Playing Politics With a Vaccine

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Joe Biden and Donald Trump have finally persuaded a lot of Democrats and Republicans to agree on something: that the idea of getting a coronavirus vaccine, at least right now, seems kind of scary.

Over the past four months, the number of Americans who say they’d be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine has dropped — significantly.

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans are now evenly divided over whether they would get a vaccine to prevent Covid-19, if it were available today.

And just 21 percent said they would “definitely” get a coronavirus vaccine today, half the share who said that in May.

The growing mistrust is bipartisan: The percentages of Republicans and Democrats who said they’d get the vaccine both fell by 21 points. (A majority of Democrats still said they would take it.)

The numbers are a vivid illustration of how political posturing can transform our beliefs.

The virus, of course, hasn’t changed. About 850 people in the United States have been dying of the coronavirus, on average, every day in mid-September. That’s down from a peak of near 3,000 in April but an increase from the death rate in the early summer.

What has changed is how Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden talk about a vaccine.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden accused the president of playing politics with a potential vaccine, saying he did not trust Mr. Trump to determine when a vaccine was ready for Americans.

“Let me be clear: I trust vaccines,” Mr. Biden said. “I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump, and at this moment, the American people can’t either.”

Shortly after Mr. Biden’s speech, Mr. Trump rebuked his own government scientists, publicly slapping down Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mr. Trump has focused for weeks on convincing the public that a vaccine will be available imminently — even before Election Day — and that the worst of the pandemic is over. Those statements have heightened fears that the approval process could be rushed for political purposes, prompting Mr. Biden’s attacks on the president.

Dr. Redfield told a Senate committee on Wednesday that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year. Mr. Trump said that his top public health official had “made a mistake” and that vaccines would go “to the general public immediately.”

The president is incorrect: Scientists, companies and federal officials all say that most people won’t get a vaccine until well into next year, even in a best-case scenario.

But with no coherent federal government response, voters are left to figure out their own public health guidance. The vaccine becomes political collateral.

The whole situation is a fun-house mirror version of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

Mr. Trump has expressed anti-vaccine views since 2007. He has met with anti-vaccine crusaders and, as president-elect, even floated appointing them to government committees, spreading alarm among medical experts that he could be giving credence to debunked conspiracy theories about immunizations.

Now, Mr. Trump is the country’s No. 1 cheerleader for vaccine development, and is misleadingly accusing Mr. Biden of spreading “anti-vaccine theories.”

Mr. Biden, who has consistently praised the virtues of science and pushed for more funding for research, now finds himself casting doubt — out of necessity, he would argue — on the government’s handling of a potential vaccine.

When asked whether he trusted the C.D.C. and the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Biden said he did not trust “people like the fellow that just took a leave of absence.” The comment appeared to be a reference to Michael Caputo, the top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, who had accused government scientists of “sedition.”

While it’s true that Mr. Trump’s misleading assertions about vaccine timetables have raised concerns about a hurried, politicized process, it’s also the case that Mr. Biden stands to benefit politically if voters distrust the president and the pandemic is still raging. (Still, Mr. Biden has said that if scientists agree a vaccine is safe, he would personally take it even if it was approved under Mr. Trump’s watch.)

All this political gamesmanship is a problem. Mistrust of vaccines is an urgent — and deadly — public health issue.

Once a safe and effective vaccine is available, if enough people refuse to get it, the country’s ability to reach widespread immunity will suffer. And all of this could exacerbate mistrust of other, well-established vaccines — a worrisome trend that was already underway before the pandemic.

Pharmaceutical companies have tried to restore public trust by pledging to thoroughly vet any coronavirus vaccine candidates.

But, I suppose, the public’s skepticism makes sense, in a depressing sort of way. Distrust of our institutions is at record highs. Why should anyone feel differently about a now highly politicized vaccine, until it’s proved safe?

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.


A little over a month ago, the rough consensus among many Opinion editors like me, who were watching the congressional negotiations over a second pandemic relief package, was that some sort of follow-up bill, even if it wasn’t much, would pass and be signed into law.

After all, the labor market has been hobbling all summer; state and local governments are struggling to make ends meet, and so are millions of income-depressed families. Many of those families live in swing states, which gave Senate Republicans and President Trump a motive to provide an economic boost with Election Day nearing.

Instead, negotiations on Capitol Hill stalled. Now there is a decent chance that no further stimulus measures will be taken before November.

In an opinion essay published this morning, Jay C. Shambaugh, who was the chief economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 2010 to 2011, urged congressional leaders to come to an agreement.

“It may be easier, politically, to give up and devolve into partisan blaming as Election Day nears,” he wrote. “However, it is imperative that a new deal is reached to avoid suffering and to keep the economy from further slowing.”

Mr. Shambaugh praised a bipartisan group in the House made up of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans for putting forth a proposal on Tuesday that, “while not perfect, may open prospects for a deal.” But top House Democrats have already said that the plan, which is worth as much as $2 trillion, does not go far enough.

Mr. Shambaugh argued that the compromise’s framework merited consideration for the sake of “the one in five families who report their children don’t have enough to eat this week and the panicked states already forced into firing workers.”

Those stakeholders, he argued, “cannot wait until after the election for a deal.”

— Talmon Joseph Smith


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