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Biden’s Done His Part on Vaccines. Now (Gulp!) It’s Up to America.

His terrific speech Thursday constitutes his bet-the-presidency moment. Will enough Americans roll up their sleeves?

A close-up of President Joe Biden as he discusses how to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

These days, you can depend on the Trumpian Republican Party to descend to the occasion. In an earlier time, Richard Nixon, as depicted in the 1950s by the great Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, was drawn emerging from the sewer. But today’s GOP won’t even lift a manhole cover to briefly glimpse daylight.

The vitriol and venom directed at Joe Biden’s efforts Thursday finally to get tough with Covid are in many ways the saddest manifestation of the Republican flight from rationality. With the pandemic again ravaging the nation, Biden Thursday, in the one of the strongest speeches of his presidency, asserted his authority to push for vaccine mandates.

Fox News reacted to the Biden address with the predictable specter of authoritarian jackboots taking away America’s liberties. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s TV show Thursday night, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a zealous advocate of superspreader events like the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally, boasted, “In South Dakota, we’re going to be free, and we’re going to make sure that we don’t overstep our authority.” Utah Senator Mike Lee, who is far from the craziest GOP member of Congress, claimed on Twitter, “As a would-be autocrat, Biden endangers the very fibers of this great nation.” And Texas Governor Greg Abbott assailed Biden’s purported “power grab” and, like other GOP governors, threatened lawsuits and other forms of resistance.

Publicly silent in the immediate aftermath of the Biden speech were the conservative Republicans who have been admirably sane about vaccination. There was no statement from Mitch McConnell, who has been touring Kentucky urging his fellow citizens to be inoculated and railing against wild internet conspiracy theories. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, whose exasperation with anti-vaxxers has won national attention, also did not initially react to Biden’s proposals.

Speaking at a luncheon in Louisville Thursday, hours before Biden’s speech, McConnell stressed that the pandemic “isn’t going away on its own.” But many of his GOP counterparts are again indulging in magical thinking about herd immunity and nutso home remedies. Republican officeholders appear to be much more afraid of a primary challenge from right-wing crazies than they are of the worst pandemic in American history.

The sad truth is that America is too diverse and too distrustful for volunteerism to work when it comes to vaccinations for Covid-19. Even though the rapid development of mostly made-in-the-USA vaccines may be the biggest scientific breakthrough of the last half-century, America is now a laggard in the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of the population protected from Covid-19. With only 53 percent of the nation fully vaccinated, try talking about “American exceptionalism” to a Spaniard (74 percent), a Dane (73 percent), a Canadian (69 percent), an Italian (63 percent), or a German (62 percent). Drug companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson gave America a head start on the world—and we squandered it.

That left Biden with the choice between ceding the future to the virus or finally resorting to some of the toughest remedies in the federal arsenal. The hope is that the courts uphold Biden’s aggressive use of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require companies with 100 or more employees to demand vaccination or weekly testing for Covid-19. An unheralded part of the Biden plan would also give employees in these companies paid time off to be inoculated and to recover from any side effects. For those at the economic margins, vaccine hesitancy is often due to fear of lost income rather than fear of the jab.

This is Biden’s bet-the-presidency moment. Either America gets the pandemic under control or we become—let’s be blunt here—a failed state.

The stimulus package, the infrastructure plan, and the hopes for a dramatic expansion of the social safety net through reconciliation will only be minor consolations for the Democrats if the nation continues to face one million new Covid cases per week. Everything depends on controlling the virus through vaccinations and, ultimately, booster shots.

There was a tone of both sadness and anger in Biden’s voice Friday morning when the president, during a visit to a Washington school, responded to a reporter’s question about the purported “overreach” of his vaccine requirements. “I am so disappointed,” Biden said, “that, particularly, some of the Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids. So cavalier with the health of their communities. We’re playing for real here. This isn’t a game.”

By aggressively targeting the roughly 80 million unvaccinated Americans—and the GOP governors who are their willing enablers—Biden has made a decision that goes beyond the current polling and the politics of the moment. The president can take some comfort in a mid-August Gallup poll that found that Americans, by a 52-to-38-percent margin, favor employer-mandated vaccinations. But what matters most is that fragile thing called hope, and the way that dreams of a rapid return to normal have been upended by the delta variant.

Democrat pollster Zac McCrary, who recently conducted focus groups in swing states, worries about the new notes of pessimism that he is hearing from voters. As he put it in an interview, “The psychological problem with the delta variant is that people worry about what else could be out there. You get kind of punch drunk from all the pressures.”

Americans today need, as Franklin Roosevelt declared, “freedom from fear.” The power of vaccines against severe illness and most infections, even with the delta variant, puts that freedom within reach. But only if Americans roll up their sleeves and get the shot.

The Republican resistance against reality is filled with angry talk about constitutional liberties and freedom from all restraints. But embedded in the preamble to the Constitution is the declaration that one of the purposes of our government is to “promote the general welfare.” Saving lives during a deadly pandemic is about as a dramatic example of promoting the general welfare as you can get.

Although Biden never mentioned it in his Thursday address, it is hard not to think about the battle to control the virus in the context of Saturday’s anniversary. Twenty years after 9/11, we are a nation riven with feuds and fault lines. But the hope remains that—when self-preservation is on the line—Biden can prevail in the greatest crusade of his presidency.