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The U.S. ranks 48th in per capita vaccination. Political polarization is one reason why

Public support for the Biden administration’s drive to get more people vaccinated for COVID-19 is largely split along partisan lines, according to the latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. While employers in some sectors and parts of the country are reporting that a vast majority of workers are complying with new vaccine requirements, hardened stances among the minority of people who oppose mandates reflect the long-term difficulty President Joe Biden could face in convincing enough Americans to get their shots to help slow the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say health care workers in hospitals, home health care facilities and other medical facilities should be vaccinated. But when you break that response down, a far higher share of Democrats (92 percent) support that federal requirement than do Republicans (38 percent) or independents (56 percent).

Partisanship drives so much of the nation’s response to the pandemic, said Dr. Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist who advised the Biden-Harris transition team’s COVID-19 response. Despite hosting multiple clinical trials for vaccines and having a shot for every person, American vaccination efforts have “really stalled out,” Gounder said. The U.S. globally ranks 48th in terms of how much of the population is vaccinated. Many fewer Republicans have received at least one dose compared to Democrats and independents, according to recent polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.

“This is because of a lack of sense of community, a lack of sense of ‘we’re all in this together,’” Gounder said.

The recent federal requirement for health care workers to be vaccinated — which affects 17 million health care workers nationwide and ties a facility’s Medicare and Medicaid funding to its workers getting shots — is one of a sweeping series of vaccine mandates designed by the Biden administration during a fourth surge of coronavirus infections.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

To boost the nation’s immunity, Biden also announced earlier this month that all employers with 100 workers or more would need to get vaccinated or show a negative test result at least weekly — something 56 percent of Americans support, according to this latest PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll.

The spirit of these mandates is also being woven into the broader labor force. United Airlines announced this week that nearly all of its U.S.-based employees have been vaccinated, and that it would fire nearly 600 workers — adding up to less than 1 percent of its 67,000 employees — who rejected calls to get vaccinated.

About half of U.S. adults — 51 percent — support the rule that federal contractors must be vaccinated, while 56 percent agree that federal employees who work for the executive branch, such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Education, should also get shots. But 71 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of people who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 still oppose a vaccine mandate for those federal workers.

In late August, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned government vaccine mandates in his state, one of several Republicans who have protested vaccine requirements, saying, “no governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.” Some employees affected by these mandates — including from the military, the health care industry and United — are suing their employers to halt the mandates.

Older Americans, who have been at greater risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19 infections and are the most-vaccinated age group in the U.S., were more likely to support employer-required vaccines than younger Americans. Among Gen Zers and millennials, 43 percent said they think bosses should be able to tell their employees they must get vaccinated, far lower than the 68 percent of Silent Generation members who said the same. That aligns with the overall trend of fewer people ages 12 and up being fully vaccinated (65 percent), compared to 83 percent of Americans age 65 and older.

And yet, a larger percentage of people aged 18 to 40 said that the protracted pandemic has taken a toll on their wellbeing, when compared to those 75 and older. Overall, a little more than a third of Americans say they are more stressed now than they were ahead of the pandemic, according to this latest poll. For Gen Z and millennials, the number was 37 percent, but ticked down slightly to 30 percent among the oldest Americans. People from rural areas, at 41 percent, were also more likely to say they feel more stressed now than those living in more densely populated areas, such as small cities and suburbs, both at 33 percent.

Americans split on Biden approval

That sense of unease, on top of the lackluster support for Biden’s latest pandemic response measures, likely won’t benefit his political capital, especially at the very moment when critical parts of his ambitious economic agenda are on the line. Americans are split over the job Biden is doing as president, with about half of Americans — 46 percent — saying they disapprove, including 91 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of independents. Another 45 percent say they approve, including 87 percent of Democrats.

Overall, 17 percent of Americans said they strongly approve of his time in the White House, which is the lowest since he was inaugurated.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

According to Marist data, Biden’s worst approval rating of his presidency so far — at 43 percent — came from an earlier poll this month, amid the chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan. Since then, the Biden administration has been criticized for the exit as well as its treatment of migrants, many of them from Haiti, along the U.S.-Mexico border And some of the administration’s messaging around the coronavirus pandemic — including signaling support for universal COVID-19 vaccine boosters before the Food and Drug Administration had vetted the data — left even his most ardent supporters wondering if politics was playing too great a role in public health.

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Biden’s agenda could appear to be “in peril,” said Jeffrey Engel, who directs the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But looking across U.S. history, Engel said that people should remember that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to make significant concessions to pass the groundbreaking New Deal programs and lift the country from the Great Depression.

“People have forgotten that even popular presidents with strong majorities have a whole lot of politicking to do with their own party,” Engel said.

Looking ahead to 2022 midterms

Biden’s ambitious spending plans on infrastructure and other social and environmental priorities have run head-first into partisan conflicts on the nation’s debt ceiling, not to mention a deadline to fund the government or face another shutdown.

Congress on Thursday passed a stopgap bill to extend funding through early December that Biden signed into law hours before the midnight deadline.

But many on Capitol Hill are also keenly aware of what is at stake in the long term, with midterm elections slightly more than a year away. If the 2022 election were held today, 46 percent of U.S. registered voters said they would vote for Democratic candidates, and another 38 percent said they would back Republicans. However, 12 percent said they did not yet know, suggesting those elections, and who controls Congress during the second half of Biden’s presidency, are far from settled.

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