COURTNEY: Hi. This is Courtney (ph) from hot and sunny Juba, South Sudan, where I've just finished my morning routine of walking around the housing compound and drinking coffee. This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
2:07 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30.
COURTNEY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this.
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DAVIS: I feel like Courtney's leaving out some details here. Like, I would like to know what she's doing in South Sudan.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I mean, it's not a place most of us go on vacation.
DAVIS: We don't get many time stamps from there. So, Courtney, please explain yourself. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I', Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
DAVIS: And we've got Lee Strubinger from South Dakota Public Radio here with us today. Hey, Lee.
LEE STRUBINGER, BYLINE: Hey, Susan. How's it going?
DAVIS: Oh, I'm so happy to have you on. We've got a lot to talk about when it comes to your state's governor, Kristi Noem.
DAVIS: She's come up a few times on this podcast before because she's seen as someone who could possibly be a Republican contender for president in 2024. She's also faced a lot of scrutiny for her management of the pandemic. And now she's wading pretty deep into the latest culture war over laws that are targeting transgender people. So let's start with the news from last night that you've been covering. Noem announced that she's signing two executive orders that are aimed at banning trans girls and women - these are people who were assigned male at birth but identify as female - from participating and K-12 and college sports. So, Lee, explain these executive orders. What's in them?
STRUBINGER: Yeah. So the executive orders essentially state that in South Dakota, only females based on their biological sex as reflected in their birth certificate or an affidavit can participate in girls or women's athletics events that are sanctioned by, you know, public schools, any kind of state school. It also directs the colleges in the state to do essentially the same thing. I think it's kind of important to note that Noem has never really said that these executive orders - or in the past when she's voiced support for bills that kind of failed in the state legislature, that she said that these only, you know, protect opportunities for women and girls sports and that they're not particularly targeted towards transgender people.
DAVIS: The language here is very interesting because you say that they focus this about women and seemingly pro-women. But in her tweet announcing the orders, she said, quote, "only girls should play girls' sports," which is very political language. That is language that has been embraced by the social conservative movement, but language that LGBT rights advocates would consider transphobic language. And it seems like they're being very targeted in how they speak about this issue. It's a little bit of a dog whistle, I would say.
STRUBINGER: Yeah, it's very deliberate. I mean, you know, when you talk with supporters of the bills and folks who've brought the bills, you know, they really just focus on women's athletics and Title IX and sort of, like I said, what they call the physical differences between the two biological sexes. There's a lot of focus on biological sex as well.
DAVIS: So the Statehouse had essentially passed a bill and sent it to her to sign that would have codified some of these transgender restrictions. But she chose not to sign it, and yet she's signing these executive orders. So what's her strategy here? What is she trying to do?
STRUBINGER: I think she's really trying to thread a needle here because you have a lot of big businesses in Sioux Falls - banks, NCAA basketball, collegiate tournaments. She's trying to keep some of those people happy. But also, you know, as we mentioned, she's a potential 2024 contender. And, you know, there was some very swift backlash when she issued this kind of partial veto of the bill that reached her desk.
DAVIS: Domenico, this is part of a bigger trend. We've been seeing it all over the country in statehouses controlled by Republicans. In Arkansas, just yesterday, they passed a bill that would ban access to gender-affirming health care for transgender minors. That's things like puberty blockers and hormone treatments. The ACLU called that bill, quote, "the single most extreme anti-trans law to ever pass a state legislature." Do you have a sense of the politics of this, of why transgender issues have become such a focus of the social conservative movement?
MONTANARO: Well, look. I mean, first of all, this is a culture issue. And like abortion, like, you know, immigration, which have been animating issues for Republicans during the Trump era, we're now seeing that with - when it comes to trans rights. And I think you have to first start with the fact that we have a Democratic administration. You have the Biden administration that has reinstated a lot of trans rights at a national level, at a federal level that Trump had - former President Trump had rolled back. And this is a very nuanced issue that has frankly been reduced to something of a punchline about political correctness on the right in conservative media. You know, and it also has to do with what's popular.
Frankly, you're seeing on the right these stories really pick up steam. You know, we've also seen conservatives in a nuanced way sort of learn from their push against abortion rights to put women at the forefront of this because they are seen as more acceptable messengers on a lot of these cultural issues. So I think you start with the fact that we have a Democratic president with the Biden administration and conservatives looking for something to grab on to that they can animate their base with. And really a very nuanced, difficult issue to deal with that's been sort of - almost a Pandora's box of opening it up to other potential things to to restrict trans rights.
DAVIS: So, Domenico, how do you read Noem's actions on this from a political standpoint if we're looking at her as a 2024 contender? I mean, it seems like this is the kind of thing you do if you see yourself as a competitor in that sort of social conservative lane that could open up in a nomination fight.
MONTANARO: Well, we started to see her pop at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where she finished pretty high up in the straw poll, which, you know, is just of the attendees who are there. But her name continues to come up. If former President Trump is out of the picture, you know, you hear about Kristi Noem, you hear about Ron DeSantis of Florida as the two sort of main contenders who are newcomers to the scene in the Republican conservative circles, really champions of, you know, these cultural issues. So she wants to be able to get her name out there, keep her name in the news, be able to be somebody who conservatives are talking about.
DAVIS: Lee, as I mentioned, we've talked about Noem a bit in the past because of her handling on the pandemic. She's one of these governors who's had a very light touch. Your state hasn't had the kind of lockdowns or mask mandates we've seen in other parts of the country. But South Dakota also has one of the highest death rates from the pandemic in the country. So I wonder sort of, how is her handling of the management of the pandemic seen inside South Dakota? And do people think about her as a potential contender back home?
