The simplest answer is that while public and private polls have consistently shown fairly strong support for vaccine mandates, other numbers have now fallen: Biden’s approval ratings. At 44 percent, Biden’s polling average is down several points in recent weeks. So there’s little political risk to mandates for a risk-averse administration. And as far as policy options, there aren’t many left.
So instead of leaning harder on Americans who feel like they’ve done everything right — those who wear masks and got their shots and are likely supporters of Biden and Democrats to begin with — he’s putting the onus on the unvaccinated and the Republican officials, particularly governors, who are standing in his way.
“We can’t allow a radicalized minority that is anti-science and anti-reason to drive policymaking, or no issue of national importance will ever be effectively addressed,” said Ben LaBolt, the former Obama spokesperson and Democratic strategist, adding that Americans will judge Biden based on how he manages the pandemic and how the economy performs. “Here he is taking strong action to move both of those outcomes in a positive direction.”
The reasons for the White House’s prior hesitancy on mandates are numerous. As president-elect, Biden said in December that he wouldn’t impose them, locking himself into a position — at least temporarily.
Another reason: The administration simply miscalculated. The White House thought its vaccine quest would be going better by now, as evidenced by a premature 4th of July celebration.
And there were missteps. In May, the administration lifted mask mandates and guidance. While the new guidance was meant only for those who were vaccinated, it soon became clear that unvaccinated individuals wouldn’t voluntarily wear masks without mandates in place. And as the summer weeks wore on, more and more parts of society opened up for business, without requiring masks. This was all at a time when the White House was still months from achieving its goal of vaccinating 75 percent of adults.
Initially, when the Delta variant hit, Biden’s polling numbers held strong, and surveys showed that his tougher stance was popular, posing far lesser political risk than initially assumed. But infections kept spreading and hospitalizations jumped.
Even as officials reviewed their options for mandates, they needed to ensure they were on sound legal footing. They didn’t want to scare away Americans still potentially open to getting vaccinated. Senior administration officials on Thursday cited OSHA emergency standards that say a standard (vaccination) is necessary when employees are “exposed to grave danger,” of Covid-19. Senior administration officials estimate the new mandates affect two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, though opponents are already threatening court action.
The California effect
Biden’s more aggressive posture follows steps taken by Democratic governors and mayors, who have sought to go on the offensive as the Delta variant surges. Most notably, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s widening lead in his own recall election materialized after he started running on mandates and pushing back on opponents to such vaccine requirements.
Vice President Kamala Harris joined Newsom for a rally in California this week, urging voters to reject a recall election that was fueled, in large part, by Newsom’s handling of the virus, including steps that some business owners saw as overly onerous.
In recent weeks, Newsom and Democrats there have reframed the race as literally a life and death decision, pointing to mandate resistance from the Republican field of gubernatorial contenders and contrasting it with Newsom’s strict orders for vaccinations and masks. Across the state, those moves have had a big impact. San Francisco schools, for example, have vaccinated the vast majority of their students — and in turn reported zero Covid outbreaks as of Thursday. The Los Angeles school district is moving to require all students 12 and older to get the vaccine.
“This election is a choice about life and death,” Newsom said at the event with Harris on Wednesday, directly holding his state’s health outcomes up against those of Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
“California has among the lowest [Covid] case rates in America, and among the highest vaccination rates in America, because we believe in science, we believe in public health. We’re not ideological, we’re open to argument and interested in evidence,” he added.
That messaging, Maslin said, helped seal up Newsom’s numbers in the last month or so.
“They started to really make a distinction between what Newsom had done on Covid and what Larry Elder and some of these other Republicans believe and what they would do,” Maslin said. “If he wins by a significant margin, that’s going to tell you something next week.”
The Biden-Newsom storylines converge in earnest when the president joins the governor Monday in Long Beach, Calif., a city struck in unique and tragic ways by Covid. Last year, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, a surrogate for both Biden and Newsom, lost his mother, Gaby O’Donnell and his stepfather, Greg O’Donnell, to the virus within weeks of each other.
Biden’s advisers had long seen his handling of Covid as one of his strengths in polls.