Biden needs to get more aggressive about Delta — for our sake, and his
There are a number of policies he hasn't implemented but could
For all the media hullaballoo about the messy Afghanistan withdrawal, what is really exerting downward pressure on President Biden's approval rating and by extension his party's chances in next year's midterm elections is the dispiriting resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The millions who scrambled for vaccine appointments in the spring thought the summer would bring permanent liberation from more than a year of misery and fear. Instead, the twisted selfishness of the unvaccinated minority has teamed up with an insanely transmissible coronavirus variant to threaten another long winter of discontent and death. If the president doesn't want the hated Delta variant to take his presidency down with him, he needs to get ahead of both the virus and the narrative.
President Biden cannot wave a magic wand and make all of this go away, especially because even aggressive actions today will take weeks to bear fruit. But the federal government has powers and tools that it has yet to deploy, and it needs to do so – yesterday. The most pressing is to instruct the FDA to issue an Emergency Use Authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be administered to children under 12. If some parents want to play wait-and-see with additional safety data, they should be given time before mandates are put into place; for those of us who would rather take our chances with unlikely side effects than with our irreplaceable children getting COVID, we should also have that choice.
Millions of unvaccinated children are being sent into a meat grinder this fall thanks to America's anti-vaxxers and the Republican death cult governors intent on preventing school districts from making instruction safer. Ugly battles over masking and mitigation policies are turning the return to in-person instruction into an even higher-stakes microcosm of our political dysfunction. And demoralized parents are once again having to choose between their sanity and their kids' safety. The only way out is for parents to know what the time horizon is for their kids to get vaccinated, and if the current interim head of the FDA, Janet Woodcock, is unwilling to move up the timeline on vaccinating younger kids, Biden needs to start firing people until he finds someone who is. The difference between acting now and mid-winter could be hundreds if not thousands of dead children.
The Biden administration also must stop dragging its heels on vaccine mandates where it has the power to issue them. It is inexcusable that airlines are still filling their planes with unvaccinated travelers, and the FAA could easily mandate that passengers get vaccinated in order to board or disembark from an airplane in the United States. The same goes for Amtrak and interstate bus companies. Polling suggests that travel restrictions could be one of the most effective tools to convince reluctant Americans to get their shots, and vaccine mandates for passengers are broadly popular. Just as importantly, combined with an available vaccine for younger kids it might convince many people who are currently canceling their fall plans to go through with them instead.
President Biden also must keep one eye on politics. His average job approval ratings are at their low point, and most of the decline preceded the missteps in Afghanistan. Given the failure of Democratic majorities in Congress to implement democracy reforms like non-partisan redistricting, the party really has no shot at holding the House of Representatives if Biden's approval rating is not well over 50%. Today it is 48.5%. Widespread societal malaise and weariness with the pandemic, if it is not addressed head on, will bring that number even lower.
It's great news for beleaguered parents that Biden's Department of Education will be pushing back against bans on vaccine mandates and mask requirements in red states. But these actions aren't likely to be on the radar of ordinary people. The president needs to use his bully pulpit to more aggressively light into governors who seem to be doing everything in their power to keep the pandemic roiling. And he must do what he has thus far, on the campaign trail and in office, been unwilling to do, which is to place blame for the pandemic resurgence squarely where it belongs: on the unhinged Republican Party, its cynical media apparatus, and the Americans whose selfishness is prolonging all of our agony. Schedule a national address about the Delta crisis and make sure every viewer knows exactly who to blame for their ongoing hell. Get the families of dead conservative anti-vaxxer media personalities like radio host Phil Valentine on a series of graphic PSAs begging people to get the jab.
There is a role for Congress here, too. To cover the workers who are skipping the vaccine because of workplace policies or out of fear that side effects will force them home, especially marginalized workers who can't afford the missed pay or the risk of getting fired, the U.S. needs special COVID vaccine sick days – at least two days off, by law, for all three shots that the government now says are needed. Additional tax incentives could be offered to companies and institutions that make vaccination mandatory for all employees. New policies could be enacted making it impossible to take out a federal loan to attend colleges and universities that don't require everyone on campus to show proof of vaccination. Offer a $1,000 tax rebate to anyone who can prove they got the vaccine. This is hardly an exhaustive list. The point is that when they are finished playing their months-long game of footsie with Republicans on infrastructure, Democrats need to use their power while they still can to drop the hammer on anti-vaxxers wherever it is constitutionally permissible.
It shouldn't all be sticks either. Remember when health-care workers got nightly salutes and promises of ticker-tape parades? Today they are bleary-eyed and dead inside after months of treating voluntarily unvaccinated COVID patients in overwhelmed hospitals. Reserves of empathy have run dry for many professionals. Especially in the areas hardest hit by Delta, we are risking not just a precipitous drop in the quality of care, but a long-term worker shortage in the whole sector.
To head off this crisis, the Biden administration should announce plans to train hundreds of thousands of new doctors and nurses, perhaps even locating new national nursing and medical schools strategically in swing states. President Trump proved that you don't necessarily need Congress to spend money anymore – Biden could just use his magic new Supreme Court-approved national emergency powers to move it around as he sees fit.
Everyone, vaccinated or not, also needs to know under what circumstances things might change for the better. How low do cases need to go before the CDC recommends that vaccinated people can remove masks indoors? When can we expect our children to be able to attend school without masks? Public health officials who don't understand how much many people loathe wearing face coverings for more than a few minutes at a time aren't doing anyone any favors by offering no conceivable respite from this grim, horizonless expanse of mask-wearing.
The pandemic will end, eventually, whether the Biden administration acts or not. But without a vaccine for kids and aggressive moves to boost vaccination uptake, that might not happen until next summer or beyond. So unless they want to head into the midterms with a pandemic still raging, President Biden and his allies need to speak to the anger and resentment of the vaccinated majority by using all available means to bring this viral horror to a swifter conclusion, as well as to insulate themselves from political blowback.