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Biden’s Covid-19 Vaccine Push Aligns Him With a Fed-Up, Vaccinated Majority

FAIRFAX, Va. — Terry Orie, a 61-year-old real estate agent, has skipped vacations because of the pandemic. She has canceled plans with friends. She has bristled at the frustrations of communicating with clients when everybody is wearing masks.

Ms. Orie is fed up with the coronavirus’s effects on her life. And she knows exactly whom to blame. “I don’t get it, I don’t get why they don’t wear masks and why they won’t get vaccinated,” she said Friday, sitting outside a Whole Foods in Fairfax with her 14-year-old toy poodle, Tootsie. “People think it’s their God-given right to put everybody else’s health at risk.”

After President Biden resisted comprehensive vaccine mandates for months, his forceful steps on Thursday to pressure the 80 million unvaccinated Americans to get their shots put him squarely on the side of what had been a fairly quiet but increasingly frustrated majority: vaccinated Americans who see the unvaccinated as selfishly endangering others and holding the country back.

The new federal rules — including a requirement that private-sector businesses with more than 100 workers require vaccinations or frequent testing — are a sharp pivot for the administration, which had feared that a heavy-handed approach would be viewed as government overreach and be met with even fiercer opposition from those leery of getting the shot. But with the Delta variant surging, overwhelming I.C.U.s and creating a fresh drag on the still-fragile economic recovery, failing to take more aggressive action was even riskier, both to public health and to Mr. Biden’s political standing, White House allies said.

Already, there were signs that voters were unhappy with Mr. Biden’s initial response. Since the administration heralded its progress overcoming the pandemic on July 4, the unchecked spread of the virus this summer, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, contributed to a notable drop in the president’s approval rating.

Now, by taking direct aim at the unvaccinated and Republican officials who encourage or condone vaccine refusal, Mr. Biden is returning to a central posture of his campaign, casting himself as a sober voice on behalf of science and reason standing up to an angry and conspiratorial minority.

The approach has already been road-tested by other Democrats on the ballot this fall.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom surged in the polls after pivoting to a message that highlighted his support for masking and vaccine mandates while raising alarms that Republicans would undo those public health measures, linking those vying to replace him to Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, among others.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, has attacked his Republican opponent for opposing vaccine mandates and ripped into a group of anti-vaccine protesters as “knuckleheads” who have “lost their minds.” And in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor trying to win back his old job in November, is leaning hard into a message that he would be a stronger champion for widespread vaccinations than his Republican counterpart, Glenn Youngkin, a former private-equity executive.

Polling from across the country shows that broad numbers of Americans support tightening vaccine requirements for schools, hospitals and workplaces. Majorities favor showing proof of vaccination to travel by airplane, attend a concert, eat at a restaurant or stay in a hotel. And most vaccinated voters blame the unvaccinated — not the administration — for the skyrocketing resurgence of the virus.

“People are frustrated,” Mr. McAuliffe said in an interview. “They’re frustrated because people won’t get vaccinated. I’m running against a guy who has told college students: ‘You don’t want to get it? Don’t get it.’”

The potency of vaccines as a wedge issue can be seen in Mr. Youngkin’s needle-threading response: While he is running an advertisement urging Virginians to join him in getting vaccinated, he remains opposed to the state or the federal government mandating one.

“We have to just respect people’s ability to express their liberty to say, ‘No, I’m not going to get this vaccine for whatever reason,’” Mr. Youngkin said last month on a conservative talk-radio show. Through an aide, Mr. Youngkin declined an interview request.

Other Republicans have gone even further, with governors in states including Nebraska, Texas and Georgia pledging to sue to stop the new rules. “See you in court,” Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota wrote on Twitter.

Republicans are not the only Americans hesitant to get vaccinated, a group that includes a broad range of people driven by a variety of fears, including concerns about safety — often heightened by misinformation on the internet falsely claiming that vaccines cause dangerous side effects — and distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government. Others are motivated by religious beliefs; some merely lack access to health care.

And a significant number of Republicans have become more willing to be inoculated since the spring, polling shows: The proportion of vaccine-hesitant Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters declined from 40 percent in April to 29 percent in early September, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found.

That doesn’t mean they embrace mandates.

Renee Watson, 57, an information-technology security engineer, said she was anxious before getting the vaccine and did not believe mandates would work.

“The unvaccinated are beginning to feel discriminated against,” she said while eating a salad outside the Fairfax Whole Foods. “When you start to mandate people put something in their body, people get upset about limiting their personal choice and freedoms.”

Some Republican strategists say that Mr. Biden’s push will only prompt their voters to dig in their heels and become even more resistant to vaccination.

“The right thing healthwise is to get more people vaccinated of their own volition,” said Brad Todd, a consultant whose clients include Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rick Scott of Florida. “The right of the country wants to make its own decisions and will do a lot of things to prove that.”

But Democrats believe that mandates are necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and that they are also good politics. How Mr. Biden handles the pandemic now, they argue, will set the tone for the midterm elections, which many party strategists believe will be won or lost over how Americans feel about the lingering impact of the virus on their pocketbooks, schools and jobs.

Democrats also see a political advantage in running against Republican governors who rejected public-health measures like masking and vaccine mandates — much as they sought to depict Republicans as extreme and unreasonable during the Trump administration and came away from the 2020 election with control of the White House and Congress.

“Have at it,” Mr. Biden said on Friday when asked about Republican threats to sue his administration over the mandates. “I am so disappointed that particularly some of the Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids — so cavalier for the health of their communities.”

For some voters, Mr. Biden is simply channeling their own exasperation.

“I spent the first year of Covid scared that we were going to kill my dad. Now that he’s fully vaccinated, I’m scared that I’m going to hurt my kids,” said Ravi Grivois-Shah, a family physician and school board member in Tucson, Ariz., who lives with his 74-year-old father and three children. “I’m sick of being scared. I’m sick of having to go through this again.”

Those frustrations resonate even in some of the most heavily vaccinated corners of the country.

Fairfax, where 86 percent of adults have had at least one vaccine shot and 80 percent are fully vaccinated, holds the highest vaccination rate in Virginia. It sits at the heart of the wealthy Washington suburbs and is home to thousands of federal government employees and contractors who will be required to get vaccinated under Mr. Biden’s new rules.

Some have already imposed a version of their own personal vaccine mandates.

Chris Gibson, a former Department of National Intelligence employee, described an ordeal this summer in which he had disinvited friends from a group vacation because they had chosen not to get vaccinated. Like so much of life during the pandemic, Mr. Gibson said, it was a frustrating demonstration of the futility of trying to persuade some people to make choices that benefit both themselves and the public’s health.

“I feel we have to deprogram these people who refuse to get vaccinated,” he said. “In cults, you can’t just tell people what you’re doing is not right.”

Reporting was contributed by Nick Madigan in Coral Springs, Fla.; Kay Nolan in Wauwatosa, Wis.; and Hank Stephenson in Phoenix.

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