The Memo: Biden and Democrats face dilemma on vaccine mandates
Democrats including President Biden are grappling with what to do about the slowing pace of COVID-19 vaccinations.
The sharpest debate right now is centered on whether private businesses, federal workplaces and educational institutions should require proof of vaccination.
If the White House encouraged such requirements, it would likely nudge some Americans who have not yet gotten vaccinated to do so.
But it would also open the president and his party up to accusations of overreach and nanny-statism on an issue that has become deeply partisan.
In a new poll released Wednesday from The Economist-YouGov, 77 percent of Democrats said they were fully vaccinated, and only 4 percent of Democratic respondents said they would not get vaccinated at all.
But 31 percent of Republicans said they would not get vaccinated and so, crucially, did 22 percent of independents. Those figures suggest there would be a political price to pay for a strong push toward vaccine requirements.
The political dilemma is clear, however. There could be a far steeper penalty over the medium term if the virus makes a comeback — something that has become more likely amid the spread of a new delta variant, which is now the dominant strain in the U.S.
The issue is one that can be easily demagogued, too.
A government mandate that all Americans must get vaccinated in all circumstances is not being suggested by anyone in the mainstream. Such a blanket requirement would likely be unlawful and certainly unenforceable.
But public health experts, worried about the sluggish rate of new vaccinations, say there is plenty else the Biden administration and elected officials could do. One option would simply be to issue expressions of support for private employers, medical facilities and school boards that impose vaccine requirements.
There has been none of that from the White House — and the timidity is sparking growing frustration.
“My wish is that we would see more mandates at the federal or national level but I’m a realist and I know we’re not going to see that,” said Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who is also a practicing physician. “At a minimum, I would love to see words of support. These hospitals that are doing it are brave and should be applauded. They shouldn’t feel like they are on an island.”
Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law School and a public health expert, was even more vigorous in his criticisms.
“The Biden administration has been far too hands-off” regarding vaccine requirements, he said. “They could do a lot more. Once it is fully licensed, which it will be soon, they could recommend that schools and businesses have vaccinations as a condition to going back into that environment.”
“We are hearing nothing from the CDC or HHS or the White House,” he added, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
More ripples were created on the issue when Kathleen Sebelius, who served as Health secretary during the Obama administration, told The New York Times that she was in favor of mandates.
“I’m trying to restrain myself but I’ve kind of had it,” Sebelius told the Times in a story published Tuesday evening. “We’re going to tiptoe around mandates. It’s like, come on. I’m kind of over that.”
Sebelius, as a veteran of the wars over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), knows that Democrats have been vulnerable to charges of overreach, whether justified or not.
Conservatives sought to stop the passage of the ACA a decade ago over concerns about “death panels” and health care “rationing.” They were unsuccessful, but the legislation was a political liability for Democrats for several years, only winning widespread popularity more recently.
When it comes to vaccine requirements, Republicans and their allies in the media are warning about infringements on personal liberty.
According to a USA Today report in late April, more than 40 states at that point had introduced legislation banning vaccination mandates. One Republican state-level lawmaker, Rep. John Jacob of Indiana, told the newspaper that a mandate “would be considered a gross violation of the individual freedom” of people in his state.
Conservative media commentators including Tucker Carlson of Fox News have stoked skepticism about vaccines.
And governors in several states have signed executive orders banning vaccine mandates, so-called vaccine passports or both.
Included among their ranks are high-profile names who may have presidential ambitions such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
Some Democrats acknowledge that polarization around COVID-19 has become so severe that more assertive rhetoric from Biden on the issue risks a counter-reaction.
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Democratic strategist based in rural Virginia, told this column that “if Joe Biden were to come out and tell people to take the vaccine, it would only make these people around me more likely not to take it.”
Saunders argued that there is enormous distrust on the issue, fueled by polarization, media hyperbole and a general cultural shift that has deepened divisions between rural conservatives and what he terms the “Metropolitan Opera” wing of his own party.
Saunders reflected ruefully that the one thing he believed really could make a difference in his community would be if former President Trump were to more forcefully urge people to get vaccinated.
The Biden administration has stuck resolutely to its laissez-faire stance on vaccine requirements, even as the president has continued to urge people to get their shots for their own good and out of a sense of patriotic duty.
“We’re going to leave it up to them to make these decisions,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, referring to the role of schools, universities and private institutions in deciding whether to impose vaccination requirements.
The studied neutrality is just not good enough in the view of health experts like Gostin.
Gostin is scornful of the idea that the president or his party should retreat in the face of charges of nanny-state behavior.
“People talk about the nanny state, but this isn’t the nanny state,” he said. “The ‘nanny state’ is telling you what you must do for your own health and safety. What we are doing here is telling you to get vaccinated — yes, for your own health and safety but also because otherwise you pose a risk to others.”
“It’s a classic argument,” he added. “This is not a question of libertarianism or freedom because nobody has the freedom to harm others. You only have the freedom to harm yourself.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.