Talking Points

The political downside of 'follow the science'

The White House fended off numerous questions at Wednesday's press briefing about blue state governors easing COVID-19 restrictions, especially mask mandates, earlier than President Biden recommended. The answers were always the same: We're going to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and parents should too, no matter what their Democratic governor says (but also, when those governors loosen rules, it's different and better than when Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis does the same).

That messy briefing was emblematic of a larger problem: The Biden administration is struggling with when to ease pandemic safety guidelines. They've been burned before, prematurely declaring victory as the vaccines rolled out last June only to have to urge people to remask as new variants emerged and a slice of the population remained stubbornly resistant to the shots.

The problem is that when the administration does lift its endorsement of the restrictions, it will be so far behind everyone else — including most Democratic elected officials — that they'll receive little political credit for the return to normalcy. And normalcy was a big, if unspoken, part of Biden's successful campaign pitch. 

Yet he's seriously limited his options here. As a candidate, Biden vowed to follow the science, and since taking office, he has defined that to mean the CDC, which Press Secretary Jen Psaki likes to say "moves at the speed of science." But CDC policymakers are also the most risk-averse people on the planet. They would not recommend you eat raw cookie dough or rare hamburgers. For the past two years, most of the country has been following their lead on COVID.

No more. People are beginning to see that there are other factors — economic, cultural, psychological, educational — that have to be considered when weighing virus mitigation measures. Vaccines help. Nearly half of Democrats are ready to move on, along with sizable majorities of everyone else.

While a change in policy may be coming soon, Biden has been boxed in by people who refuse to do this cost-benefit analysis. He also may be appeasing the nontrivial number of his own voters who are extremely COVID-cautious. But that's not going to win him or his party the midterm elections. Expect more messy press conferences to come.