Inside Biden’s pragmatic approach to coronavirus rules
President Biden has taken a decidedly cautious approach to COVID-19 passports and other rules governing the coronavirus, signaling a determination to not get in front of public opinion.
Biden has avoided stepping into a messy fight over both passports and coronavirus vaccine mandates, choosing instead to let private sector companies, schools and other institutions make the call on whether to require vaccinations.
The move has spurred frustration from some health experts who argue that the administration is missing a critical opportunity to get the virus under control by encouraging vaccine requirements.
But wading into the controversial territory would trigger an avalanche of criticism from Republicans who have already hammered the notion of employer vaccine mandates, and could prompt further skepticism among Americans already reluctant to get the shot.
A June Axios-Ipsos poll found that Americans are split on requiring vaccines to return to pre-pandemic activities like dining indoors and going to work.
As a result, there’s some political risk on either side of the issue, though it’s clear the White House for now sees more risk in embracing mandates and passports.
“There’s no question that vaccines are critically important, everyone in America who is able to should get a vaccine and that is the only way we are going to achieve herd immunity,” said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Health Lab.
“I think there’s a flipside which is, if you get way ahead of public acceptance, that you may on net undermine your public health objectives,” he added.
The White House has been consistent that it does not see its role as issuing vaccine mandates. Instead, officials insist the government should be focused on ramping up supply of the vaccine, educating the public and providing resources at the local level to get shots into arms to put an end to the pandemic.
One former Biden adviser noted the president has repeatedly deferred to health officials on the coronavirus.
Biden also criticized former President Donald Trump for politicizing COVID-19.
Still, calls from experts outside the administration, most recently ex-Obama administration official Kathleen Sebelius, are growing louder for the White House to do more as the U.S. struggles to convince roughly one-third of the population to get the shot as more transmissible variants circulate more widely.
“I wish vaccine verifications weren’t as politicized as they are because they’re a good public health tool,” said Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumont Foundation.
“When you politicize the pandemic it’s not about health anymore,” Castrucci said. “It’s about political divides. Now we’re talking about liberty, and freedom and government overreach and government trust. So a vaccine mandate kind of pushes every button on the political right.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked multiple times Wednesday — first on a CNN appearance and later on Air Force One — about why the administration doesn’t step in more forcefully to encourage private universities, businesses and other institutions to implement vaccine mandates.
“I think what we continue to remember is what constructive role we can play as the federal government,” Psaki told reporters en route to Illinois. “And that includes continuing to use resources to get out into communities to empower public health officials, to get accurate information out to ensure people understand… that 50 percent of the cases are now as a result of the delta variant, higher in areas where there are lower vaccination rates. That is the role where we’re going to spend our energy and our resources.”
The idea of a vaccine passport was first raised in March. But the White House quickly distanced itself from the concept, with Psaki saying it would not support “a system that requires Americans to carry a credential.”
It did not require proof of vaccination for guests at a Fourth of July outdoor gathering last Sunday on the South Lawn and has not required federal government employees who go maskless in work settings to provide proof of vaccination.
Meanwhile, hundreds of colleges and universities are requiring students and faculty to get the coronavirus vaccine in order to return to campus in the fall. Delta Airlines announced new hires would be required to get the shot, while hospitals across the country are also implementing mandates for workers to get vaccinated.
There is skepticism among some health experts and political operatives that government involvement in any type of vaccine passport system would be beneficial. Basic tools like mask-wearing and social distancing were widely politicized during the Trump administration, and there is concern government support for a vaccine mandate program would do the same for the shot itself.
William Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and former deputy assistant for domestic policy for President Bill Clinton, said that the White House could potentially make it harder for businesses or local areas to implement vaccine requirements by putting its “finger on the scales.”
“I think that there are good reasons for the administration to continue to emphasize the voluntary approach,” Galston said. “At the same time it should continue to point out that the consequences for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for individual businesses could be very serious for people who choose not to get vaccinated.”
Some GOP governors have also rendered the idea of a national system moot. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) are among those who signed executive orders outlawing vaccine passports in their states when the idea was first broached.
Already, the White House’s announcement that it would go “door-to-door” at the community level to boost vaccinations in the coming weeks spurred conservative blowback, a sign of how precarious the issue can be.
“It’s not feasible on a broad scale,” one former Trump administration official said of the administration getting involved in vaccine passports. “Individual businesses would be the only way, and why should someone who was naturally infected and has the antibodies be required to get one?”
Some health experts and former government officials warn that recommending vaccine mandates or implementing a federal mandate of some kind could backfire by further fueling organized anti-vaccination efforts.
But others have been critical of the White House’s hands-off approach, accusing the administration of trying to avoid political controversy in a way that could harm the overall response.
“I think mandatory vaccines are kind of the third rail of politics that you don’t touch and I think that this is not based upon any scientific evidence. It’s really just simply a recognition of politics and it doesn’t want to get embroiled in the political discussion of vaccine mandates,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University.
“I liked what President Biden said yesterday, but if we don’t get much more serious in terms of vaccinations in the United States, we’ll never get to herd immunity.”