60 Percent Of Adults Are Fully Vaccinated. Why Are Things Getting Worse? : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden gave a speech Thursday afternoon begging folks to get vaccinated. A CDC document warns that the very contagious delta variant means "the war has changed" against COVID.

The bipartisan infrastructure deal which passed its first vote in the Senate this week is evidence that President Biden may be able to foster cooperative lawmaking in modern Washington, as he promised during the campaign. Will it help his party hold onto congressional majorities during a difficult midterm election cycle?

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Tamara Keith, and congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

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60 Percent Of Adults Are Fully Vaccinated. Why Are Things Getting Worse?

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ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Hey, folks, it's Asma Khalid. And usually, this is the point in our podcast where you would hear our time stamp. That's where listeners record a message that we play at the beginning of the show. But candidly, we are running low on those messages. So if you're hearing this, consider sending in a time stamp of your own. The script goes like this.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey. It's Tamara. I'm on top of a mountain.

KHALID: (Laughter).

KEITH: You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST which was recorded at...

KHALID: ...1:25 p.m. Eastern Time on July 30.

KEITH: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this podcast. All right, here's the show.

KHALID: If you want to do that, you can record a message on your phone and email it to nprpolitics@npr.org. All right, time for the real show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: (Laughter).

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS podcast. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: We are unfortunately talking about COVID again on today's show. Yesterday at the White House, President Biden gave a speech about the virus and the importance of getting vaccinated. And it was blunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look; this is not about red states and blue states. It's literally about life and death. It's about life and death.

KHALID: Tam, what did you make of the president's tone? I mean, presumably, he is trying to reach the unvaccinated people in the country. Do you think he did?

KEITH: I don't know that any one presidential speech or, with some people, literally any word the president of the United States who is a Democrat says could make a difference. But he was very straightforward. He was very frank. He was very clear in the message he was delivering - that, yeah, this is really discouraging. The delta variant has, you know, kind of crashed the party, and people are dying again. And his message was, you don't need to die. Just get the vaccine. You don't need to die. And he also addressed the frustration of people who are vaccinated, who thought they had their lives back and now are kind of wondering after this new CDC guidance about masking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: America's divided between the majority of eligible people who are vaccinated and those who are not. And I understand that many of you in the majority are frustrated with the consequences of the failure of the minority to get vaccinated. But I want you to know I'm going to continue to do everything I can to encourage the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

DAVIS: This president's speech comes at the time where there was this new CDC guidelines that came out - I think The Washington Post first reported it, but NPR confirmed it - sort of explaining from a scientific perspective how much more lethal the delta variant is. And it had sort of this chilling phrase in it in, which it said the war has changed in that we're learning information about this new variant in real time, and the science is constantly shifting. And it does feel like we're at this moment where the politics and the science are really incompatible right now. There's a lot of anger, especially from lawmakers up on Capitol Hill, about these reinstatement of mask mandates not just around the country, but in - on Capitol Hill itself.

And you can sort of feel this tension in society right now about this next chapter. And that does seem to be a really serious problem for this White House that's job it is to keep the country safe. And there is huge chunks of the country with dangerously low vaccination rates. And it feels like we're back into this - one of these chapters in the pandemic where, like, what's to come feels very unknown. And it's amazing to me how quickly we all went from this sort of sense of, you know, Fourth of July barbecues and seeing your family again and socializing again to, like, once again being, like, oh, no, what's - what are the next weeks and months going to look like in the country?

KEITH: Yeah, and I think part of the president's speech yesterday was about explaining this. And then in, you know, the last just couple of hours, we've gotten even more detail from the CDC. Part of what drove them to say that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should be wearing masks in areas of high community spread was this one case study where they looked at an outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., over the Fourth of July weekend. There were 469 new cases of coronavirus infection tied to that weekend. Seventy-four percent of those cases were in people who were fully vaccinated. That is breakthrough infections.

Massachusetts has a very high vaccination rate. And essentially, what the CDC has found through their research and other scientists have found is that earlier variants - they didn't think that people who got breakthrough infections could spread it to others. But what Provincetown and some other instances showed them is that there's just as much virus in the nose of somebody who gets a breakthrough infection who's vaccinated as isn't vaccinated. So it means that vaccinated people can spread the virus to others. And that changes the game.

KHALID: But to be clear, Tam - they're not suggesting that these vaccinated people are getting hospitalized or...

KEITH: Right.

KHALID: ...Or dying at the rate of unvaccinated people.

