(Headline USA) In just the past two weeks, President Joe Biden has forced millions of federal workers to attest to their vaccination status or face onerous new requirements. He’s met with business leaders at the White House to press them to do the same.
Meanwhile, the administration has taken steps toward mandating shots for people traveling into the U.S. from overseas. And the White House is weighing options to be more assertive at the state and local level, including potential support for school districts imposing rules to prevent spread of the virus over the objection of Republican leaders.
“To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders, who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids: thank you,” Biden said Thursday. “Thank God that we have heroes like you, and I stand with you all, and America should as well.”
The sharper federal approach comes as nearly 90 million eligible Americans still have not been vaccinated. But even as Biden becomes more aggressive, he has hesitated in any attempt to force Americans to get vaccinated.
According to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 51% of Americans say the federal government should recommend that employers require their workers to get vaccinated.
The result is a precarious balancing act as Biden works to make life more uncomfortable for the unvaccinated without spurring a backlash in a deeply polarized country that would only undermine his public health goals.
Nonetheless, many argue that his divisive—and oftentimes insulting—rhetoric has further entrenched those inclined toward vaccine hesitancy.
Along with inconsistent guidelines and public displays of hypocrisy from figures like Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, who held a super-spreader event last week at Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate his 60th birthday, Biden’s insistence on forcing the issue may ultimately have hurt the stated objective.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of all that the White House regarded the pandemic surge in a non-serious way was its open-borders policy, with an estimated 10-20% of illegals crossing the border with coronavirus before fanning out into the country’s interior courtesy of taxpayer-subsidized transportation.
Nonetheless, the Biden officials continued to pay lip service to vaccine mandates in the hopes that the right combination of words strung together might win the hearts and minds of skeptics.
Vaccine mandates are “the right lever at the right time,” said Ben Wakana, the deputy director of strategic communications & engagement for the White House COVID-19 response.
Such policies would undoubtedly be criticized as racist by some, given the disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics who are refusing the vaccine.
Many Republicans also warn of federal overreaching into decisions that should be left to individuals. Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida have spent weeks feuding over the proper role of government during a public health crisis.
For now, Biden has required most federal workers to attest to their vaccination status under potential criminal penalties, with those who have not received a dose required to social-distance, test weekly for the virus and face other potential restrictions on their work.
Health workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services will be required to get vaccinated, and the Pentagon’s announced that it intends to mandate vaccines for the military by next month.
The rules combined with fresh concerns from the surging delta variant have nearly doubled the average rate that Americans are getting newly vaccinated from last month to about 450,000 per day.
Zients said the White House still has no plans to develop the infrastructure for controversial vaccine passports. The Biden administration had promised to share frameworks for verification systems, but ultimately left them all to the private sector and local governments, in part because of political sensitivities.
Still, while more severe measures such as mandating vaccines for interstate travel or changing how the federal government reimburses treatment for those who are unvaccinated and become ill with COVID-19 have been discussed, the administration worried that they would be too polarizing for the moment.
That’s not to say they won’t be implemented in the future.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of health law at Georgetown University, said Biden would likely need to continue to turn up the pressure on the vaccinated. “He’s really going to have to use all the leverage the federal government has, and indeed use pressure points,” Gostin said. “And I think there are a few that he can do. But he hasn’t done yet.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press