STRUBINGER: So South Dakota is kind of known as one of these sort of like rugged individualist states. And I think the pandemic has really kind of exposed the sort of weakness in that. Early on, Governor Noem did respond to the pandemic in basically saying we need to be cautious on this. And she even, you know, closed down the schools last spring. And then the conversation shifted nationally toward mask mandates. And that's not something that I don't think the people of South Dakota, regardless of if she asked for one or not, would have been fairly receptive towards. So I think she was kind of reading the room there.
And so she kind of focused on sort of the freedom of not telling South Dakotans what to do to respond to this pandemic. She often talked about trusting her citizens to make the right choice. And then, you know, right around the summer, into the fall, she took that message nationally. And so, you know, kind of the numbers sort of speak for themselves in terms of infection rates and death rates and that sort of thing. But I think overall, a majority of South Dakotans are kind of pleased with the response that she had toward the pandemic.
MONTANARO: You know, what has happened is it's become so politicized, the pandemic, you know, that even something like mask wearing has been politicized. Conservatives really want reopenings because what's important to them that they're talking about is the economy, small businesses, reopening schools rather than keeping things closed down to be able to stop the spread.
DAVIS: And messages you could see being pretty compelling in a Republican primary fight.
DAVIS: All right. Well, Lee, thank you so much for joining us.
STRUBINGER: It was a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
DAVIS: And that was Lee Strubinger from South Dakota Public Radio. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, President Biden is urging states to reinstate their mask mandates as COVID cases again begin to rise.
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DAVIS: And we're back. And we have our friend, Rob Stein, from NPR's science team here with us. Hey, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Sue.
DAVIS: So yesterday, during the White House's pandemic briefing, CDC director Rochelle Walensky addressed the rising COVID cases in the country. And her words were pretty stark.
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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: I'm going to pause here. I'm going to lose the script. And I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom. We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now, I'm scared.
DAVIS: Impending doom. Rob, I found this so striking because it seemed like such a contrast in messaging than what we heard from President Biden himself just a few weeks ago, who gave this sort of optimistic sense of hope for the future that maybe we can all be gathering this summer. It feels like we're just screwing something up here. What are we screwing up?
DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah. I know. President Obama was talking about July Fourth barbecues. And, you know, he had images of, you know, burgers and beers and touch football. And now we're talking about...
DAVIS: I want those things, Rob. I want those things.
STEIN: I know. I want them so bad. It is - you know, now we're talking about impending doom...
DAVIS: Impending doom, yeah.
STEIN: ...Like some sci-fi disaster movies about to hit. And, you know, the reason for that was the president was talking about what could happen if all the trends keep going in the right direction. And it was based on some big assumptions. And the big one was that people would continue to be careful to give the country enough time to get lots of people vaccinated. But what's happened in the interim is what everyone was kind of worried about. The pandemic fatigue would win out, and people would start letting down their guard too soon.
We saw lots of governors drop their mask mandates and relaxed restrictions on things like bars and restaurants. Spring break hit, and millions of people ignored the CDC's recommendations not to travel. At the same time, those more contagious variants have been spreading. So we're starting to see the numbers go back up again. More and more people are getting infected every day. More people are getting so sick every day that they're ending up in a hospital. Even deaths have started creeping back up again. So it's all very ominous.
DAVIS: President Biden also yesterday said he wants governors to reinstate or at least continue existing mask mandates. We've talked a lot about the race between, you know, vaccine distribution and the virus spreading. So how much risk is there right now for another big surge?
STEIN: So, you know, I've been in touch with a lots of epidemiologists and infectious disease experts. And unfortunately, I have to say they're all pretty much saying the same sort of thing, that unfortunately, it looks pretty inevitable that we probably will see some sort of another surge. Hopefully it won't be anything like the horrific winter surge that we just went through. A matter of fact, very few people think it could get that bad. And the reason for that is that too many people already have some immunity at this point because they've been exposed to the virus. Millions of people have now been vaccinated. And millions more are getting vaccinated every day. But how bad it gets really depends on how people behave.
DAVIS: Domenico, we've got a new NPR/Marist Poll out that has a lot of new data on how Americans are looking at the pandemic and at vaccines right now. What are some of the sort of top lines out of the poll that you think are most interesting?
MONTANARO: Yeah. We've been asking people if they've already gotten a vaccine or if they will get one when one comes available. And what we're seeing is a steady increase in people saying that they will get the vaccine or have already gotten a shot. In this poll, it was 70% of Americans who now say that they either have gotten at least one shot or that they will get one when it becomes available to them. You know, that - it was 62% in February. It was 67% earlier this month.
And the change that we're seeing is from Republicans and Trump supporters, interestingly. You know, they are still the most reluctant to get a vaccine, but we've seen their hesitancy come down somewhat even from just earlier this month. And that's helping that number get up to where scientists say is a level that, you know, could stem the number of cases of coronavirus, which is so key to turning this thing around.
DAVIS: All right. Well, I think that is it for us today. Rob, thank you so much for joining us.
STEIN: My pleasure.
DAVIS: That's Rob Stein from NPR's science team. And tomorrow, President Biden is going to be giving a big speech on his plan for the nation's infrastructure. Yes, its infrastructure week again. So we'll be back a little later than usual to talk all about it. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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