At Wednesday’s press conference, the White House deflected questions about blue state governors lowering COVID-19 rules, including mask bans, sooner than President Biden requested. The answers were always the same: we’re going to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and parents should, too, regardless of what their Democratic governor says (though it’s also different and better when those governors loosen rules than when Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis does the same).
That sloppy briefing reflected a wider issue: the Biden administration is undecided about when to relax pandemic safety requirements. They’ve been burned before, claiming triumph too soon after the vaccinations were released in June only to have to re-mask when new strains surfaced and a segment of the population remained stubbornly resistant to the doses.
The difficulty is that when the administration finally drops its support for the limits, it will be so far behind the rest of the country — including most Democratic lawmakers — that they will gain little political credit for the return to normality. And normality was important, though unsaid, a component of Biden’s winning campaign message.
Nonetheless, he’s severely constrained his alternatives in this situation. Biden pledged to follow science as a candidate, and since assuming office, he has interpreted that to include the CDC, which, according to Press Secretary Jen Psaki, “moves at the pace of science.” However, CDC officials are among the world’s most risk-averse individuals. They advise against eating uncooked cookie dough or rare hamburgers. The majority of the nation has been following their example on COVID for the last two years.
That is no longer the case. People are starting to realize that there are additional aspects to consider while assessing viral mitigation strategies, including economic, cultural, psychological, and educational issues. Vaccines are beneficial. Nearly half of Democrats, as well as large majorities of the rest of the population, are ready to move on.
While a policy shift may be on the way, Biden has been hemmed in by those who refuse to do a cost-benefit analysis. He might also be pleasing a sizable group of his own supporters who are particularly COVID-averse. But it won’t help him or his party wins in the midterm elections. Expect more tumultuous press conferences in the future.