No more Mr. Nice Guy? Joe Biden’s vaccine dilemma
WASHINGTON — President Biden’s latest efforts to cajole his fellow Americans into getting vaccinated and mask-wearing seem to be on a collision course with his trademark advocacy of bipartisanship and tolerance of opposing views in political life.
His longtime embrace of accommodation with differing approaches in politics appears to be in conflict with his notion of mandating public-health protocols that many Americans insist infringe on their constitutional right to choose for themselves.
In the crunch, this customarily easygoing president risks coming off as authoritarian in the urgency of the moment. “We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” he said last week.
“What makes it incredibly more frustrating,” he continued, “is is that we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans — supported by a distinct minority of elected officials — are keeping us from turning the corner.”
To those Americans who continue to refuse to get vaccinated, he began to take on a harsher tone: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”
Without naming names, Biden clearly referred to the likes of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has talked of withholding state funds from local school officials who accept mandates requiring masking students.
“Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs,” the president said. “Talk about bullying in schools.”
Another Republican governor, Brian Kemp of Georgia, warned: “I will pursue every legal option available to the state of Georgia to stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration.”
But the president was undeterred. “These pandemic politics, as I refer to (them), are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” he said. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”
Escalating his own efforts against the national health crisis, Biden has now signed an executive order mandating the vaccination or frequent testing of all federal employees in businesses of 100 or more workers, in an estimated 50,000 locations coping with aspects of the pandemic.
The intensified presidential involvement comes as the new delta variant of the pandemic has brought more than 150,000 additional cases a day and nearly 1,500 more daily deaths. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief White House medical adviser, said of the mandate: “This was not just superficial stuff. This going to have a significant impact.”
In all, the first nearly eight months of Biden’s presidency has confronted him with an intensity and complexity at home not widely anticipated, taking a toll on his initially high public approval. But compared to his predecessor in the Oval Office, he has an adult lifetime of experience in government that guides his difficult course.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.