Apparently eager to seize credit for prompt coping with the coronavirus pandemic, President Joe Biden is confronted now with his first major political blunder. His failure to immediately reverse the medical experts’ call to end public masking for those who have been vaccinated now leaves millions of unvaccinated Americans at risk of infection.
While still urging them to get the critical shots and facilitating more widespread venues for doing so, the president appears complicit in the confusion over masking. Americans are essentially left on an honor system when going unmasked, with no certain way to establish who has and who hasn’t been vaccinated for the safety of all.
The declaration by Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that “we now have science that has really just evolved, even in the last two weeks that demonstrates that these vaccines are safe, they are effective” at curbing the coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S. But she added on ABC News, “We also need to say that this is not permission for widespread removal of masks.”
The president’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, weighed in on the controversy on CBS News, saying there was “some merit” in questioning how the masking mandate was so unexpectedly altered. He predicted that within “just a couple of weeks, you’re going to start to see significant clarification of some of the actually understandable and reasonable questions that people are asking.”
Pressed on Fox News on whether the CDC was relying on an honor system for compliance with the new mask guidelines, Walensky said, “The honor system is, to be honest, with yourself,” which provided no insight into how widely or reliably the public response would be in assessing its impact.
President Biden has set a goal of having 70 percent of adults vaccinated by July 4. The CDC has reported that only 37.1 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, and 59.8 percent have received at least one shot.
The abrupt policy switch marked the second time the new president in his brief tenure was caught by surprise by an announcement from his own administration. Earlier, he had indicated he would abide by former president Donald Trump’s deep reduction in refugee admissions. But when Democratic protests were loudly aired, Biden quickly reverted to a much higher quota.
While determined to set his own course, the new president already has demonstrated he is alert to public opinion, especially on positions drifting from his progressive policies that have kept that segment of his party relatively content.
But the decision of the CDC director to lift the masking protocols for the vaccinated, which seemed to leave the president in the dark, was puzzling at best.
Joe Biden in his first four months in the Oval Office has made considerable effort to cast himself as the nation’s chief decision-maker and protector. Some governors like Phil Murphy of New Jersey have already ordered that mask-wearing remain in place in their states.
Biden would have been well served politically to have made his own position clear before the CDC director declared that the ban was being lifted. If wide public confusion is the result, this usually candid president will have cause to regret his failure to break the surprising news himself.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.