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The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19

The Hill logo The Hill 9/9/2021 Niall Stanage
a man wearing a suit and tie: The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19 © Getty Images The Memo: Biden comes out punching on COVID-19

President Biden is done pussy-footing around on COVID-19 vaccination. And he's betting most Americans are too.

The pugnacious speech Biden delivered late Thursday afternoon marked an abrupt change of tone. It could be a political turning point.

Biden, in the past, has favored a patient nudging of people toward vaccination. That's gone now. In its place is a willingness to hammer vaccine skeptics for their irresponsibility.

The president sounded less like a consensus-craving politician and more like a father at the end of his tether.

"What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We've made vaccinations free, safe and convenient," he said.

Moments later, he added: "We've been patient but our patience is wearing thin - and your refusal has cost all of us."

Later in the speech, he announced that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would double fines for air travelers who refuse to mask up.

"If you break the rules, be prepared to pay. And by the way - show some respect!" Biden jabbed, his voice rising. The sight of irate passengers assailing flight crews was, he said "wrong. It's ugly."

Politically speaking, there are plenty of partisan voters on the right who will always be beyond Biden's reach. But his words will resonate with many millions of people who are bone-tired of a pandemic that is being needlessly prolonged by vaccine hesitancy, anti-mask hyperbole and junk science.

The change in tone was more than matched by significant shifts in policy too.

The biggest, by far, is a new requirement that employers with 100 or more employees must insist their workers either be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests.

This shift alone, drawing on the authority of existing health and safety powers, will affect around 80 million workers, according to the White House.

The administration will also require all employees of federal executive offices to be vaccinated, unless they can show legitimate reasons for exemption. Workers in "most health care settings" that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds must get their shots, too.

In addition, the White House is undertaking a program that will see a ramping up of the production of rapid COVID-19 tests. Those tests will in turn be made available at cost through three major retailers - Amazon, Walmart and Kroger.

And Biden also reiterated that COVID-19 booster shots would be widely available as soon as they are approved for use.

Republicans - or at least the most mandate-resistant among them - hit the roof all the same, with the employer mandate provoking particular ire.

"Are you people trying to start a full on revolt?" Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) asked on Twitter. "Leave the people the hell alone. This is insanity."

Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of the former president, wondered, "Do we even live in a free country anymore?"

At least three Republican governors - Doug Ducey of Arizona, Brian Kemp of Georgia and Kristi Noem of South Dakota - either stated explicitly or implied that they would mount legal challenges to Biden's proposed mandate.

But Biden hasn't spent a half-century climbing to the summit of American politics without learning a few things along the way.

In this case, overheated rhetoric from scions of the Trump family - or the condemnation that is surely coming from the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) - could redound to Biden's political benefit.

For all the media coverage of feverish vaccine resistance and anti-mandate protests, that isn't where most of the country stands.

An Associated Press-NORC poll late last month asked respondents whether they favored requiring all people in certain settings to be vaccinated.

The results amounted to a pro-mandate landslide.

Sixty-two percent wanted such a requirement for hospital and health care workers, with just 19 percent opposed. Fifty-nine percent wanted it for K-12 teachers, with just 21 percent opposed. Fifty percent wanted it "in-person at your workplace" with just 26 percent opposed.

If Biden is, once again, on the right side of public opinion, it will be a blessed relief for him and his administration.

In recent weeks, the White House has taken a political battering - largely its own fault - for the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The delta variant has been surging. The rise in cases has, in turn, disrupted school re-openings and cast new doubt on the economic recovery.

Biden has seen his overall approval ratings enter negative territory for the first time. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last weekend indicated that only 44 percent of adults were happy with how he was doing his job while 51 percent were unhappy.

The same poll showed Biden's performance on COVID-19 was far more highly rated than his actions on Afghanistan or on the economy. But his COVID-19 approval rating, at 52 percent, was much lower than it had been earlier in his term.

The danger, from the White House's perspective, was that the administration was beginning to look adrift, reacting to events rather than driving them.

Biden seized the reins again on Thursday. It was his best political moment in months.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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