Joe Biden, Mandates, and Building a Coalition of the Vaxxed

By taking an aggressive stance on vaccine mandates, Biden can go on offense and take on an out of touch GOP

By all measures, Joe Biden had a shitty August. It was a neverending torrent of bad news that hurt his political standing. The shitty August bled into September with more bad news and the President staring down a series of increasingly challenging and high-stakes legislative battles. As Jon Favreau would say on Pod Save America: “It’s not great.”

Ever since the approval and disapproval lines in the poll charts crossed into underwater territory, political observers have been wondering how the Biden White House plans to reset the narrative and get back on top.

I believe the speech that President Biden gave yesterday on COVID is the start of the comeback trail. Biden aggressively came out for a series of bold vaccine mandates. According to the New York Times:

“His administration also intends to compel vaccination for federal contractors as well as 17 million health care workers in hospitals and other institutions that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Beyond that, Mr. Biden is seeking to extend vaccine mandates to the private sector. He will also instruct the Department of Labor to draft a rule mandating that all businesses with 100 or more workers require their employees to either get vaccinated or face mandatory weekly testing, the officials said.”

The key quote to take away from Biden’s speech is:

“We are going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated coworkers.”

To paraphrase a classic Bidenism, the President is asking voters to stop comparing him to the almighty and instead compare him to the alternative: a Republican Party that is actively making the pandemic worse in order to appeal to their extreme base.

The anti-vaccine sentiments of prominent Republicans and MAGA celebrities, the party-wide opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, and the irresponsible behavior of Republican governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot have created an opening for Democrats to build a coalition of the vaccinated. Every election cycle, pundits like to identify a specific group of key voters. “Soccer Moms,” “Nascar Dads,” and “Security Moms” have all been central characters in previous elections. In 2021/2022, the target demographic could be “vaccinated” and “vaccinated parents” in particular.

This isn’t so much an opportunity as it is an imperative. Republican governance costs lives, and we cannot afford to let them near the levers of power any time soon.

Covid Concerns

There is little question that events on the ground in Afghanistan were the precipitating cause for Biden’s polling dip, but it’s not just Afghanistan. There were warning signs before the fall of Kabul and wall-to-wall negative press coverage of the withdrawal. Ever since the Delta variant interrupted people’s vaccinated summer plans and brought a new level of anxiety to the back-to-school period, pessimism about the pandemic has been on the rise. A recent Navigator Research poll found that the number of Americans who believe the worst of the pandemic is “over” has dropped to 27 percent from a high of 72 percent just a few months ago. A majority now believe that the worst is yet to come.

The Cook Report’s Amy Walter recently witnessed two focus groups. One with a group of independents and the other with less engaged Democrats, and came away with the following:

In listening to these independent and less-engaged Democratic voters over the last couple of weeks, it's clear that they are more interested in solving the challenges presented by COVID than anything else. Until they feel like it's ok to stop worrying about COVID, it is going to be hard to get them to pay attention to the Democrats' plans on anything else. 

There is very little that Joe Biden can do in the short term to affect perceptions of the Afghanistan withdrawal, but he can leverage the public opinion of the pandemic by aggressively making the case for who is responsible for the COVID resurgence. COVID, unlike Afghanistan, is an issue that unites Democrats and divides Republicans.

The Politics of Mandates

Based on their behavior and rhetoric, Republicans think vaccine politics and mask mandates favor them. They believe there is a backlash to these policies that they can weaponize for the midterms.

However, the polling is clear. They are on the wrong side of the issue. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released in August found that more than 55 percent of registered voters support local mask mandates for employees, gyms, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Vaccine mandates are just as popular. Local ordinances requiring vaccination to access the same areas also receive more than 55 percent support, including 69 percent in favor of vaccine requirements for gyms. A general vaccine mandate for all citizens without medical exemptions is supported by 54 percent of registered voters. One-third of respondents that voted for Trump in 2020 support such a mandate.

Because of the structural advantage that Republicans possess in the Senate, gerrymandered House districts, and the Electoral College, they don’t need majority support. Instead, they need issues that fire up their base. However, passion is on the side of the mandates. In every question in this poll, strong support for the mandates exceeds strong opposition by more than 10, and often 20, points. 

The Republican message doesn’t even work in Florida — ground zero for irresponsible Republican governance. According to a recent Florida Politics poll, 62 percent of Floridians support mask mandates for children in schools.

Similarly, Steve Schale, a political operative that works with Unite the Country, a pro-Biden SuperPac, released a recent poll of the five states that flipped from Trump to Biden. Unite the Country tested a proposal very similar to the one Biden released. A vaccine mandate for employers has at least 60 percent support in each of the five states. In four of the five, such a policy is strongly favored by more than 40 percent of voters

The math is quite simple. Vaccinated Americans support these mandates and the majority of people are vaccinated. 

