WASHINGTON — President Biden acknowledged on Thursday evening that he and many other vaccinated Americans are “frustrated” with the 80 million Americans who have declined immunization against the coronavirus. The needless ravages caused by the Delta variant, he said, were “frustrating” to watch, repeating a word that seemed to signal the evening’s theme.
The president blamed governors playing “pandemic politics” by resisting mask mandates and downplaying the power of vaccines for prolonging the pandemic.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” he said in a speech from the White House, making clear that he blamed the unvaccinated for the current surge in the U.S. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
The spring was marked by vaccine incentives, including guns and beer. The summer saw the rise of mandates, including from the president and some governors. Now it is fall, and a level of exasperation has set in. Only 53.4 percent of Americans are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, giving the coronavirus plenty of opportunities to spread.
The president did virtually nothing to disguise his dismay on Thursday, his own mood mirroring that of many Americans. Schools are closed once again, and the economic recovery is faltering, too. At one point during his remarks, Biden leaned against his podium in the State Dining Room of the White House and, in his trademark stage whisper, addressed the unvaccinated directly: “What more do you need to see?” he asked, apparently referencing the rampant misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines that has prompted millions to refuse inoculations.
Much like the speech he recently gave on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Thursday’s address was raw with emotion, as the most powerful elected official in the world confronted the limits of his power. The Biden administration concluded last spring that it did not have the authority to enforce a national vaccine requirement. Some believe that calculation was mistaken, and that the federal government should have been putting more pressure on the unvaccinated all along. Now the president faces the prospect of a surge that could last for months, since the arrival of cold weather will drive people indoors, where the virus spreads much more easily.
“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” the president admitted. He returned time and again to blame the unvaccinated for the nation’s current predicament, arguing that the holdouts “can cause a lot of damage — and they are.” It was not, in other words, a happy speech, an announcement of benchmarks met or exceeded, of triumphs collected at the expense of a seemingly intractable foe. The Delta variant has relegated such sunny pronouncements to a distant memory, rolling back the progress Biden made during the first several months of his administration.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has faced criticism that it was too quick to declare victory over the coronavirus earlier this summer, even as it was becoming clear that the highly transmissible Delta variant was on its way. On the Fourth of July, President Biden held a party on the South Lawn of the White House, declaring that the country was on the cusp of “independence” from the virus.
That declaration appears to have been premature. The Delta variant has torn through Florida and Texas before more recently moving on to states like Idaho. The vast majority of the people who havebecoming seriously ill have not been vaccinated, since the coronavirus vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.
Other than to put the unvaccinated on notice, the purpose of Thursday’s speech was the announcement of six measures intended to increase vaccination rates and hasten the end of the current surge, if not of the entire pandemic. The measures included, most notably, a requirement that all federal employees and contractors get vaccinated, with no exemptions.