KEITH: And that is super important because as President Biden said in his speech yesterday, the U.S. is in a very different place than we were six months ago. Nearly - very nearly - 70% of adults have gotten their first shot of a vaccine. There are vaccines readily available. And yes, there are breakthrough infections. That is not a surprise. It is not unexpected. And almost none of those people are winding up in the hospital on ventilators. The people in the hospital on ventilators are people who chose not to get vaccinated.

So in some ways, we're in a place in this pandemic where there is beginning to be a shift in thinking. And I don't think that the administration has really explained this particularly well. And I think all of us are having this shift in our thinking in different ways. But where - COVID isn't going to go away completely, but if you're vaccinated, you're not likely to end up on a ventilator. So, like, you know, it's about - the risk tolerance is shifting.

DAVIS: But here's the thing, right? Mask mandates made a lot more sense when we didn't have vaccines. And now we have vaccines. And one thing we are seeing the White House step up and do more of this week, Tam - and you reported on this - is Biden and the Biden administration is cracking down and trying to do what they can to get more people to get vaccinated, especially in the jurisdiction under their control, which is the federal workforce.

KEITH: Right. And that's actually a lot of people. It - if you include contractors, there are 4 million federal employees or contractors connected to the federal government. So that's a lot of people. We don't know how many of them are still unvaccinated. But yesterday, Biden announced this new rule or requirement - whatever you want to call it - that federal employees will need to self-attest. So they don't have to actually show anyone their vaccine card, but they have to say whether they're vaccinated or not. And if they have chosen not to be vaccinated, then they are going to have to wear masks indoors at work at all times. They may not even be allowed to do work-related travel, and they're going to have to get tested a couple of times a week. Essentially, the federal government is going to make it kind of a pain in the butt not to be vaccinated. They're going to make it...

KHALID: But there's some degree of, like, an honor code there, right, Tam? I mean, you're saying self-attest.

KEITH: Yes.

KHALID: I mean, this is the same system we had as reporters at the White House, that if you say you're vaccinated, you have one certain set of system - but how do you know that people are telling the truth?

KEITH: Yeah, and this White House has been very squeamish about vaccine verification of any kind.

DAVIS: Why is that, though? Because if you look at polling, it seems like a majority of the country is, like, very comfortable with the idea of vaccine mandates or proof of vaccination to receive certain services. And I'm curious as to why the White House is so hesitant when the country doesn't seem as hesitant about it.

KEITH: I don't have this answer on lockdown. I haven't had someone explicitly say it to me. But just the way they talk about vaccine verification, the skittishness with which they talk about vaccine verification, their complete and total fear of the phrase vaccine passport...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KEITH: ...Is largely related to the huge amount of backlash. And maybe that doesn't represent the majority of Americans, but it represents the majority of the noise that, there - you know, just the idea of a vaccine passport freaks some people out.

KHALID: And I would argue - right, Tam? - it's not only freaking out people who didn't vote for him. Like, I've had conversations with people who voted for Biden who don't love that idea, either, right? Like, I do think there is a political calculation that - or political risk that Democrats feel may not be worth taking to force people to get a vaccine and to force people to show that they're vaccinated.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean, there is a deep distrust of government that knows no party boundaries. And there are - you know, the rugged individualism of America. People don't want to be told what to do by the government; they want to somehow come to it on their own. And so this White House is doing everything they can to get people to come to this decision on their own by making it a pain in the butt for federal workers if they aren't vaccinated, by encouraging governors to give away a hundred dollars to anybody who will get a vaccine at this point. They're really trying a lot of things, everything short of actually forcing people to get vaccinated.

KHALID: All right. Let us take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about your favorite topic, infrastructure.

And we're back. So that bipartisan infrastructure package that we have spent a lot of time on this podcast talking about has finally cleared an initial hurdle in the Senate. 17 Republicans joined all the Democrats in the Senate to kick off debate on the bill, which would allocate a lot of new money on things like roads, rail and broadband. This bill still, of course, has to pass both chambers of Congress. But this is a big, important step. So, Sue, what do we know so far about where we are in this process?

DAVIS: Well, we had been waiting to see the actual text of the legislation. They had announced a deal, and they've agreed to move forward to begin debating it. But the two senators that were really critical in crafting the compromise, Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican, and Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, have started circulating text this afternoon. You know, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says at this point, they're looking at days, not weeks, to get this ultimately done.

