President Biden is in trouble. As my colleague Damon Linker writes, his approval numbers have been steadily declining for months, now hovering in the low 40s in some surveys. Without some upward movement, that will spell disaster for the Democrats in the upcoming midterms.
There is one straightforward policy Biden can undertake, completely on his own initiative, to turn this around: vaccine mandates. Strict policies to force vaccine-resistant populations to get their shots would do more than anything else under Biden's direct control to improve the condition of the country — and his own polling numbers.
Now, there are no doubt many reasons Biden's approval is down. The shrieking tantrum from the mainstream media over the American empire being humiliated in Afghanistan plays a part, as does the general tendency for presidential approval to decline following inauguration. The relentless drumbeat of conservative propaganda takes its toll as well.
But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is surely the largest part. Political science has shown for years that the incumbent party in the White House tends to be blamed for bad things that happen on its watch — even if that assignment of blame makes little sense. That's what's happening here.
As long as the pandemic continues, it will play hell with the economic recovery. Unemployment is relatively low, but recent jobs numbers have been weak, and supply chains are badly snarled up across the globe. That, coupled with the worst mass casualty event in a century — more people have died of COVID-19 this year than in 2020 — is surely sandbagging presidential popularity.
What's more, Biden did promise to end the pandemic. "I'll immediately put in place a national strategy that will position our country to finally get ahead of this virus and get back our lives," he said in a campaign speech last year. So even if it's not exactly his fault things are still bad, he still appears to be breaking his word. Early this summer, it appeared life was finally going back to normal after an absolutely horrible year — as it finally is in Western Europe, thanks to super-high vaccination rates. Instead, we got sucked right back down into the pandemic sandpit.
The primary proximate cause for that reversal is the behavior of the Republican Party. Right-wing media and leaders have constantly spewed anti-vaccine propaganda for months, while Republican politicians have bitterly fought any kind of forcible pandemic controls. Even as Florida suffered by far its worst surge of the virus since the pandemic started, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) continued to punish schools that required masks. He's currently in a legal fight trying to ban private cruise ship companies — perhaps the most notoriously disease-prone businesses in the world — from implementing vaccine requirements.
Sure enough, if you plot former President Donald Trump's vote share by county in 2020 versus vaccination rate, you find a large and consistent negative correlation. That is, the more Trump voters, the fewer shots in arms. A recent study in The Lancet found that if Texas and Florida alone had matched the vaccination rates of the most-vaccinated states, more than 22,000 Texans and Floridians who died of COVID-19 would still be alive today.
As I have previously argued, Republicans like DeSantis (who is vaccinated, by the way) are functionally conducting human wave attacks against Joe Biden's approval rating, sacrificing their own loyal base for cheap political wins. The extent to which this is a conscious calculation may vary, but the practical effect is that the pandemic continues; Biden is blamed for it; and that (probably) does more damage to Democrats' vote totals than the GOP loses in dead voters.
This ruthlessness must be met with bold, uncompromising action to save life rather than end it. A minority of Republicans insist they absolutely will not choose to get the vaccine? Fine. Force them to do it.
Biden has already started with his upcoming rule (invoking the Occupational Health and Safety Act) that workplaces with more than 100 employees require vaccination and offer paid leave for vaccine side effects, but more could yet be done. Probably the single most effective move would be to require vaccination to fly. As former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argues, this is certainly legal given how many other safety requirements are already in place in airports. Biden might be able to pressure the airlines into doing it themselves.
After that, more mandates should be added anywhere possible — on Amtrak, in restaurants, concert, and sport venues, and so on. It would also help to set up a legitimate vaccine database instead of the easily-forged cards currently in use, as that would help Americans travel overseas.
No doubt Biden hasn't already taken this path because of the predictable Republican response. Fox News and all the Republican governors would scream bloody murder at the prospect of quasi-forced vaccination. After some short-term backlash, the resultant end of the pandemic and rapid economic recovery would impede their plan to win back Congress and the White House in the next two election cycles.
It's always wise to take the reaction of one's opponents into account in politics. But this is a fight worth picking. A recent CBS poll found 55 percent of Americans think private businesses should be allowed to mandate vaccination, and 57 percent would prefer to vote for a politician who supports mandates. This is a great wedge issue (even a quarter of Republicans support mandates), and it would put Biden on the winning side of a culture war battle that makes the GOP look pro-pandemic. The sooner he implements mandates, the sooner Biden can enjoy the credit for conditions finally returning to normal.
More important than the politics, however, is the fact that mandates work. In New York state, which has Trumpy enclaves, compliance soared in hospitals and nursing homes following state mandates for select workers. Threats to quit en masse were mostly hot air. International figures show that once a country gets close to an 80 percent vaccination rate, transmission starts to die out. Right now the U.S. is at just 56 percent fully vaccinated on the national scale, as compared to 75 percent in Denmark or 86 percent in Portugal. By pushing us to that herd immunity line, Biden will save Americans' lives.