When Republican governors began prematurely lifting coronavirus restrictions in their states earlier this spring, President Joe Biden and his team largely kept their heads down, ramping up vaccine distribution while steering clear of rhetorical battles with political adversaries.
But this week, as the Delta variant and low vaccination rates in several southern states sent cases soaring, Biden took a new approach: Castigating Republican governors who are standing in the way of mask and vaccine requirements – and calling out the governors of Texas and Florida in particular for enacting “bad health policy.”
“I say to these governors: Please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way,” Biden said during remarks about the pandemic on Tuesday. “The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”
Over the course of the past week, Biden has demonstrated new willingness to cross lines he was previously reluctant to breach, frustrated by the behavior of certain Republicans and exasperated by Americans who refuse to get vaccinated.
Earlier in his presidency, as he worked to stand up a nationwide vaccination effort and distribute coronavirus relief funding, Biden strived to keep politics out of his efforts, believing outright criticism of individual governors or vaccine-hesitant Americans would backfire.
Now, as another surge threatens the progress he’s made on the pandemic so far, Biden has come to believe the time holding his tongue has passed. Taken together with the administration’s new openness to vaccine mandates and heightened criticism of vaccine disinformation, the direct calls on governors to alter their behavior reflect Biden’s impatience with forces he believes are prolonging the crisis.
When a reporter asked Biden specifically about the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, the President went further, alleging some of their decisions — like prohibiting schools from requiring masks or banning vaccine mandates — were unsound.
“I believe the results of their decisions are not good for their constituents,” he said. “And it’s clear to me and to most of the medical experts that the decisions being made, like not allowing mask mandates in school and the like, are bad health policy.”
Still, Biden shrugged off a question on whether he would personally telephone Gov. Ron DeSantis to relay his concerns — “To say happy birthday?” he scoffed — and said instead the Florida governor knows where Biden stands.
“He knows the message. He knows the message,” Biden said, adding he and the governor “had a little discussion” when the President visited the site of a condo building collapse outside Miami last month.
The White House defended Biden’s decision not to make a personal call to governors like DeSantis, pointing to regular conference calls led by Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients. Press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House remained in touch with officials from Florida to discuss federal Covid efforts, despite the actions of the state’s governor.
“We are working closely with the Florida public health officials and the governor’s team to see if we can send a team down there to help address their needs. So that is ongoing,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to call out when we think there’s more steps that can be taken.”
Until recently, though, officials said that they were mindful to avoid “rhetorical battles” with Republican governors who have stoked the pandemic culture wars and would likely welcome a confrontation with the Democratic President in office.
“Getting into a heated public argument over this is exactly what sometimes plays into people’s hands who are making these decisions,” a senior administration official told CNN in March. “The President’s general view of the world is to not take the bait, not heighten the rhetoric, not trying to create a war.”
That mentality changed this week as another senior official told CNN this week that some GOP governors “are putting their political interests ahead of public health.” Psaki then made a similar point during her daily briefing on Tuesday, later echoed by the President himself.
DeSantis, who is expected to seek the presidency in 2024, was quick to respond to Biden on Wednesday, positioning himself as a defender of “the rights of parents” and warning that he doesn’t “want to hear a blip about Covid” from Biden until he “gets the border secure.”
“If you’re trying to restrict people and impose mandates and ruin their jobs and livelihood, if you are trying to lock people down, I am standing in your way. I am standing for the people of Florida,” DeSantis said.
Biden’s vocal frustration with DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott underscores the difficulty he faces in containing another surge of the virus. Most of the decisions that will have the most effect in stopping the spread — like mandating masks and vaccines or ordering further lockdowns — will be made at the state level, limiting the President’s power to alter the trajectory of the virus.
While Biden announced last week a new requirement for federal workers to be vaccinated or otherwise be subjected to stringent mitigation measures, he cannot mandate the vaccine for all Americans. Nor can he apply nationwide mask mandates; the guidance offered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week was merely a set of recommendations that states and localities can choose to take up.
The White House has made clear it does not believe all Republicans governors are blocking progress on the pandemic. They have cited Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who admitted this week he regrets signing a law banning local mask mandates, as a GOP leader taking positive steps to combat the pandemic.
But officials have become blunter in their assessment of other governors, who have rejected federal guidance and instead appear guided by standing in opposition to the public health measures recommended by the CDC.
Speaking in Miami on Tuesday, DeSantis sought to downplay the current situation in Florida, where coronavirus-related hospitalizations are up 13% from Florida’s previous peak on July 23, 2020, according to the Florida Hospital Association.
“I think it’s important to point out, because obviously, media does hysteria,” DeSantis said. “You try to fear monger, you try to do this stuff. And when they talk about hospitalizations, our hospitals are open for business.”
There are currently 11,515 patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in the Sunshine State, according to a news release Tuesday. The Florida Hospital Association reports 84% of all inpatient beds and 86.5% of ICU beds are occupied. Of those hospitalized with Covid-19, 21% are in the ICU and 13% are on ventilators, according to the FHA.