Biden’s mask mandate inaction is yet another delaying tactic

Early in his career, Joe Biden was a busy young man: the sixth-youngest senator, an ambitious force in Washington, and a repeat presidential contender. From now on, at the top and at the end of his career, the president prefers to procrastinate.

Although every leader makes a decision they would rather not make, delay has become a hallmark tactic of this presidency. Biden is currently juggling ending several COVID-inspired policies, and extending or ending them could create political difficulties. When it comes to border control, student debt and masking on planes, the White House chose to punt rather than make final decisions, either delaying the choice or leaving it to another part of the government.

A president faced with a divisive dilemma can take many different paths, as recent presidents have demonstrated. One path is exemplified by the episode “Sister Souljah,” when then-candidate Bill Clinton attacked the rapper for comments about race, knowing it would infuriate some Democratic voters, especially black people, but calculating that this would win him the support of moderates and centrists. Another path is that chosen by Donald Trump, who has repeatedly played at his base at the expense of winning over swing voters. (It should be noted that Clinton won re-election, unlike Trump.) Barack Obama tended to seek compromise, even when it was a bitter pill. It won him the biggest overhaul of the health insurance system in generations, but also a flawed and fragile law.

Biden preferred to take neither of those routes, an approach exemplified by his handling of student loan repayments. In March 2020, Congress suspended payments on federal student loans. Trump extended the freeze twice. Biden has now done so four times, most recently in early April, including twice since the Department of Education announced a “permanent” extension. The current expiration date is August 31.

The left wing of the Democratic Party wants Biden to simply pardon up to $50,000 per person via executive action. The White House maintains that it has no such authority and that only Congress can do so, though clearly Congress does not have the votes. Debt cancellation would likely be popular among younger voters, among whom Biden’s approval is cratering, and some polls suggest it is broadly popular. But moderate Democrats are wary, saying a jubilee would be costly, help only a small number of Americans and fuel inflation. Naturally, lenders are also pushing for the freeze to end.

The administration has attempted to appeal to all parties, resulting in confusing messages. In March, Chief of Staff Ron Klain bragged on Pod Save America, “Joe Biden, right now, is the only president in history where no one has paid his student loans during his entire presidency.” The “now” was doing a lot of work: On April 10, speaking on Fox News, publicist Jen Psaki said that borrowers should at some point start paying again. But wait! The following weekend, PSAki herself told Pod Save America that executive action was still possible.

Payback has become Schrödinger’s policy: as long as Biden doesn’t open the box, the cat isn’t dead or alive, and Biden doesn’t have to alienate anyone, at least not too much. This has obvious advantages – alienating people is bad – but also disadvantages: you don’t get much credit either. (Note the juxtaposition between Klain’s bragging and Biden’s poll of young voters.) Punting can be a useful tool, but at some point you have to put points on the board.

This same approach has also characterized much of the Biden administration’s handling of the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has required masks on public transportation such as planes and trains, but the policy was set to expire this Monday. The politics of the term are a bit murky: Biden is eager to project a return to normalcy after the pandemic, and the airlines were campaigning for the end of the term; public health experts generally wanted the mandate to continue and, despite vocal opposition, polls suggest at least some public support for it. Last week, rather than choose, the administration extended it for another 15 days, until May 3.

On Monday, however, a federal judge ruled that the warrant was unconstitutional. Across many parts of the Democratic coalition, the decision was met with boos of derision, but the White House generally declined to appeal the ruling, issuing a noncommittal response. A day later, the Justice Department announced it would appeal if the CDC deemed it necessary. It was a punt within a punt. Finally, on Wednesday, the CDC said it would ask the Justice Department to appeal, even as travelers across the country ditched their masks.

Meanwhile, Biden faces a border conundrum. In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the Trump-era CDC issued an order requiring people to be turned back or deported upon entering the United States through the southern border, in order to control the spread of the coronavirus. The policy is known as Title 42, after the law that authorizes the order, and it bypasses the standard admission process at the border, including accepting asylum applications. (CDC career officials expressed some skepticism that the order was necessary at the time.)

The government continued to deport some migrants under Title 42, although the United States also began processing others under standard immigration law. On April 1, the CDC announced that “the CDC Director has determined that an order suspending the right to bring migrants into the United States is no longer necessary,” effective May 23.

Predictable chaos ensued. Republicans were less interested in the COVID control angle than in how politics kept people out of the country, and, sensing political advantage, accused Biden of being soft on the border. Democrats vulnerable to re-election in 2022 also opposed. Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona traveled to the US-Mexico border and, in a sign of the political importance of the issue, Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire did the same, despite the fact that New Hampshire is away from Mexico. Even Biden’s close ally and protege Chris Coons, the Delaware senator, wondered if it was wise to end Title 42.

But if Biden simply reversed the CDC’s decision, that would cause problems as well. He vowed to “follow the science” and follow the lead of health officials, making it hard for him to dismiss their conclusion. In addition, many Democrats on the left flank of the party oppose Title 42 because it prevents migrants from seeking asylum. But on Tuesday Axios reported that Biden is now considering delaying the end of Title 42. Why navigate between Scylla and Charybdis when you can just drop anchor?

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