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Politics Chat: Biden's Priorities Slowed By Partisanship


Joining me now is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hello.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: More than a year into this crisis with more than 600,000 Americans dead - I mean, it hurts to even say that number. The federal government's response is still subject to the pressures of partisan politics. I mean, what's your assessment of how the Biden administration is handling this next phase of the pandemic? I mean, we just heard Vivek Murthy there talking about, you know, some of the limitations.

KEITH: Yeah. And as we just heard, he described a strategy that they've been describing for about two months now, which is this idea of just making vaccines available in as many places as possible and making it available from trusted sources, like family doctors and pediatricians. You know, the other thing that they have been doing is community-organizing-style door knocking, where volunteers go door to door, talking to members of their community about the benefits of vaccines.

But what has happened, as the White House has talked about this strategy, is that right-wing politicians, Republican politicians and others on conservative media have misconstrued what's happening, and it is then further feeding hesitancy that is clearly out there. They are - conservatives bristle at the idea of the government trying to tell them what to do, especially when it comes to vaccines. And conservative politicians have described this door knocking as if they're coming to find you, which is absolutely not what is happening.

And this points to a bind that the White House is in. There are a lot of public health people who are arguing for the White House to put vaccine mandates in place or to publicly advocate for business and schools to put mandates out there. But the White House has never shown a desire to do that, in part because they know this type of backlash is out there. But given this backlash, you know, it's very hard for the White House to do anything more forceful than just saying, please get the vaccine. Here's where you can do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, President Biden's efforts on a number of his priorities, including legislative, have been bogged down or thwarted by Republicans. Let's talk about another one that's taken on increasing urgency for Democrats, and that's voting rights. I mean, how is the administration planning to push ahead on that?

KEITH: Yeah. Just this past week, Texas Republicans introduced new legislation in a special session that they say is about election security but voting right advocates say would make it harder for people to vote. And this, as you know, is part of this larger trend of Republican state legislatures putting in new restrictions or requirements on voting. And given the political dynamics at play, President Biden and his allies are basically powerless to stop the march of these voting changes at the state level.

At the federal level, the Justice Department - it is monitoring and has filed a lawsuit in Georgia, but they're sort of constrained by recent Supreme Court decisions. And Democrats in the Senate don't have the votes, even amongst themselves, to pass federal voting legislation that many Democrats want to see. The White House doesn't see blowing up the filibuster and barreling forward with this legislatively as an option right now. So both the president and vice president are pledging to use their bully pulpit. And this week, President Biden will deliver a speech about voting in Philadelphia. It's sort of a two-pronged approach - activate Democratic voters with this issue of voting rights, which is really galvanizing for them, and also just simply teach people how to vote under the new rules.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I just want to touch on something that's happening this afternoon - former President Donald Trump speaks in Dallas before another meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. What themes should we expect to hear that are driving the GOP agenda, briefly?

KEITH: Yeah, and remarkably, this is the second CPAC. It's supposed to be an annual convention - the second one in less than six months. It's called CPAC: America UnCanceled. You can expect a focus on cancel culture and other grievance themes that have dominated conservative media in recent months, including President Trump's complaint that he got kicked off of various social media platforms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEERNT'S "LOCKED IN A BASEMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.