Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Joe Biden has a political health care problem on his hands. Over the past week, his administration has been trying to contend with Republican governors who refuse to cooperate in national efforts to vaccinate, mask, and curb the new surge of Covid-19.
At the top of the obstructionist pack has been Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who many consider to be a top possible Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential campaign. Even as the Covid-19 rates are flaring in his state within the unvaccinated population, DeSantis is doubling down in resisting the President’s initiatives. The governor has gone so far as to threaten the funding for schools that require younger students to wear masks. He’s labeled New York City as a “bio-medical security state” for requiring proof of vaccination in many indoor facilities. As some Republicans are finally moving away from these sorts of dogmatic stances, the Florida governor is standing his ground.
The tension between President Biden and Gov. DeSantis is a glaring example that the problem the President faces with the pandemic is a political one. He’s dealing with large pockets of public health denialism that are deploying this issue—packaged in the rhetoric of individual freedom—to undercut efforts to protect the population, the economy, and our health care system from the ravages of this ongoing pandemic.
Many Republicans, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are digging into the anti-vaccination, anti-mask mantra at a time this outlook seems popular in red parts of the electorate. Even as some patients who are about to be ventilated say they wished they had received the vaccine, politicians are capitalizing on distrust, conspiracy sentiment and outright rage to combat what the administration is trying to do.
One of the great ironies is that former President Donald Trump likes to brag about Operation Warp Speed and how the incredibly effective vaccines are a legacy of his administration. While most scientists would say that the technology behind this vaccine has been in the making for some time, even members of President Biden’s Covid team admit that this was a major accomplishment.
Yet the former President also fueled a kind of conspiracy-centered, anti-science and anti-anything-politicians-tell-you mentality that has been extraordinarily damaging to the nation’s efforts to return to some sort of normal.
America is today a divided nation, one faction vaccinated and sometimes masked, the other against vaccines and always unmasked that makes containing the virus and its variants nearly impossible. And the costs of the continued damage are paid by everyone, through funding health care, to the damage to our economy, to the psychological carnage of entering another school year with this virus.
President Biden seems to have become more aware that he is facing a political challenge much tougher than he expected. This has been evident with the administration’s recent shift to a much more aggressive stand on vaccination. The President is requiring federal workers to receive the vaccine, convincing the military to do the same with our troops and is working to persuade businesses and local political leaders to ramp up the pressure on citizens to take the steps needed to stop the variants from spreading.
Whether Biden is successful remains unclear. The intensity of science denialism in much of the Republican electorate is extraordinarily strong, with 31% of GOP voters saying they’re unlikely to ever get the vaccine, according to the latest Monmouth University poll. We have seen this with regard to other vaccines and on other issues such as climate change.
But there are some signs that President Biden might finally have the wind at his back. Vaccination rates have been rising fast in red states that are being battered by the highly contagious Delta variant. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson reversed himself on a law that forbids a mask mandate in schools, as his state’s hospitals are reeling from the latest surge.
But Biden doesn’t have much time. He will need to continue to press his foot on the gas to reverse the direction that the nation has taken in the past few months, largely as a result of the anti-vaccination movement. While more incentives and efforts at persuasion are necessary, he will also have to continue to govern with a strong hand to make sure that many more Americans finally agree to take the vaccine which the Trump administration proudly spent so much money to produce.