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Politics Chat: Biden Announces New Mandates Aimed To Mitigate Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Several Republican governors are threatening to sue over the new vaccination and testing mandates President Joe Biden announced last week for millions of American workers. Biden's message to them, quote, "have at it."

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're playing for real here. This isn't a game.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Biden said the six parts of his new plan to combat the pandemic are, quote, "hard but necessary." Joining me now, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the White House has shifted towards mandates, haven't they?

LIASSON: Absolutely. Remember, back in December, the president said he wouldn't demand a vaccine mandate. He was preferring to use persuasion rather than coercion to get people who were vaccine hesitant to get the shots. But since then, two things happened - one, the delta surge, which laid waste to Biden's idea that July 4 would be the point where Americans could declare independence from the virus, and No. 2, the White House realized that they were working against partisan hesitancy, not just people who were waiting to be convinced to get their shot. So now Biden is taking a new, tougher tack. He's saying to the unvaccinated, you are endangering other people's health.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: July 4 seems a very long time ago.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mean basically that - I guess the White House feels that, at this point, they've reached the limits of persuasion.

LIASSON: That's right. We've seen in poll after poll that - like so many other things in this country and in our politics - COVID vaccines have been totally politicized. The difference between those willing to get vaccinated and those who aren't is partisan, and you can see it on the maps of the counties. Counties won by President Trump have lower vaccination rates than counties won by Biden. And I think the president now believes the most important thing for him to do as president is to get the virus under control because it's not just a public health emergency. It also threatens the country's economic recovery, and that is the key to success for Biden's own political fortunes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. This new plan, I mean, what is President Biden saying about it?

LIASSON: When he announced it last week, he said a 25% minority, or 80 million adults, are eligible for these shots but haven't gotten them. He was clearly frustrating - frustrated. He said their refusal to get vaccinated has cost all of us. So what he did is he took away the testing option for federal employees. Now federal employees have to get vaccinated; also federal contractors have to; so do health care workers who treat patients on Medicare and Medicaid. As for the private sector, he said if a company has more than 100 workers, they have a choice. They can vaccinate their employees or test them weekly. Clearly, the White House has decided that the political downsides of a mandate are smaller than the downsides if the virus continues to rage out of control.

And independent voters seem to agree with these mandates. And other polls show that voters say getting the pandemic under control is still the No. 1 concern. So that's why the White House is focusing on this. And as a matter of fact, they have some support from Republican governors. Remember back in July, Alabama's Republican governor, Kay Ivey, said that it's time to blame the unvaccinated. They've let us down. Just last week, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice had this message for the unvaccinated.

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JIM JUSTICE: For God's sakes of living, how difficult is this to understand? Why in the world do we have to come up with these crazy ideas - and they're crazy ideas - that the vaccines got something in it and it's tracing people wherever they go? And the same very people that are saying that are carrying their cellphones around. I mean, come on, come on.

LIASSON: So that being said, Justice is still not supportive of a vaccination mandate for private businesses, but he clearly wants to get the unvaccinated people in his state to take the shot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's interesting hearing Jim Justice say that, but if some of his fellow Republican governors follow through with their threats to sue the administration over the mandate, I mean, what do you think will happen to their lawsuits?

LIASSON: There's going to be a big fight in court about this, but historically, the courts have ruled that vaccine mandates are constitutional. And remember, even governors in the states where they say they're going to sue - they say we're not anti-vax, we're just anti-vax mandate - they already have vaccination mandates on the books for public school attendance. Kids who go to public school in Texas are mandated to get a vaccine for polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps, rubella. So the White House feels it's on pretty strong legal ground to regulate businesses in a public health emergency.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this, of course, all has a political cost for President Biden, and it's been several rough months.

LIASSON: Several rough months. I don't know if his new aggressive tack on vaccines will make up for the self-inflicted wounds of the messy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But this is one rare instance where the opponents of his policy are making a more convoluted argument than he is. Republicans who say they're pro vaccine but anti-vax mandate - Biden says, hey, we're giving you a choice. Get your employees vaccinated or test them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.