The Senate obviously is going to want to vet the actual text to make sure that it holds up to the promises that the senators announced in their deal. We're waiting to have the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office give it sort of an official score. Senators have made a lot of promises about how they're going to pay for it. And the Congressional Budget Office is sort of the trust but verify part of this to see what the actual economic impact of this bill would be. But they seem ready to move.

I mean, when you get 17 Republicans or 17 senators in the minority, frankly, to vote to move forward on something like this, it's as sure sign as any that this is in a very good position to pass the Senate. I still think it has a ways to go. You know, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not in any rush to take this up. She's kind of using it as leverage within her own party to make sure that Democrats in the Senate continue to move forward on a separate budget resolution. So I don't think Joe Biden's going to be signing it any time soon. But I think getting it through the Senate was really, in the terms of how this bill is going to become a law, probably the most critical Capitol Hill hurdle. And they're there.

And politically, it's also proof of the Biden theory of the case - right? - that he is a president that could bring the two parties together to get stuff done. And there was a lot of cynicism about Joe Biden, the candidate, and Joe Biden, the president, on that promise. And this is a real concrete thing he can point to and say, like, look. I told you so. I can do this.

KHALID: You know, Sue, I think you're right on when you say that this, for Joe Biden, more than I think even the substance of what's actually in the bill, matters to him because he campaigned on the idea that, look. In 21st century Washington, I told you Republicans and Democrats could actually get something done, and here is something that is getting done. That being said, there are things in this bill that Joe Biden and the White House wanted that got dumped. And I guess my understanding is some of those things are now going to go into that separate reconciliation bill, that far bigger, Democrats-only package. So talk to me about - where is that? I mean, I know we've talked a lot about - that's this huge thing...

KEITH: Yeah.

KHALID: ...That essentially re-envisions the social safety net entirely. How is that going? Have we heard of any progress in Congress on that?

DAVIS: When people say, oh, Biden - the administration didn't get everything they wanted, I'm like, yeah, but they also asked for more than they knew they would get. So that's part of what makes it look like a compromise. A lot of the stuff that was taken out of the infrastructure package was - I mean, there was a lot of stuff taken out. But for one example of it is certain of the climate change or clean energy provisions that Democrats really wanted in infrastructure that were just too controversial for - to get enough bipartisan support. Democrats are now looking at this second Democrats-only package as a vehicle to do a lot of climate change legislation. So I think we have to wait and see what the ultimate substance of the budget bill is to really determine how much the administration had to sacrifice on its priorities.

And while the infrastructure bill is a big deal in terms of investments, the thing I always say about it is, it's not necessarily new policies. It is a bigger investment in existing infrastructure, but it's not really changing the game of how infrastructure works in a lot of ways. The Democrats' budget bill is all new policies. It is all new ideas. It's all new government programs. I mean, it's a really huge expansion of the federal government.

KHALID: And where is that bill? Has there been any progress on that bill since we've been focusing so much on infrastructure?

DAVIS: There has in that the first step is that they have to get a budget resolution through the Senate. That will not be the actual legislation. It's just the resolution that outlines the goals and a reminder that Democrats want to spend about $3.5 trillion on these new programs. They've made progress to the extent that Chuck Schumer has said that he has all 50 Democratic votes in line to advance that resolution. So they have the promise of the first key procedural step. But believe me when I tell y'all, this is a bill that's going to take months and months and months to write, negotiate, pass and get to Joe Biden. So we're going to see. If you like talking about Democratic Party in-fighting, whoo-hoo (ph), we've got (laughter) - we've got a long road ahead of us.

KEITH: Well, haven't both Pelosi and Schumer said that that other one - the hard one, potentially the very hard one - has to pass, too, before the House will even take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill? So, like, I mean, I guess every little step is important. But this is still very much an early step.

DAVIS: It is. And I think what Democratic leaders are doing right now is, like, they've got to keep progressives happy. This bipartisan bill - you know, when Joe - if Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are really, really happy, lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tend to not be. You know, there's a frustration among the progressive wing that the infrastructure bill isn't big enough, isn't bold enough, doesn't meet the needs of the moment. And they are not going to vote for it unless they have some level of certainty that the second budget bill is going to be able to make its way through Congress. So their fates still tend to be linked because one can't really pass without the other. So Pelosi is, you know, holding back on embracing this infrastructure bill because she's got to keep her troops in line. And she's got a three-, four-, five-vote margin, depending on who's showing up to vote in the House that day. So the margin for error for Democrats right now is as close to zero as it almost could possibly be.

