Jonathan Bernstein

Biden’s Vaccine Push Looks Like a Win

On Tuesday, the US finally reached President Joe Biden’s goal of having at least 70% of adults receive their first vaccination shot — except that Biden back in May had set the goal for July 4, and Tuesday was the second day of August.

That seems like a clear loss for Biden. But it turned out that setting and failing to hit the goal did no noticeable damage to the president. Yes, plenty of reporters noticed it and there were some stories about it on July 4. Hitting 70%, moreover, was a news story framed by the fact that it was a month later than Biden had wanted.

Yet there’s been little blame cast on the administration for falling short. Partly that’s because a fair number of Republican politicians and media figures were publicly ambivalent or worse about vaccinations — some of them being extremely irresponsible — and made it easy for those who supported Biden’s goal to blame them. Partly it was because the mechanics of distributing the vaccine have gone smoothly and been mostly scandal-free. There has been criticism of the administration’s messaging about masks, but it hasn’t turned into a significant controversy.

To some extent, Biden’s aggressive public goal may have been helpful. Everyone knew at the time it was going to be one of the president’s top priorities, which meant that White House and executive-branch personnel would focus on making it happen. And setting a clear target defined success. It gave members of the administration a metric to judge their performance by and made it more likely that the media would focus on the failure to hit vaccination targets in states such as Florida and Louisiana when the current spike began.

In other words, the public target was a net plus, even though Biden didn’t hit it. I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of setting targets and failing to meet them, but in this case it seems to have worked.

That said: Biden and the administration aren’t blameless. Only over the past week or so has the president established (partial) vaccination mandates for federal employees and contractors, a decision he could’ve made much earlier. Indeed, his actions took place amid of a bunch of new private and public mandates, which were happening only after vaccination rates had begun to rebound. Perhaps Biden played this well, and being more aggressive would’ve been polarizing. But perhaps he was overly timid and wound up losing valuable time by hesitating. There’s no easy way to test that question, but I’d certainly be interested in any reporting on internal administration deliberations on it.

What I do have some confidence about is that the spin, which the White House has basically won, matters less than the substance, which is a lot harder to judge.