Polling shows that more and more of the public is directing their pandemic ire at the unvaccinated. This is particularly true of the parents who are sending their kids back to school this month amidst an unexpected and entirely avoidable resurgence of the virus. As Ron Brownstein pointed out in The Atlantic about the recent Axios/Ipsos poll:

Big majorities of the vaccinated in both parties assigned responsibility to the unvaccinated; almost two in three vaccinated Republicans joined nearly nine in 10 vaccinated Democrats in blaming them for the case rise. By contrast, less than one in 14 of the Republicans who hadn’t received the shot blamed the unvaccinated.

Due to perverted incentives of Right-Wing media and MAGA politics, the Republican Party has become the face of this unvaccinated minority. They put the “freedom” of the minority over the safety of the majority, including the safety of 50 million children who cannot be vaccinated. As case rates rise and more children get COVID due to Republican edicts tying the hands of local school officials, the political situation for Republicans only worsens.

Making the Case

There has been a lot of tut-tutting from public health officials and epidemiologists about the risks of politicizing the pandemic. In such a polarized country, I am sympathetic to the dangers injecting politics into a sensitive subject like public health can pose. The problem is that Republicans have been politicizing masks and vaccines for nearly a year, and Democrats and others staying above the fray have done nothing to stop or minimize Republicans from playing politics with people’s lives. You lose 100 percent of the arguments you don't make. I believe Democrats have a moral and political obligation to be more aggressive in calling out how Republicans have prolonged this pandemic.

Because of Donald Trump’s surprisingly narrow loss last year, either the Republicans were right to run a campaign against social distancing or America is so polarized that even a pandemic that kills 400,000 Americans can’t noticeably change political dynamics. Granted, politics is a game of inches, but things have changed since 2020. While polling showed that most Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, they also didn’t blame him for it. But now that we have vaccines, the current state of affairs is completely avoidable. Kids are going back to school without masks, and parents are filled with fear because a number of Republican leaders have politicized the pandemic, prevented local officials from taking protective measures, and convinced a large percentage of the population to avoid vaccination. 

Democrats need to take three steps: 

First, they must make Republicans the face of the Delta surge and consistently assign them responsibility for the huge swath of unvaccinated Americans. Republicans say they are “pro-vaccine, but anti-mandate.” That is simply not true. Many have been founts of vaccine disinformation, and the rest have refused to speak out against the growing anti-vaccine wing of the Republican Party. The Republican opposition to vaccine and mask mandates is a political vulnerability. Democrats need to hold them accountable for enabling the unvaccinated minority to put our children in danger. Terry McAuliffe’s campaign recently launched a digital ad that tied his Republican opponent to DeSantis’ failed pandemic leadership.

Second, Democrats must lean into vaccine mandates. For too long, we have tiptoed around the mandate issue to avoid upsetting Republicans. By aggressively promoting vaccine mandates for federal employees, businesses, and health care workers, Biden has given Democrats an issue to run on. I was pleased to see California Governor Gavin Newsom, who is in the fight of his political life, aggressively promote a new vaccine mandate for teachers and school employees. Republican Larry Elder, the man most likely to replace Newsom if the September recall goes through, has been running on an anti-mandate platform.

If we are going to have this fight, we need to use the right language. Navigator Research recently did some message testing around vaccine mandates and found that the following message tested 17 points better than the Republican rhetoric about personal freedom. The more effective message in an argument was this:

These types of requirements have been around for decades. Students are typically required to receive the smallpox and polio vaccine, and it only makes sense to require the coronavirus vaccine as well.

Third, we need to entice parents with a message that critiques Republicans and touts the Biden Administrations’ efforts to control the pandemic -- including the Biden announcement. Parents of children under the age of 12 are the ones most susceptible to such a message. Vaccinated adults suffer through the inconveniences of masks and the anxiety of becoming one of the very rare breakthrough cases. But kids under 12 do not have the choice to get vaccinated. Across the country, they are returning to school without masks or any other preventative measures in place. The number of cases is rising and pediatric wards are filling up in several states. These are painful reminders that Republicans are playing politics with the lives of our children. In an era where identity reigns supreme, appeals to vaccinated parents that draw the line between Republican rhetoric and the unvaccinated minority putting kids at risk could be the rare message that trumps partisan affiliation.

This is not a slam dunk. Polling shows that public opinion for vaccine mandates, like those for school children, are closely divided. Although until yesterday, Democrats had not really engaged with the argument. There has been a massive Right-Wing propaganda campaign against mandates and, until recently, zero firepower making the affirmative case. It’s also possible that the pandemic fades into the background, becoming a non-issue by November of next year. That would be a welcome outcome. However, current vaccination trends suggest that Americans are going to be living with the virus for a while. That sad fact is a direct result of Republican leadership and one Democrats must hammer home every day in every way possible.