KEITH: So I realize that it's a long way off, but also 16 months is not that long in political years. It's kind of crazy how...

DAVIS: Not at all.

KEITH: ...They are always running in the House (laughter) for re-election. But so the midterms are coming. They're coming next year. Are Democrats counting on these bills as part of their messaging for reelection?

DAVIS: You know, not only are the midterms coming, but nothing's on the Democrat side going into the midterms, especially in the House. They have - it's a redistricting year in which Republicans are going to control the process in more states. Republicans only need to net gain five seats to retake the House. That's not that hard to do when you look at historical precedents that show that the party in power in the White House tends to lose double-digit seats in the House. So none of the fundamentals of elections are playing in a Democrat's favor going into 2022.

And I sat down this week with Sean Patrick Maloney. He's a Democrat from New York. He's running the Democrats' 2022 campaign operation. And we talked about this. And I think Democrats are making a big political bet here, is that they think, in his words, they're doing policies to rebuild the country. And Democrats believe and are making a bet that doing these big fundamental changes to spend this kind of money, that Americans are going to see a huge impact and improvement in their lives.

And one example is these child tax credit payments that are going out, where we are actually seeing in real time poverty levels decreasing in the country. And they think the policy solutions will save them, that the policies are so good and will benefit and improve American life so much that it will protect their majorities. But that's a risky bet, right? I mean, there isn't necessarily a guarantee that all because a voter's economic interests may improve, that it aligns with their political interests. I mean, that's kind of Politics 101. So the Democrats have a lot at stake here. And, you know, they - this is their best bet at maintaining their majority. But I think it's a risky one, too.

KHALID: All right then. Well, we are going to take a quick break, and when we get back, it is time for Can't Let It Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: And we're back. And it is now time to end the show like we do every Friday with Can't Let It Go. That's the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Sue, let's start with you.

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go this week is Simone Biles. Simone, Simone, Simone.

KHALID: I'm with you.

DAVIS: I think regular listeners of the podcast will know that I'm, like, a huge Simone Biles fan. I love her. But as I think is well known by now, she sort of - she withdrew from Olympic competition this week, facing some sort of mental health and other challenges. And you know, I - one, as a Olympics lover and viewer, I'm very disappointed because she was, like, one of the reasons I was so excited to watch the Olympics this year. But it's been so fascinating to sort of see the reaction and response to her decision to withdraw and her speak so, like, articulately about it and learning about, you know, sort of the challenges that these, like, amazing athletes have to go through and the sort of mental security you need to do this stuff. And I just am thinking about her a lot because I'm sad about it all.

But I still love her. And I feel like she's, like, young enough that I feel like maybe the 2024 Olympics I'll be able to get my - she'll be able to set the world records I was rooting for her. But it's still been amazing to sort of watch the gymnastics team. And my husband and I have been watching Olympics all week, so it's actually been nice to just have some Olympics normalcy back in our lives.

KHALID: Yes. I am with you. I am with you. And I was also going to say, like, I just want to give a shoutout - on the off chance, Simone Biles, you're listening to our podcast...

DAVIS: We love you.

KHALID: I know. Oh, my gosh.

KEITH: We love you.

KHALID: I know, right? That, like, really, it took such, I think, like, courage to do what she did, which is that, like, when you realize that you're not in the capacity to be able to, you know, land the vault landings, as she was saying, she withdrew so that the team could pull off, you know, a medal.

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: And I just think...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: It was, like, kudos to her. I was very angry at seeing some of, like, the vitriol on social media...

KEITH: Oh, yeah.

KHALID: ...Towards her because, you know, like, really, which one of us could actually land even, like, one rotation of a flip?

DAVIS: Right.

KHALID: Please. So it's sort of, like...

KEITH: Well, and I had never heard of this concept of the twisties...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: Yeah.

KEITH: But it's like the yips, which is, like - and you just can't do it. You, like, lose...

KHALID: I mean, it's scary.

KEITH: ...The connection...

KHALID: She could, like - yeah.

KEITH: ...Between your body and your mind. And gymnastics is a sport where you could get very injured if you don't land right. This is - you could end up paralyzed.

DAVIS: Especially when you're Simone Biles, and you're doing moves that literally no one else in the sport has ever done. I mean, she's already doing sort of death-defying...

KEITH: Yes.

DAVIS: ...Gymnastics moves. And to do that and get that disorientation and feel like you're lost in the air and get scared...

