs instead of Biden. However, there are some troubling indicators that Biden's grace period is starting to wind down.
The president's average approval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight, started to slip below 50% for the first time in his presidency halfway through August and has now dropped to 47.5%. To be sure, that's higher than what Trump enjoyed but it is low enough that Democrats should really start worrying about depressed voter turnout in the 2022 midterms.
The hawkish Beltway press desperately wants to blame these declining numbers on the Afghanistan withdrawal. The problem with that analysis is that most Americans support the withdrawal and continue to do so even when poll questions are heavily weighted to get a "stay" answer. Plus, it misses that Biden's numbers started to fall before Kabul dramatically fell to the Taliban.
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No, as Russell Berman of the Atlantic argued Wednesday, "the setback causing the most damage to Joe Biden's political standing likely isn't the U.S. military defeat in Afghanistan—it's the frustrating home-front struggle against the resurgent coronavirus pandemic."
Just months ago, vaccinated people were happily shedding masks. Now they're being told to put them back on, mostly to protect the unvaccinated. Parents are terrified of what school reopenings will mean, especially with kids under 12 still ineligible for the vaccine. People are worried about the return of lockdowns. They're also worried what will happen to them if they have an accident or heart attack, but can't get care because the hospital is all full up with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. As president, it's inevitable that Biden is going to start getting blamed for not doing more to get the stubbornly unvaccinated to just get the shot already.
Now Biden's top health advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, predicts that the pandemic will drag on into at least the spring of 2022, which does not bode well for Democrats in the midterms. Two years of pandemic, and vaccinated people will be even more fed up. They may not be interested in voting for Republicans, but a lot of Biden voters may very well be too demoralized to vote.
The grim truth is that Biden does deserve some of this blame. While he's been getting more vocal in support of vaccine mandates, he spent way too many months dawdling, afraid of picking a fight with anti-vaccination Republicans and hoping there was a way to gently persuade people who would rather listen to Tucker Carlson than to reason. Despite some early talk about a national "vaccine passport," Biden backed off at the first sign of resistance from the Fox News crowd, which did absolutely nothing to tone down the 24/7 fake outrage on the network on behalf of the supposedly oppressed unvaccinated. And even now, the Biden administration is not using every tool in the toolbox to get shots in arms at a faster pace.
Biden has started to do more in recent weeks.
He issued test-or-vaccine mandates for every federal worker and used the threat of funding withdrawal to force nursing homes to mandate vaccinations for workers. Pentagon leaders have thankfully, after far too long, mandated vaccines for anyone currently serving in the military. Biden has also encouraged state and local governments, as well as private sector businesses, to require vaccination to enter public places or to work.
This sort of thing helps, but more must be done.
As Eric Reinhart and Amanda Klonsky at the Atlantic point out, Biden can use funding withdrawal threats to secure vaccination mandates for "employees of jails, prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, and police departments." Hospitals and other medical settings that, like nursing homes, depend on Medicaid and Medicare, could also get a vaccinate-or-lose-money order. And what is especially ridiculous is that the TSA mandates masks for anyone traveling on an airplane, but won't mandate vaccinations, even though the latter offer far superior protection for both airline staff and passengers. A "get the shot or stay grounded" rule could have a seismic effect, both in forcing people to get vaccinated if they want to travel, and sending a signal to other hesitant institutions to start issuing their own mandates.
While unfortunate, it's not surprising that Biden is slow-walking these needed moves.
Fox News and Republicans have made it clear from the beginning that they will scream bloody murder at even the barest hint of an effort from the White House to interfere with their objectively pro-COVID efforts. Biden has been hesitant to pick a fight that will result in more yelling and screaming from right-wingers about their supposed "freedom" being taken away.
But this is backwards thinking, starting with the fact that it's the vaccinated who have lost freedoms, due to the unvaccinated, and the vaccinated are starting to get really salty about it. Moreover, the right-wing media and Republicans are going to scream and yell no matter what. Indeed, they are currently screaming and yelling over mask mandates — even though many masks mandates are mostly there to protect the unvaccinated from their own foolish behavior. By reducing the need for mask mandates, vaccine mandates could help bring an end to the mask wars.
Most importantly, Biden should be eager to escalate the fight with Republicans over COVID-19 because it's looking to be an effective wedge issue. While the rabid right-wing base loves politicians who love spreading COVID-19, most other Americans do not. Recent polling in Florida shows, for instance, that DeSantis's anti-anti-COVID policies are deeply unpopular with voters in his swing state. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post argues, "Democrats should be making a much more concerted effort to speak directly to this silent and neglected majority," instead of tip-toeing around the loud, whiny anti-vaccination minority.
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The best way to pick this fight is to push vaccine mandates at every turn. They are popular with the public, especially with the already-vaccinated. The more Republicans resist the mandates, the more Democrats can remind voters that the reason the pandemic is still a problem is because of Republican refusal to do their part.
More importantly, vaccine mandates work.
Unlike the masks, vaccines are invisible and so discourage the kind of visible resistance we're seeing with mask mandates. And while a lot of anti-vaxxers like to talk a big game, most will suck it up and get their shot if the alternative is losing a job or being banned from airplanes. We see this in the NFL, which reached a 90% vaccination rate after imposing steep penalties for vaccine refusal on players. Right-wing media tried to hype 153 employees who quit their jobs at Houston Methodist, which was the first hospital system to require vaccines. The larger reality, however, is that was a tiny number of their 26,000 employees — 100% of whom are now vaccinated. Indeed, the reason that right-wingers make such a fuss out of vaccine mandates is precisely because they know they work. They're afraid that mandates will interfere with the scheme to tank Biden's presidency by drawing out the pandemic.
So Biden should want to tank their efforts to tank him.
It's time to dramatically escalate the vaccination mandates — starting with air travel — and welcome the fight with Republicans. It's one Biden will win, especially if he and his supporters frame vaccine mandates in pro-freedom terms: the only way to end the pandemic and give us all our freedoms back. It will show voters that he's actively doing everything he can to fight the pandemic and keep the blame for rising case numbers where it belongs, on Republicans.
Plus, it will save lives. Every shot in an arm means a person who is far less likely to transmit the virus and exponentially less likely to die from it. Every day the mandates are delayed, people are therefore dying unnecessarily. Biden can save Democrats in the midterms and save himself. All he needs to do is stop worrying about backlash and start pulling out all stops to mandate as many vaccinations as possible.