WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden marshaled his forces Thursday for a renewed attack on Covid-19 — and on a Republican Party divided over vaccinations.
Biden's six-prong strategy amounts to a two-part bet: that vaccination mandates will wrangle the pandemic and that the public will reward him for using his authority.
"We need to do more. This is not about freedom or personal choice. It's about protecting yourself and those around you," he said, countering the arguments of Republicans who decry government vaccination mandates. "There are elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against Covid-19."
Biden's plan includes an order for executive branch employees to get vaccinated, an emergency Labor Department rule requiring large- and mid-size companies to mandate shots for their workers and a series of proposals to ensure that school employees are vaccinated. Republican critics, many of whom have resisted mask mandates and vaccinations, see an overreach they can exploit, but Democratic strategists say his approach is sound politically and on policy grounds.
For Biden, there isn't much of a choice. He and his fellow Democrats will be judged on his campaign-trail vow to subdue the coronavirus by deploying federal resources competently.
"Part of the Biden promise is that he can leverage a whole-of-government approach to combat the biggest challenges facing our society, so for Americans to see him taking consistent action against the pandemic and leveraging every tool at his disposal is critical," said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House.
"The midterms will ultimately be an assessment on how effectively he managed the pandemic, as well as the pace of economic recovery," LaBolt said, "and if he can demonstrate consistent progress on both fronts, Democrats will be better positioned at the polls next year than electoral history would suggest."
For the same reason, the risk for Biden in a high-profile reset is lower than that of inaction. At worst, the latest strategy will be a footnote in the history of the battle against Covid-19. At best, Biden will be able to point to it as a pivotal moment in defeating the virus.
Half of U.S. workers favor vaccination mandates in their own workplaces, according to an AP-NORC poll released last month, while only about a quarter oppose them, and the pressure on Biden to act more boldly has risen with the spread of the delta variant in recent weeks.
He channeled those sentiments Thursday.
"Many of us are frustrated with the 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated," he said.
Biden is already getting loud criticism from the overlapping pools of vaccination critics and anti-government Republicans.
"Do we even live in a free country anymore?" Donald Trump Jr., the son of the former president, asked on Twitter.
But it's clear that Biden's political strategy relies on drawing a contrast with the small minority of the country that is as hostile to vaccinations and masks as Trump Jr. is.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53 percent of Americans have already been fully vaccinated, and 9 percent more have taken one shot of a two-dose regimen. Millions of the unvaccinated are young children for whom the vaccines haven't yet been approved, and Biden said only 25 percent of the eligible population is totally unvaccinated.
For Democrats to suffer politically for the mandates, a substantial share of voters who have been vaccinated would have to punish them for it. It is more likely that voters would turn on Biden for a failure to stop the virus than for flexing executive muscle to get it under control.
"The indisputable fact is the only way to fight the virus is to get more people vaccinated," said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who worked on Biden's presidential campaign. "A significant majority of Americans are vaccinated and want those around them and their families to be vaccinated. So not only is the president responding to the science, but he's also responding to the desire of the majority of Americans by using every lever at his disposal to get more people vaccinated."
Republicans are deeply divided over vaccinations. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has cut ads to encourage people to get shots, and most top GOP officials have been vaccinated. But Republican-led state governments in Texas and Florida have banned vaccination and mask mandates.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., ripped Biden's new policies Thursday on Twitter.
"All 9 million federal employees should consult with their doctor and make a personal, informed decision about taking the vaccine," she wrote. "Instead, Sleepy Joe says take it or else... You don't lead by coercion."
Biden didn't start with coercion. But if he can end the pandemic with it, he and his party may well benefit.