Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks during an event to light the menorah in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, December 1, 2021, to celebrate Hanukkah. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Just when the coronavirus pandemic seemed to be retreating, the Omicron variant dashed any near-term hopes of reaching normalcy.

Much is yet unknown about the new strain and whether current vaccines can combat it. We do know that its spread is rapid. The variant already accounts for a majority of the new cases in South Africa, where it was first identified, and infections have surfaced in at least a dozen countries, despite the hasty imposition of travel bans on flights from southern Africa. On Wednesday, the CDC identified the first known case of Omicron in the United States.

It is also clear that Republican governors have stripped schools, businesses, and local governments of the tools they need to fight this new threat. Nine states—including Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona—have forbidden school districts from requiring masks in the classroom, while 12 states have banned vaccine mandates for workers. Florida now imposes a $5,000 fine on any governmental entity, school, or business that asks for proof of vaccination and fines of up to $50,000 for businesses that try to require their employers to be vaccinated. “The free state of Florida will stand in the way of bureaucrats who want to take away our jobs and freedom through heavy-handed mandates,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Twitter earlier this month after signing the new restrictions into law.

The only thing set free by these policies is the virus. In Florida, more than 61,000 residents have died so far from COVID-19, putting the state’s death rate among the nation’s most grim.

For the most part, President Joe Biden has refrained from attacking anti-mask-and-vaccine-mandate governors by name. He has preferred to let his pen do the talking, ordering vaccine requirements for federal workers and large businesses. Biden has also relied on appeals to science and reason to persuade the public. His opponents, meanwhile, have no such scruples. “@joe_biden see you in court,” tweeted South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, in response to the Biden administration’s requirement of vaccinations or weekly testing for all companies with more than 100 workers. “The Biden-Harris administration is hammering down on private businesses and individual freedoms in an unprecedented and dangerous way,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey wrote.

It’s time for Biden to play rough. Recalcitrant red-state governors are the nation’s biggest obstacle to post-pandemic normalcy. They have willfully spread misinformation, empowered the anti-vax minority, and fomented division.

The GOP governors pursuing destructive policies deserve specific condemnation. That list includes DeSantis, Noem, and Ducey as well as Greg Abbott of Texas, Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, Utah’s Spencer Cox (who was for vaccine mandates before he was against them), Arkansas’s Asa Hutchinson, Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, Tennessee’s Bill Lee, Georgia’s Brian Kemp, Indiana’s Eric Holcomb, Montana’s Greg Gianforte, Alabama’s Kay Ivey, and Missouri’s Mike Parson. Though Kemp and Ducey were on the side of sanity during the election recount, and Hutchinson has expressed regret for some earlier anti-mask stances, they’re now all-in on opposing vaccine mandates, perhaps the best policy tool available to combat COVID. These governors have filed lawsuits challenging federal vaccine rules and, in many instances, nullified local and school mask requirements. Oklahoma has even defied the Pentagon over requirements that National Guard troops get their shots. (The irony is, of course, that all of these states mandate vaccines for other diseases, such as mumps or measles.)

Rather than merely appeal to “science and truth,” Biden should declare that what the GOP governors want is not just wrong but immoral. These red-state governors have presented themselves as standing in defiance of an “overreaching” federal government and as champions of “freedom” and “personal responsibility.” But their real achievement is the appeasement of fringe activists and the risking of kids’ and seniors’ lives for political gain.

The White House should also work to diminish the impact of harmful red-state COVID policies. The U.S. Department of Education should accelerate its investigation of whether states’ prohibition of school mask mandates violates federal civil rights laws (though there’s no question that the virus moves faster than the federal courts). And the administration should indemnify small businesses facing fines or other penalties for defying state bans on mask and vaccination requirements, in the same way it reimbursed Florida school districts punished for imposing mask mandates on their campuses.

Some might argue that going after certain red-state governors will only elevate their stature and promote their ambitions, especially in places where Biden will never win a popularity contest, like South Dakota. But there’s an arguably greater political risk if Biden treats this as just a typical political disagreement. These governors are the modern heirs of John Calhoun and George Wallace in their attempts to nullify federal authority, and they should be called out.

Biden could benefit politically, if he positions himself as a champion of the small-town mayors, business owners, and teachers whose efforts to protect themselves and their communities have been canceled by these governors’ grandstanding (which, by the way, defies the classic conservative principle of “local control”—as the Washington Monthly has written before). Republicans talk about moving power closer to the people but then stomp all over home-grown efforts such as local minimum-wage laws or the development of publicly owned broadband networks.

Fewer than half of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and that was before the Omicron variant. To regain the public’s confidence and to subdue the virus, the president has to stay the course in important ways.

Yes, Biden should urge vaccinations and booster shots, expand testing, and aid poorer countries in inoculating their citizens. But he must also take aim at the GOP saboteurs prolonging the nation’s ordeal. As American families plan their get-togethers this holiday season, Biden should use the occasion to go after the cranks, con artists, and governors who are politically profiting from a crisis.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.