President Biden just gave an early Valentine's Day present to the Democratic governors who are deep-sixing their states' mask mandates: He's disagreeing with them. Mildly, but still.
"It's hard to say whether they're wrong. The science is saying now that masks work, masks make a difference," Biden said in a pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC's Lester Holt on Sunday. "I committed that I would follow the science, the science as put forward by the CDC and the federal people," he later added. "I think it's probably premature, but it's a tough call."
Biden is likely right on the merits. There were more than 2,400 COVID-19 deaths reported on Sunday, and hospitals in some parts of the country are still so overwhelmed that the military is sending in relief units to help shore up staffinging shortages. "The volume of patients that we currently have in our hospitals really has not dropped off," said an executive at a Oklahoma hospital that is operating with help from Air Force personnel. The pandemic is still very much a thing, even if a number of Americans want to be vaxxed and done.
But Democratic governors who are lifting their mask mandates — a group that includes Colorado's Jared Polis, New Jersey's Phil Murphy, New York's Kathy Hochul, among others — probably are ahead of Biden on the politics. While most Americans still favor indoor mask mandates in their states, that number is skewed by overwhelming support from Democrats. Elected Dems who want to reach beyond their base understand the mandates aren't universally popular.
That's why Biden's comments to Holt were a gift to those governors. It's traditional for state-level politicians to expand their appeal with shows of independence from their national parties, anyway. Biden's unpopularity — and the intensity of feeling on both sides of the COVID divide — amplifies the power of such a move. The president just drew the lines a little more brightly.
He also gave a promising politician like Polis the chance to play statesman. Polis went on Fox News this weekend to call for "civility and respect" from maskers and anti-maskers alike. "If you're somebody who doesn't like wearing masks, respect those who do," he said. "If you're somebody who likes wearing masks, please respect those who don't." It's the kind of unity message that has carried a couple of Democrats to the White House during this century. Biden might not fully agree with Polis, but he probably understrands.