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Why Biden Has Taken Up Vaccine Mandates And The Political Fight Over Them

For months, President Biden resisted COVID-19 vaccination mandates because he didn't want to make the vaccines any more politicized than they already were.

But when the delta variant surged, and it became clear that most of the hardcore vaccine resistance was partisan, Biden leaned into America's newest culture war: the great mandate debate.

"We have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner," Biden said in early September whenannouncing new vaccine requirements. "These pandemic politics, as I refer to, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die."

The requirements go beyond just mandating federal employees and health care workers get the shots. They also place obligations on larger private employers to require vaccinations or weekly testing.

The bottom line on the business requirements, Biden said a few weeks ago, is to protect vaccinated workers from their unvaccinated co-workers: "We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal."

A change in tone for Biden

For a president elected on a promise to heal divisions and unify the country, it was an unusual embrace of us-against-them rhetoric. It's a change in the approach to get more people vaccinated, of course, but it's also a sign of how the White House thinks the politics of COVID-19 are changing.

Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, points to polls that show majorities of Democrats and independents, and about a third of Republicans, support the new rules.

"If you are picking an issue that is supported by north of 60% of Americans, that is not divisive," Pfeiffer said. "That is doing the right thing."

The big question is whether Biden's new requirements are making much of a difference in getting more shots in arms, and they should — up to a point — according to Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has conducted focus groups with people who have resisted the vaccines.

"It was plain to see they were mad about [the new rules], but a significant percentage of those who are not vaccinated would actually accept it if it meant that they could travel, if it meant that they could continue to work in the office," he said. "And what's left? Those people who refuse to do it — nothing is going to change their mind."

Biden has clearly given up trying to persuade those people. He's also welcoming a fightover mandates with Republican governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas.

"I have issued an executive order already in existence that prohibits any government from imposing a vaccine mandate on my fellow Texans," Abbott told Fox News.

He and other GOP governorshave said they'll sue the administration.

Biden responded: "Have at it."

There are different political incentives for Republicans and Democrats

Why the new confidence on the part of Democrats about wielding the heavy hand of government? For one thing, getting COVID-19 under control is the campaign promise that polls show voters care about most. More than anything else, the pandemic is what's driving Biden's approval ratings up or down.

But there's a bigger shift in opinion about the role of government that's also emboldening Democrats.

"The pandemic made it clear to a lot of people that you need government, right? To either help people out when an unexpected crisis happens like this pandemic, to ensure that people get vaccinated, to protect people," Pfeiffer said. "It boils down to shots in arms and checks in the mail. And that has changed the dynamic."

In the great mandate debate, Democrats are from Mars and Republicans are from Venus. Democrats, as the governing party, have to appeal to the majority of voters and show them they can get the pandemic under control. Republicans, especially those thinking about running for president in 2024, have to appeal to their base, which is largely anti-vaccine, not just anti-mandate.

If there was ever any doubt about this, it was dispelled when former President Donald Trump held a rally in Alabama in August and got booed over the issue.

"I recommend take the vaccines. I did it. It's good. Take the vaccines," Trump said as the crowd started to jeer. "But you got — no, that's OK, that's all right — you got your freedoms. But I happened to take the vaccine."

That moment seemed to show the Republican base is more willing to listen to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists on social media than any of the party's leaders.

"When I saw Trump's own voters boo him when he said, 'Get the vaccine,' that's when I realized that social media may be even more powerful than President Trump," Luntz said. "The consequences of that over the long term are frightening."

What it means, at least for now, is that the GOP is a party whose leaders follow the base, not the other way around. That has big implications for public health because the great mandate debate is not just a political game, it's about people's lives.

Democrats are trying to brand the GOP with the pandemic

But at the same time Biden is trying to get more people vaccinated, his party is also trying to win the midterms, with Democrats determined to paint Republicans as "the party of COVID."

" 'The party of COVID' is part of a larger narrative about Republicans being too extreme, too irresponsible, too in the thrall of Trumpism to responsibly govern," Pfeiffer said. "In a polarized age where negative partisanship reigns, where people are looking as much for what they're voting against as what they're voting for, we have to make a case against Republicans that is relentless and aggressive."

Republicans have a lot of advantages going into 2022, but GOP strategist Rob Stutzman said he worries they could hurt themselves in suburban swing districts if the party becomes identified with vaccine resistance.

"Particularly suburban women, these are the types of issues that I think could really give them pause to vote for Republicans," Stutzman said. "And my concern is that Republicans might be fumbling away huge opportunities here."

That's because, he said, in the new politics of COVID-19, where the dividing line is vaccinated versus unvaccinated, the majority of people who are vaccinated want someone to advocate for them.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.