Analysis: Biden’s path out of the pandemic meets a GOP blockade

(CNN)The entrenched Republican opposition to public health measures like vaccine and mask mandates has become one of the most difficult challenges facing President Joe Biden as he tries to fulfill his campaign promise to shut down the Covid-19 pandemic.

GOP leaders for months have simultaneously blamed Biden for failing to stamp out the virus while becoming the party hellbent on protecting the rights of the unvaccinated, even if that means putting the health and safety of all other Americans at risk. The Gordian knot they have created for Biden was on full display once again Wednesday when — at virtually the same time that the first case of the Omicron variant was discovered in the US — several Republican senators threatened to derail a stopgap measure that will avert a government shutdown Friday night unless their colleagues acceded to their demand for a vote on defunding Biden’s vaccine requirement for large employers.

With unvaccinated Americans now about three times as likely to lean Republican as Democratic, Biden has found few influential GOP allies to help him push his case for vaccinations in deep red areas where Americans remain most resistant to getting them.

Summing up what has become a central talking point for GOP candidates as they head into the 2022 midterm primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters on Wednesday that his party should “use every tool we have to protect people’s rights, and the vaccine mandates are illegal, they’re abusive and they’re hurting this country.”

But Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, warned that forcing a shutdown over a health measure intended to save lives would prove disastrous for the Republican Party: “I certainly hope they don’t shut out the lights of this government (in) some kind of bold display of stupidity,” he said.

Not all Senate Republicans are going along with the machinations of conservative lawmakers — namely Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah — who would like to force a showdown over vaccine mandates. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Wednesday that he thought “we’re gonna be OK” as he worked to avert a shutdown. But this latest battle exemplified the degree to which America’s chances of emerging from the pandemic anytime soon will continue to be dampened by the partisan posturing over public health measures.

The contretemps on Capitol Hill is unfolding at a time when many Americans are anxious about whether they will be protected against the Omicron variant and just as Biden was slated to deliver a speech Thursday laying out his plans for the next phase of confronting the pandemic at the National Institutes of Health.

The President pushed ahead with the vaccine requirements for large employers (whose workers could opt out if they adhered to routine testing) and certain health care workers after countless public health experts argued that the only way to end the pandemic was by increasing vaccination rates. Biden has gotten little help from Republicans as he has pleaded for Americans to get vaccinated. Tthe mandates had been slated to go into effect in January as the President faces the reality that roughly 45 million American adults are still unvaccinated — and are unlikely to be persuaded by his arguments.

The mandates were almost immediately ensnared in the courts after they were challenged by Republican attorneys general across the country, who appear to have the upper hand at the moment. Since Monday, the Biden administration has faced three major court setbacks temporarily blocking its vaccine requirements in certain states and, in one instance, nationwide.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki reflected the administration’s frustration with Republican intransigence on vaccine mandates Wednesday when she addressed the efforts by Trump-aligned Senate Republicans to shut down the government over the vaccine requirements.

“These supporters of the former President are advocating for shutting the federal government down so that 20% of the public who are refusing to get vaccinated, or tested, can be free to infect their co-workers, our children — filling hospitals,” Psaki said. “That is what they are advocating for.”

Partisanship hardens around public health measures

The Republican blockade against Biden’s tools to try to halt the pandemic has created an impasse that may only grow worse as political polarization intensifies heading into the elections.

Alongside the battles in the courts, more than a dozen GOP-controlled legislatures around the country have been exploring ways to thwart vaccine mandates as they look to fire up the Republican base before the midterms. With much fanfare last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called a special session to pass “protections” for workers who refuse to get vaccinated. One law will allow Florida to fine companies that require Covid-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment. In their continuing quest to make life comfortable for the unvaccinated, a number of Republican-controlled legislatures have been exploring how to ensure that those who are terminated for failing to get their shots can collect unemployment benefits.

At a news conference earlier this week, DeSantis waved off the threat of Omicron as he cast himself as a champion for personal liberty: “We are not in Florida going to allow any media-driven hysteria to do anything to infringe people’s individual freedoms when it comes to any type of COVID variants,” he said.

While the White House had hoped earlier this year that “trusted messengers” would help it in its quest to get the nation fully vaccinated — particularly in red areas of the country won by former President Donald Trump — that now appears to be an illusion, as political partisanship becomes one of the strongest predictors of whether someone is vaccinated, according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Republicans made up 60% of unvaccinated adults as of October, according to the foundation, and the views of those unvaccinated Republicans indicate that they are unlikely to be swayed by Biden’s recent entreaties to do their part in helping to squelch the pandemic — and limit the threat of Omicron — by getting their shots.

Eighty-eight percent of the unvaccinated Republicans surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation stated that the seriousness of the coronavirus is generally exaggerated and 96% said getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is “a personal choice” rather than “everyone’s responsibility to protect the health of others.” A stunning 84% said they were either “not too worried” or “not at all worried” about getting sick from Covid-19.

The calcified mindset of indifference among some Republicans was modeled at the top, of course, by former President Donald Trump as he downplayed the importance of masks and testing during his time in the White House and then inexplicably declined to make a hard press for Americans to get the Covid-19 vaccines that his administration had helped produce through Operation Warp Speed.

Trump’s callous disregard for the health of those around him — and his uninterest in being candid about his own health with the American people — were underscored Wednesday by a new report that he had tested positive for Covid-19 on September 26, 2020, three days before a presidential debate with then-candidate Joe Biden. Yet the former President continued to hold a multitude of indoor and outdoor events unmasked — including the Rose Garden ceremony for then-Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, where at least 12 people who attended later tested positive for Covid-19 — without making the diagnosis public.

The new detail about Trump having tested positive earlier than previously disclosed emerged in a memoir by his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, a copy of which was obtained by The Guardian ahead of the book’s publication next week. Meadows wrote that Trump took an antigen test after getting his first positive result and that second test produced a negative result, which led him to continue his normal schedule. He announced on October 2, 2020, that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive and he was hospitalized later that day — a timeline that did not make any sense to doctors given that it normally takes days for severe Covid-19 symptoms to develop.

Trump asserted in a statement that “the story of me having COVID prior to, or during, the first debate is Fake News. In fact, a test revealed that I did not have COVID prior to the debate.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as the director of strategic communications under Trump and as an assistant to the president, said Trump’s behavior showed “a flagrant lack of regard for public health” and noted the risks it had posed to members of her staff and others in the West Wing.

    “At this time in the White House, I had staffers who were pregnant. I had one who is a multi-time cancer survivor. We had plenty of people in the West Wing who are over 65. We could have killed one of our colleagues, and instead they decided to not tell anyone, putting every single one of us at risk,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday on “The Lead.”

    Unfortunately, the ethos that Trump displayed in those days — treating Covid as a minor inconvenience rather than a deadly risk to public health — continues to pervade his party. For as long as that indifference continues, American lives will remain at risk and this country will be trapped in a pandemic that feels like it will never end.