KHALID: That's so scary.

DAVIS: ...It must be, like...

KEITH: Yeah. Oh, my god.

DAVIS: ...Even more scary than it would be. And yeah, she's still amazing, but it's been kind of a crazy week.

KHALID: So, Tam, why don't you take it away?

KEITH: Yeah. So what I cannot let go of is LeVar Burton...

DAVIS: Oh, yeah.

KEITH: ...Is guest hosting on "Jeopardy!" this week. And I have - I think I've watched every single one of them. He is having a great time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

LEVAR BURTON: As a longtime viewer of the show, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to guest host "Jeopardy!" And I'm proud to be here to honor Alex's legacy. And I'm going to do my best to ensure that these talented "Jeopardy!" contestants enjoy their moment here as well.

KEITH: The thing with LeVar Burton is he has shamelessly campaigned for this job since before this job was available. There's this great article in The Ringer by Claire McNear who wrote about how LeVar Burton has - in 2013, he tweeted, my dream job? The new host of "Jeopardy!"

DAVIS: (Laughter).

KEITH: Stopped by TMZ in the airport? Oh, yes, I want that gig. So this is LeVar Burton's dream.

DAVIS: He's such a good fit for it. He just seems like he would be...

KEITH: Oh, he is.

DAVIS: He just seems, like - he's such a natural entertainer. He wants it so bad. He's, like, so good at it. Like, I'm pro-LeVar in this.

KEITH: However, I also would love that job. So if you're listening, "Jeopardy!"

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: I know how to read things from cards.

DAVIS: I'd watch a Tam-hosted "Jeopardy!" You - Tam, you should apply. You never know.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Well, speaking of jobs and possible jobs that we journalists could do, I am taking this CLIG (ph) from our colleague Kelsey Snell who told us about it the other day. I don't know if you all saw this, but there was this job posted on journalismjobs.com.

DAVIS: (Laughter) No.

KHALID: For all you nonjournalists who listen...

KEITH: Who...

KHALID: ...This is, like, a handy job website that journalists will often peruse to just see what's out there.

DAVIS: I think journalismjobs.com is kind of explanatory (laughter).

KHALID: I know, right? For all you folks who don't exactly - hey, it's like (laughter). Anyhow, so there was this job posted about a little independent newspaper in West Virginia where you will apparently live at the inn. The owner of the inn is also apparently the publisher of this newspaper. But I want to read you guys, like, a chunk of this posting 'cause I actually was so floored with this. I was like, is this a real ad? I felt like it was satire, like, someone clearly trolling poor journalists.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: So hold on. Reporters report to the paper's editor, who has decades of experience in the field, and to a lesser extent, the hotel's owner-publisher. Apparently, the applicant will also have to man the front desk of this small Victorian hotel...

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: ...For two or three shifts a week. So it's, like, double-duty of things that you do. They admit the salary isn't much. It's listed as $20- to $25,000. But they say compensation can include a small, fully-furnished suite at the inn. And all the coffee you can drink, of course, is also part of the deal. So I did my due diligence as a reporter...

DAVIS: You applied for the job (laughter).

KHALID: ...And I, like, I actually found out, yeah, this inn exists. This inn does exist. It has postings on TripAdvisor, so it's a real place. And they have this Facebook page. They tend to report a lot on, like, the local weather. They have a feature about gardening and a local picnic so lots of, like, lifestyle features. Long story short, there was a phone number on their website (laughter)...

DAVIS: Did you call?

KHALID: ...On their Facebook page (laughter). So I called them earlier today to just ask, like, is this job legitimate? I saw this posting. What I will say is the woman who answered the front desk was not particularly friendly. Maybe this is why they're advertising for someone to man the front desk some of the time.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: She was very curt with me and told me that if I had questions about the job that I needed to email at the address. The phone number was only exclusively meant for the hotel, so...

KEITH: This feels like an episode of the "Gilmore Girls" to me.

KHALID: (Laughter).

KEITH: Yeah, yeah. To me, this is, like, the journalism equivalent of being an au pair, where it's like, you know, you get to be in a nice place. Like, room and board is sort of covered. I mean, I bet there's muffins.

DAVIS: Or look; maybe we're looking at this the wrong way. Maybe there's someone out there who wants to work in the hospitality industry and dabble in journalism, and then this could be the perfect job for them, too.

KHALID: Smart thinking. All right, well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Miacel Spotted Elk.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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