Talking Points

Biden tries a harsher COVID message

With the Omicron variant on the rise in the United States, the Biden administration decided Friday to dispense with politeness. "For the unvaccinated," Jeff Zients, the White House COVID coordinator, said, "you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm."

It was a stark message — but was it too much? Some observers thought so. "Who is this for? Unvaccinated Americans are not going to be persuaded by messaging like this," wrote New York's Olivia Nuzzi. Megan McArdle, a Washington Post columnist, agreed.

But it's not like President Biden hasn't tried other methods to entice the hesitant into getting their shots. Back in the early summer, his administration was promoting incentives like child care and free beer to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. He tried reasoning with them in a gentle tone. It was only after the Delta variant began to overwhelm hospitals that Biden decided — reluctantly — to order a mandate for large employers.

Meanwhile, top Republicans are performing skepticism not only of mandates but of the shots themselves. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ducked a question over the weekend about whether he had received a booster shot, while former President Donald Trump got booed for acknowledging he had been boosted. Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, went a step further: "It'll be over my dead body that I get a shot," she told a gathering of young conservatives on Sunday. "I won't do it, and they better not touch my kids either."

A year after the first shots became available, it sure seems that the time for "please, pretty please, with sugar on it" passed a long time ago. "The truth is the truth," tweeted Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff.

Klain, though, may have accidentally pointed out the real flaw in the White House's messaging. While many unvaccinated people will get badly sick or die, many won't: So far, about a third of people who get the virus never show symptoms, and there are still hopes that Omicron is a milder variant. That doesn't mean people shouldn't get vaccinated (who knows if you're in that third?), but it does mean the White House can be fairly accused of overstating its case: Unvaccinated people won't always personally suffer.

Bluntness is sometimes necessary — but when it gets ahead of the facts, it just looks like hyperbole.