In his book “American Lion,” a biography of President Andrew Jackson, author/historian Jon Meacham describes Jackson’s philosophy of governing as presidential primacy. The occupant of the office, he felt, should be granted wide latitude and discretion in wielding executive authority.
As the only official elected by the nation at large, Jackson – the nation’s seventh chief executive – believed the office was not an arm of government; rather, it was the heart of government.
In the wake of President Biden’s extraordinary exercise of power – ordering some 100 million American citizens to accept vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus – Jackson’s theory will be tested.
After months of resisting mandating a mass vaccination program, Biden placed the nation on a wartime footing, ordering private sector employers of more than 100 persons to require workforce immunizations or twice weekly testing for those who refuse. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) will administer the effort.
Violations would lead to fines of $14,000 per case, and those who reject the vaccine and the testing regimen could presumably lose their jobs.
The scope of the order was breathtaking. Gone were months of suggesting, encouraging, recommending and urging, replaced by an order from the occupant of the highest office in the land.
The ink was still wet on his executive order when lawsuits were announced challenging the directive and arguing the president had exceeded his constitutional authority. Republican governors and members of Congress expressed outrage, crying that the president had trampled on constitutionally protected individual and privacy rights.
Much of the backlash involved accusations that the president and, by extension, Democrats were guilty of a concerted effort to accrue greater power and control over the American people and eroding historic freedoms.
Some were more cynical, arguing the administration was engaged in a “wag the dog” strategy, calling for a major policy step to distract attention from the disastrous withdrawal of the American military from Afghanistan, an issue which dominated news and political coverage for weeks and drove Biden’s public approval rating into the 40% range.
Positioning the president as a leader in fighting the most serious public health crisis in a century was the administration’s real goal, critics alleged, to head off becoming bogged down in a never ending, non-winnable debate over the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The president struck back swiftly, challenging opponents to “have at it” if they chose to proceed in the courts.
With the country experiencing 150,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and 1,500 deaths daily, Biden said he concluded that dramatic action was crucial as the virus’ Delta variant overwhelmed hospitals and medical facilities.
Biden accused governors and legislatures that prohibited mask wearing and vaccinations of a “cavalier attitude” toward children in particular, implying they were complicit in risking lives and blamed those who refused the vaccine for the out-of-control virus spread. Their refusal, he said, “has cost us all.
The public seems to agree with him, with a majority supporting a vaccination mandate for people in the workplace, on airplanes and public transportation, and in restaurants and entertainment venues.
The Republican opposition strategy rests on preserving individual freedom to decide medical care, while the administration has framed the debate around government’s responsibility to act decisively to protect public health.
A presumed constitutional right to refuse a vaccine, the administration argued, does not translate into a constitutional right to expose others to a potentially lethal pathogen.
Biden, in effect, has asked the American people to choose between safety for themselves and their families and a desire to keep government out of their personal lives. A majority has opted for the former while softening their view of the latter.
The data has made the choice a bit easier: 40.8 million infections and 660,000 deaths in the United States since the pandemic’s onset – both the highest in the world.
Some Republicans believe the vaccination mandate will harm Democrats in the 2022 midterm congressional elections, that the principles of freedom and a non-interfering government will prove stronger than concerns over a highly contagious but treatable infection.
Jackson left office 184 years ago, and whether his governing theory will be vindicated will likely be decided by the 21st Century judicial system.