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Why Biden’s vaccination push now wields both the carrot and the stick

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s Covid vaccination push began with pitches, and ramped up to incentives — but as the fight against the Delta variant has gotten tougher this summer, so has his approach, with his administration increasingly embracing vaccine mandates and ratcheting up pressure on Republican governors rejecting public health recommendations.

The president has moved beyond the incentive-based strategy that drove his early vaccination efforts, adopting a more demanding approach in recent weeks following a steady decline in the number of shots being given, and a new wave of infections in areas with low vaccination rates.

The posture marks a sharp strategic about-face in strategy from just one month ago, when press secretary Jen Psaki said it wasn’t the place of the federal government to impose or encourage mandates. Back then, the White House promoted celebrity endorsements and the ability to take more convenient vacations while combating misinformation.

A sign at the Cowbell restaurant informs customers that they can eat indoors if they have proof of vaccination against COVID-19, in New Orleans, on Aug. 6, 2021.Kevin McGill / AP

But the surge in cases due to the Delta variant led outside public health advisers to push the White House behind the scenes to take a stronger approach — one that became particularly evident in a wave of actions and statements over the past week.

As the Supreme Court suggested that vaccine mandates by public institutions would not run afoul of legal review, the president increased the ranks of federal workers facing the same demand, announcing on Thursday that all Health and Human Services employees who may come in contact with patients must be vaccinated.

The move affected 25,000 workers, including those for the Indian Health Services and the National Institutes of Health. It followed a requirement that all federal employees be vaccinated or undergo routine testing, and the Defense Department’s Monday announcement that members of the military will soon face a vaccination requirement of their own.

Administration officials have indicated in recent days there is more pressure to come.

The White House is looking into whether the federal government can take action against states that have banned mask requirements. They are also weighing whether federal dollars can be used to pressure nursing homes and other institutions to require worker vaccinations, administration officials have said.

Officials are also leaning on school districts to require teacher vaccinations, a proposal Biden’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci and NIH director Francis Collins called for on Tuesday in interviews on MSNBC. That same day, Biden said he would use his full authority as head of the federal government to do what he could.

“I wish I could have thought of something beyond what we thought of to make everybody want to get the vaccine, but that hasn’t been the case,” Biden said. “Now, at a federal level, what I’m going to be doing is making sure that they understand that I do have authority to say, if you’re going to come into this building, into a federal building, that you have to have been vaccinated and show that or be wearing a mask.”

While Republicans have used the prospect of vaccine mandates to accuse the president of government overreach, the majority of Americans say they support them, according to recent polls. About 60 percent of adults said vaccines should be required by federal, state and local governments, along with employers, schools and businesses, according to a Morning Consult poll released at the end of July.

Vaccination requirements by employers get the strongest support from Democrats, 76 percent of whom are in favor of the idea, which also has the backing of 46 percent of independents and 38 percent of Republicans, according to the poll.

The harder-line strategy may be paying off. The average number of new doses administered has more than doubled since hitting its low point on July 7, when the White House was brushing aside the suggestion of vaccine mandates.

The federal government is limited in how far it can go to requiring vaccinations based on past legal precedent, which has left much of that authority to state and local governments. One area that remains under their purview is domestic air travel, where it is already requiring people to wear masks.

Administration officials have said they anticipate more local governments, schools and employers to require vaccinations once the FDA gives the shots final approval, which is expected later this month.

Biden, who has prided himself on his bipartisan style, has attacked Republican governors, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have sought to prohibit schools and local governments from requiring masks. “If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing,” he said last week.

Psaki said the administration was looking at ways Covid relief funds could be used to help school districts that face penalties from governors for enforcing masking requirements. DeSantis has said he would look to cut state funding for schools that require masks.

Texas schools also face a ban on mask requirements that two of the state’s largest school districts have vowed to defy. Those requirements were upheld this week by two separate state district judges in a rebuke to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he would be watching closely as to whether a ban on mask requirements appears to be preventing students from attending and accessing their right to public education as schools open in the coming days.

“I’m also going to be monitoring where places have rules that are limiting mask use, whether or not students that need to be in school are not going because of a lack of confidence,” Cardona said. “To me, those are adult actions preventing students their right of public education.”

Biden himself is using his bully pulpit to praise heads of institutions that have put vaccine requirements in place for their workers with the same vigor he used earlier in the summer to encourage companies to offer vaccine incentives, like gift cards, lotteries and paid time off.

Since he announced the requirement for federal workers to be vaccinated or be routinely tested, a wave of companies have announced plans to follow suit, including United Airlines, whose CEO met with Biden virtually on Wednesday.

“I know this isn’t easy,” the president said last week of private companies imposing mandates. “But I will have their backs and the backs of other private and public sector leaders if they take such steps.”

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