WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden looked out over an audience of government scientists and framed his latest plan for fighting COVID-19 as an opportunity to at last put an end to divisiveness over the virus, calling the politicization of the issue a “sad, sad commentary.”
And then he tacked on a political dig.
Some people “on the other team,” he said Thursday, were threatening to hold up government spending and endangering the nation’s credit out of pique over vaccination requirements.
“Go figure,” he added.
It was a quick aside in a Biden speech that otherwise struck a largely bipartisan tone. But it served as fresh evidence that after taking it on the chin for months, Biden and his allies are increasingly willing to hit back, casting Republicans as the true obstacle to the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
The Democratic president’s efforts to confront the coronavirus have long attracted a litany of fiery statements, legal challenges and more than a few barbs from his predecessor. But Biden was elected on the promise of depoliticizing the virus response and following the science, so responding in kind wasn’t seen as an option early on.
Biden aides in the early months of his presidency pressed him to ignore criticism from Republicans, arguing that responding would further inject politics into the vaccination campaign and harm his all-out effort to get Americans to roll up their sleeves.
But now, as public patience wears thin amid the emergence of the new omicron variant and some GOP lawmakers' threats to shut down the government over vaccine requirements, the White House and its allies are seizing on what they see as a political opening.
“It’s clear that Republicans have decided that the fate of the Biden presidency is tied to COVID,” said Democratic communications strategist Eric Schultz, who worked in the Obama White House. “And Republicans have chosen to be on the side of the virus.”
With most Americans now vaccinated, the White House is less worried about turning people off with such political talk. Biden aides now doubt that some of the stubborn holdouts -- more than 40 million adults -- will get a vaccine for any reason short of their employers requiring it, minimizing the risk of backlash.
Biden did pop out a dig in August as some Republican governors moved to block mask mandates in schools.
“If you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying,” he said. “You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
More recently, Biden aides have grown more willing to openly condemn Republican lawmakers they view as obstacles to his efforts to control the pandemic.
“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 coworkers, our children, filling hospitals — that is what they are advocating for,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at briefing this week. “They want to shut the government down in order to advocate for people to assert that on society. So, I don’t think that should be lost on us.”
Privately, White House officials have been even more direct, accusing Republicans of advocating policies that would extend the pandemic, close schools and cost more lives.
Some Republican lawmakers, for their part, have pitched their opposition to the vaccine mandates as looking out for constituents being forced to choose between a shot and a job, although Biden’s order offers a test-out alternative for most private sector employees. The lawmakers are seeking legislation that would prevent agencies from receiving funding to enforce the mandates.
“I have heard from hundreds of Utahns, in recent days, who are concerned about losing their jobs — losing their jobs not just in general, not just in the abstract, but specifically due to these mandates,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Democrats are portraying the vaccine mandates as critical to protecting the health of Americans during a pandemic, describing the Republican efforts as “anti-vaccine.”
“How do they explain to the public that they are shutting down government because they don’t want people to get vaccinated?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday when the fate of a government spending bill was uncertain. “Why don’t you go ask them? This is so silly.”
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that if Republicans were to block the funding bill, “It will be a Republican anti-vaccine shutdown.”
The Senate did later Thursday approve a stopgap spending bill to avoid a short-term shutdown after leaders defused the standoff over vaccine mandates.
Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has long been a strong point in his public approval ratings, but it has slipped in recent months as the delta variant raged and cases and deaths increased. More than 780,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19.
An October AP-NORC poll found that 54% of Americans said they approved of Biden’s job on the pandemic, higher than his approval rating overall and much higher than approval of his handling of the economy, at 48% and 41%, respectively.
Still, as recently as July, before the delta variant struck, 66% had approved of Biden on COVID-19 and 59% approved of his job performance overall.
The White House seems increasingly intent on reclaiming the high ground on COVID.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates on Thursday took to Twitter to play up a Chamber of Commerce statement offering support for the president’s contention “that no business should have to shut down this winter because of COVID-19.”
Bates tweeted, “Tough break for Republicans: like us, business is also opposed to the pandemic, and they similarly don’t want it to kill more Americans and jobs."
AP writers Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.