Did Biden’s Covid-19 speech overreach?

Mike Pence thinks so.

He said, “I have to tell you the president’s speech yesterday was unlike anything I’d ever heard from an American president.”

“I mean, to have the president of the United States say that he has been patient but his patience is wearing thin — that’s not how the American people expect to be spoken to by our elected leaders,” Pence said. (Read story here.)

Could’ve been worse. At least Biden didn’t incite an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Pence went on “Fox and Friends” to say this, which instantly brands his speech as bloviation, because that’s not a forum where anybody goes for serious debate of public policy. His complaining also oozes hypocrisy, given his affiliation with an American president unlike any other in his impatience with journalists, minorities, immigrants, and protesters. Layered on that is the fact Republicans in general lack credibility on anything having to do with Covid-19 by having aligned themselves with crackpots, pandered to ignoramuses, and promulgated reckless policies on this issue.

National emergencies call for extraordinary measures, and it’s impossible to argue that Covid-19 isn’t a national emergency; in the 20 months since it came to our shores, the virus has infected over 40 million Americans and killed more than 654,000 of us. It may end up destroying more American lives than all of our nation’s wars put together. It’s still raging across our land, now as an epidemic of the unvaccinated, who include all children under age 12. It’s racing through schools, and kids now comprise almost 27% of those getting sick (see story here). How is that not a national emergency calling for extraordinary measures?

Before examining Biden’s new initiatives — those setting off Pence and GOP governors — let’s put them in a context. From the beginning, Republicans politicized this crisis. At this stage of the pandemic, America is bitterly divided into two camps, mostly breaking along partisan lines: The vaccinated and unvaccinated. Politics underlie much of the resistance to masks, vaccines, and school policies.

To many of us, Republicans seem to have a death wish for all of us.

Against that backdrop, it isn’t only Biden who’s running out of patience. Public anger is growing by leaps and bounds against the unvaccinated for prolonging the pandemic and its menace to responsible citizens. (See, for example, the story here.) Obnoxious, and sometimes violent, behavior by anti-maskers evokes cheering when they’re kicked off planes, out of businesses, and fired from employment. There’s a general feeling they have it coming. So, when Biden says patience with their camp is wearing thin, he’s reflecting the mood of the country.

But the question up for discussion here is whether his new initiatives are an overreach. That’s not the same as asking whether he has the authority, although the two questions overlap. Government can draft individuals to fight wars, and order them to get vaccinated, so the authority question is really about who has the authority to impose these mandates, Congress, the president, or both. There is such a thing as overreach, but that’s more about whether government should do something, as opposed to whether it can.

In his speech, Biden called for “vaccinating the unvaccinated, further protecting the vaccinated through booster shots, keeping schools open, increasing testing and requiring masks, protecting the economic recovery, and improving care for those with Covid-19” (story here). In its details (here), this means mandatory vaccinations for federal workers and contractors, health care workers, and large private employers, affecting 80% of the U.S. workforce (with some exceptions for religious and medical reasons).

He also chastised GOP governors who’ve fought mask mandates. They don’t like it? Too bad. Democrats don’t like a lot of things Republicans do.

It’s for a good cause. CNBC described this (here) as “the most aggressive effort yet by his administration to get the raging coronavirus pandemic under control.” But it’s also about politics; failure could cost his party seats in Congress next year, and maybe even the White House in 2024.

Biden gave his speech on Thursday, September 9, 2021. That same day, several GOP governors vowed to fight the vaccine edicts in court (story here). Biden snapped back, “Have at it” (story here). Probably out of frustration, not macho chest-beating.

There’s more to this than a renewed vaccination push. It’s politics, too. “The moves escalated Biden’s battle with GOP governors who have staunchly opposed government intervention on the pandemic, such as masking or vaccination requirements,” The Hill said (here), adding, “on Thursday [he] vented his frustration with elected officials who have blocked health measures to combat the virus.”

Biden isn’t the only person fed up with those governors. Just about every Democrat in the country is, too. So are many independents. This blog has sharply criticized them. “I am so disappointed … Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, … [and] their communities,” he said. “We’re playing for real here, and this isn’t a game ….”

When we talk about overreach, we’re talking about mask and vaccine mandates. I don’t think anyone’s against more testing, or more economic aid to small businesses. While part of the resistance is driven by false conspiracy theories, misinformation, immersion in political culture, or just not liking being told what to do, the mandates will have real impacts on real people. Masks are uncomfortable, and people are going to lose jobs.

The question of overreach really boils down to justifiability. Here, a historical comparison might help. In the 1960s, a young generation was involuntarily sent to fight a war on the other side of the world. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, kept the draft in place and expanded the war. Republicans went after anti-war demonstrators, draft resisters, and dissidents. All of this was prompted by fear of something (communism) that never reached our shores.

Consider the contrast. The virus is in our land, has sickened millions of Americans and killed hundreds of thousands, and now it’s attacking children. Republicans have fought nearly every effort to contain and defeat the virus and end the pandemic, prioritizing business profits and their twisted notion of “freedom” over saving lives. Yes, they voted for federal funding of vaccine development, but that makes their support of vaccine resistance all the more ironic.

I don’t think mask mandates are overreach. Mandatory vaccination is more intrusive, although there’s plenty of past precedent for it in our society (including everyone who’s ever served in the military or attended public schools), but forcing the anti-vaxxers to get shots will stretch the social fabric much farther than it’s already stretched. In this context, overreach equates with a bridge too far.

Logically and morally, Republicans don’t have an argument. If they could compel us to fight in Vietnam against an abstract and remote menace, then we’re entitled to make them to get vaccinated against the present and immediate menace of a deadly and contagious virus. As far as I’m concerned, they forfeited their objections to coercion in the public interest in Vietnam’s jungles and rice paddies.

But I don’t want to give them an excuse to tear our country apart. I’m for restraint. But the burden shouldn’t be on us to stay away from them, it should be the other way around, even if that means they can’t be on planes, in stores, or other public places. If we can work this out without forced vaccinations, I’m for it, even though most of them have no good reason for not getting vaccinated.

But that likely will require separating the vaccinated and unvaccinated. We can’t let them go maskless near us, because the vaccines aren’t 100% effective, so we can still get sick from them. They can’t make us breathe their exhaled air. Their unmasked kids can’t sit next to our masked kids in classrooms.  That isn’t overreaching, because they have no right to expose us to the virus.

There is a profound philosophical division between Democrats and Republicans on Covid-19. Democrats want to do what’s effective; Republicans want “freedom” to do as they please. This generally means letting the pandemic run its course, unhindered by human intervention. That might be okay if only they suffer the consequences, if you accept that we have no moral obligation to save them against their will, but the problem is they also drag us into their self-destruction.

By exposing us, they’ve been overreaching since the pandemic began, which makes their complaints about “overreach” ring hollow. And when a Republican attorney general sues to prevent schools from requiring masks (story here), their overreaching also reeks of hypocrisy.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    It comes down to what the President actually does. I doubt the President has all that much power in this area. He can order Federal workers and federal contractors to get vaccinated and the military. He cannot tell members of congress and those who work in the legislature to comply, nor judges and workers of the courts … [and] expanding the power of OSHA … turns corporations into agents of the government. He is doing that which he said the previous President could not do, … as the power actually sits in each of the 50 states and is the purviews of state government. … [Off-topic portions deleted — Ed.]

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    Using OSHA to protect workers from Covid-19 makes sense. Workplace safety is what OSHA is for. Specific regulations can be challenged for a variety of reasons, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens with vaccine mandates. But federal power in this area isn’t debatable; workplaces aren’t exclusively a province of the states.

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