President Biden’s new vaccine mandates are not only good public health. They’re good politics. We hear constantly how we’re divided as a country, polarized into two roughly equal camps. On vaccinations though that’s not true. Epidemiological vaccination rates are not the same as electoral vaccination rates. Already an overwhelming percentage of adults are vaccinated. Roughly 65% of Americans over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated and over 75% have had at least one shot. What’s more, the older you are the more likely you are both to be vaccinated and to vote. So if anything that 65%-75% benchmark understates the voting majority of the already vaccinated.
If you’re vaccinated, requirements and mandates don’t seem burdensome. In fact they seem to have widespread support since the vaccinated, who make up the overwhelming majority of the country, are losing patience with the voluntarily unvaccinated who they blame (rightly) for keeping us stuck in the pandemic. Biden spoke for a lot of Americans yesterday when he said: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us, so please do the right thing.”
For Biden there are benefits to this move that go beyond simply being on the right side of an issue of pressing public concern. As we’ve noted, the biggest driver of Biden’s declining poll numbers is the Delta surge, the fact that we thought we were putting the pandemic behind us and then found out we hadn’t. But it’s not just that this half-in, half-out stage of the pandemic sucks. It feels like we’re stuck. It’s like there’s no levers to pull. We thought vaccines were going to do it. But they haven’t – not nearly as much as we’d hoped, largely because not enough of us are vaccinated. So now what? It’s like there’s nothing we can do. Or more specifically, it feels like there’s nothing the President can do or nothing he will do.
Whatever the epidemiological or civil liberties equities of the matter, that’s a bad, bad place for any President to be during a crisis.
In our political culture people don’t elect Presidents to sit around being as disappointed as they are that bad things are happening. They want Presidents to do things to solve them. One great challenge of being President is that a lot of the time there’s no clear thing to do or no clear thing the President has the power to do. That’s what makes it so damaging seeing Biden have to futilely beg and plead with folks like Manchin and Sinema to help pass his agenda. He seems weak. The reality is that he does not have the power to force Joe Manchin’s hand. But again, voters don’t elect you to have no control over the situation. They can do that themselves. But here Biden does have something he can do. This shows he’s acting and not in some symbolic way. Mandating vaccination for a big swatch of the population will have a very concrete impact.
One slightly ingenious part of the plan is that it’s nominally not a mandate for the roughly 80 million private sector employees who will be affected. You can either be vaccinated or have weekly testing. If anything that’s really not frequent enough to mitigate the impact of non-vaccination. But the reality is that no employer of more than 100 employees is going to have any patience for taking on the administrative overhead and cost of weekly testing for employees who could make the problem go away by walking over to the local CVS. Biden can rely on private sector employers to bring the hammer down in favor of vaccination.
In response to Biden’s orders Republican governors are lining up in opposition, threatening various kind of in-state obstruction and legal fights. In political terms, great. Have at it. Republicans keep trying to deny they’re the anti-vaccination party even as they clearly are. They come back with ‘who me?’ every time anyone points out that they are the political force in the country keeping vaccination rates low and they’re doing so for cynically political reasons. This decision forces them to own their positions publicly and out loud when that stance is politically toxic and only growing more so. If they want a fight, great. Even if he loses some of those fights he still wins since people see whose side he’s on and whose side his opponents are on.
I was tempted to say that in any case Biden needs to change the subject. 4 weeks of merciless Afghanistan coverage has clearly battered his public standing, whatever the substantive realities of the matter. But that turns out to be too cynical a perspective. He’s not changing the subject. COVID remains the first, second and third reality in the United States. Americans wanted out of Afghanistan and we’re out of Afghanistan. If people are bent out of shape about the exact mechanics of how we did it that’s still in the rearview mirror. It’s not ‘changing the subject’. It is the subject. It’s pushing distractions off the front pages back to what the subject was all along: COVID and our battle to get out of under its dread hand.