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Biden's Push For Vaccine Mandates Indicates A Change In Pandemic Politics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden goes to Chicago tomorrow to talk about his new vaccine requirements, including for larger private companies. The new rules are meant to get more people vaccinated, of course, but they also show how Democrats see the politics of COVID changing. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For months, Biden resisted mandates. He didn't want to make the vaccines any more politicized than they already are. But when delta surged and it became clear that most of the hardcore vaccine resistance was partisan, Biden leaned into America's newest culture war - the great mandate debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans supported by a distinct minority of elected officials are keeping us from turning the corner.

LIASSON: The bottom line, Biden said, is to protect vaccinated workers from their unvaccinated co-workers. For a president elected on a promise to heal divisions and unify the country, it was an unusual embrace of us-against-them rhetoric. But Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Obama, points to polls that show majorities of Democrats and independents and about a third of Republicans support the new rules.

DAN PFEIFFER: If you are picking an issue that is supported by north of 60% of Americans, that is not divisive. That is doing the right thing.

FRANK LUNTZ: Republican pollster Frank Luntz says that, based on his focus groups with vax resistors, Biden's new requirements should make a difference up to a point.

LUNTZ: It was plain to see they were mad about it, but a significant percentage of those who are not vaccinated would actually accept it if it meant that they could travel, if it meant that they could continue to work in the office. And what's left? Those people who refuse to do it - nothing is going to change their mind.

LIASSON: Biden has clearly given up trying to persuade those people. He's also welcoming a fight over mandates with Republican governors like Greg Abbott of Texas, heard here on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

GREG ABBOTT: Sean, I have issued an executive order already in existence that prohibits any government from imposing a vaccine mandate on my fellow Texans. So...

LIASSON: Abbott and other Republicans say they'll sue. Biden's response - have at it. Why the new confidence on the part of Democrats about wielding the heavy hand of government? For one thing, getting COVID under control is the campaign promise polls show voters care about most. More than anything else, COVID is what's driving Biden's approval ratings up or down. But there's a bigger shift in opinion about the role of government that's also emboldening Democrats. Dan Pfeiffer.

PFEIFFER: The pandemic made it clear to a lot of people that you need government - right? - either to help people out when an unexpected crisis happens like this pandemic, to ensure that people get vaccinated to protect people. It boils down to shots in arms and checks in the mail. And that has changed the dynamic.

LIASSON: In the great mandate debate, Democrats really are from Mars, and Republicans are from Venus. Democrats, as the governing party, have to appeal to the majority of voters and show them they can get COVID under control. Republicans, especially those thinking about running for president in 2024, have to appeal to their base, which is largely anti-vax, not just anti-mandate. If there was ever any doubt about this, just listen to what happened at Donald Trump's rally in Alabama in August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I recommend taking the vaccines. I did it. It's good. Take the vaccines. But you got - no, that's OK. That's all right. You got your freedoms. But I happened to take the vaccine.

LIASSON: Hear those boos? Frank Luntz says that moment showed the Republican base is more willing to listen to anti-vax conspiracy theorists on social media than any of the party's leaders.

LUNTZ: When I saw Trump's own voters boo him when he said, get the vaccine, that's when I realized that social media may be even more powerful than President Trump. The consequences of that over the long term are frightening.

LIASSON: What it means is, at least for now, the GOP is a party whose leaders follow the base, not the other way around. And that has big implications for public health because the great mandate debate is not just a political game. It's about people's lives. But at the same time President Biden is trying to get more people vaccinated, his party is also trying to win the midterms. Dan Pfeiffer says Democrats are determined to paint Republicans as the party of COVID.

PFEIFFER: The party of COVID is part of a larger narrative about Republicans being too extreme, too irresponsible, too in the thrall of Trumpism to responsibly govern. In a polarized age where negative partisanship reigns, where people are looking as much for what they're voting against as what they're voting for, we have to make a case against Republicans as relentless and aggressive.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Rob Stutzman says his party, which has a lot of advantages going into 2022, could hurt itself in suburban swing districts if it becomes identified with vaccine resistance.

ROB STUTZMAN: Particularly suburban women. These are the types of issues I think could really give them pause to vote for Republicans. And my concern is that Republicans may be fumbling away huge opportunities here.

LIASSON: Because, Stutzman says, in the new politics of COVID, where the dividing line is vaxed versus unvaxed, people who are vaccinated want someone to advocate for them. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING AND MATTHEW SALTZ'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.