Opinion: Joe Biden’s big week

CNN —  

President Joe Biden is having a big week, leaning into the challenges of the moment and coming away with two significant changes in policy. His speech Thursday marked an important new stage in the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination program.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The President announced that federal workers will be required to have the vaccination, “the best defense” against the virus, as he said, or else submit to regular testing, wear masks wherever they work, social distance and not travel. Employees of businesses that want federal contracts will have to do the same.

Marking a shift away from the voluntarism that the administration has depended on until this point, the President is following the science by adopting the forceful model now being put into place for city employees in New York and Los Angeles.

Like other vaccine mandates that the nation has been using for over a century, individuals are free to make their own choice – but if they want to learn or work in certain institutions, then they need to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk they could pose to others in transmitting a deadly disease.

A number of corporations and universities are adopting the same approach. Biden added that there would still be incentives, such as companies being reimbursed for giving employees time off to get themselves and their family vaccinated. CNN reported that the Treasury Department would call on states, territories and local governments to further incentivize vaccination, including offering $100 to Americans getting vaccinated, paid for with American Rescue Plan funding.

The President also outlined why the guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling for masks to be worn indoors once again in specific parts of the country. Masks “are not a political statement,” he said, “it is about protecting yourself” and others.

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In Biden-like fashion, he walked the nation through the rationale and the facts in a calm manner, with empathy and balance. He explained what the science currently says but kept the doors open to changes in scientific opinion – such as the possible need for boosters. He didn’t dismiss those who are unvaccinated, he appealed to them to reconsider.

Biden praised Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, for supporting vaccinations. “It’s not about red states and blue states,” he added, “it’s about life and death.”

“With freedom comes responsibility,” he added, since the unvaccinated pose risks to everyone else.

The new policies are being put into place at the same time that there appears to be a breakthrough in the infrastructure package that has been the subject of discussion for months. After a long period of negotiation in the Senate, a group of Republicans – including Sen. McConnell – appears to be on board with a $1 trillion package that will include funds for roads and bridges, transit and rail, airports, waterways, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and more.

Both developments are extremely fragile. Each one goes against huge forces confronting the nation that will only intensify. The push to expand the rate of vaccination is crashing onto the shores of the anti-vaccination movement.

Though some Republican officials have finally called for supporters to receive their vaccines – medical marvels boosted by Operation Warp Speed, which former President Donald Trump regularly touts – the intensity of those fighting against the vaccine, including right-wing media, some politicians and online conspiracy theorists, has left large portions of the population unpersuadable.

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Instituting requirements at places of work, learning and commerce will certainly help a great deal, but it might be too late to turn back the new wave of the Delta variant.

And if Biden can move the infrastructure package through the Senate, there are still many potential pitfalls along the way. The agreement does not mean that the fundamentals have changed on Capitol Hill.

If anyone thinks the pitched partisanship has diminished, or that the Republican Party has suddenly changed character, they should just look at the GOP response to the January 6 investigation.

With the exception of two lonely Republicans, the party has done everything possible to stonewall the effort to find out what happened in that horrendous attack on Congress and who was responsible. More evidence of the obstacles in Congress are evident with the success of Senate Republicans at blocking voting rights legislation as a number of states move to impose new restrictions on the ability of citizens to cast their ballot.

But if the administration can successfully navigate through these two inflection points, it would leave President Biden in an extraordinarily strong political position going into the fall. After all,Biden’s promise was always his ability to govern – trying to make things normal again, which means a functional government rather than the chaos of the Trump presidency.

Unlike other presidents who attract voters through charisma, soaring rhetoric or the promise of bold new agendas, Biden’s selling point was always that he would focus on the task of problem-solving, tackling the nation’s toughest policy challenges and bringing as many people into the conversation as possible.

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Until now, that promise has been more of an aspiration than a reality – as far as legislation goes. After the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act passed – without Republican support – progress stalled on a number of fronts.

Though time is the most valuable commodity in presidential politics, there are always opportunities to gain political ground after difficult moments. In an era where commentators constantly talk about winners and losers in American politics, the truth is that conditions change rapidly and a politician’s status can shift abruptly.

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If the President can deliver on bipartisan legislation – combined with more robust policy achieved through reconciliation – and get the nation quickly through this Delta moment without a repeat of the human and economic fallout from last year, he will deliver on his campaign promise. Not a specific policy, not a specific idea, but, rather, a demonstration of the ability to govern.

Pulling off a major bipartisan agreement in this era, with Sen. Mitch “Obstruction” McConnell’s support would be a major and unexpected feat. If the President sets a model for others to require vaccination and curbs the current surge, getting us back to where we were a month ago, that, too, would be a stark contrast to the way events unfolded in 2020.

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