Joe Biden Misses Vaccine Goal, Cautioned Not to Oversell and Underdeliver

Throughout his presidency so far, Joe Biden has been able to tout the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a beacon of early success.

The Democratic president initially set a goal of 100 million doses to be administered in the first 100 days of his tenure. He upped that to 200 million—and hit that target on his 92nd day in the White House.

After that, talk turned to a benchmark of 70 percent of the United States' adult population receiving at least one vaccine dose by July 4—a goal which has been missed. According to Centers for Disease Control Figures, 67 percent of adults across the country have had at least one dose.

The White House previously conceded 70 percent was likely to be missed, with press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters: "Well, we don't see it exactly like something went wrong. How we see it is: We set a bold, ambitious goal—something the president has done from the very beginning—and we are expected to meet that goal just a couple of weeks after July 4th."

But while the White House has looked to downplay the miss, the fact of having not hit the target remains.

"There is a political adage that says it's far better to under-promise and overdeliver than the other way round," Mark Shanahan, head of the department of politics and international relations at the University of Reading and co-editor of the book The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage, told Newsweek.

"Joe Biden seems to have briefly forgotten that and focused on the soundbite of the date over the reality of the data."

Several factors blocked the path to the milestone, including geographic disparities in the rollout across different states as well as some people's ideological distrust of vaccines—fueled by the rampant online anti-vaccination movement.

Despite this misstep the broader context of good news around the pandemic means Biden will probably evade any major criticism.

"As long as the direction of travel is positive and Americans see signs of the economy opening up and improving, I don't think him missing the 70 percent target by a short period will hit him too hard," Shanahan said.

"Expect a lot of emphasis on the successes on the vaccination program to emanate from the White House in the next two weeks."

However, while this instance of overselling and underdelivering might pass by with little political damage, it is a warning shot to Biden and his administration.

An isolated instance in unique circumstances may go unpunished. But making this mistake again could be deemed a pattern, ripe to be pounced upon by critics, or to negatively shift public perception of the administration.

"We can expect that the administration will be more cautious in the future in setting hard deadlines," Julie Norman, a lecturer in politics and international relations at University College London, told Newsweek.

"Missing the vaccine target is a cautionary target of how even a well-executed program can become liable to criticism if tied too directly to a specific date that might be beyond the administration's control."

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, similarly told Newsweek that "overpromising and underdelivering is never a recipe for success."

"So while Biden may escape broad criticism in this instance, he doesn't want to make it a habit—otherwise, voters will begin to paint a (less than flattering) picture of the administration," Gift said.

"That's the problem with setting ambitious goals. There's always a chance they won't get achieved."

How Biden reacts to missing the 70 percent target and his subsequent actions to boost vaccine uptake will steer interpretation of this failure. Shanahan of the University of Reading said it is a target "loved more by the media than useful to the clinicians."

"On current forecasts, much of the country will have bypassed 70 percent of the population having at least one jab by Independence Day although the overall figure for the U.S. may be one or two percentage points short," Shanahan said.

"What it may do now is change the focus of the conversation and indeed of the vaccine roll-out to target the lagging areas where slow state action and individual vaccine hesitancy means far fewer than 70 percent of the population have received the vaccine.

"In what's left of his month of action, the president should focus on what the federal government can do to help the lagging states—Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, for instance—speed up their vaccine roll-out and target communities reluctant to get their jabs."

Norman, of University College London, also said how Biden responds next will ultimately shape public perception, while success in other areas might also mitigate any questions over vaccinations.

"The challenge for the administration is to put a positive spin on Biden's handling of the pandemic in general and vaccine rollout in particular," she said, "while also underscoring what they see as the public health imperative of emphasizing the persistent threat of the virus and encouraging Americans to take it seriously.

"Biden will get criticism regardless on missing the target from those looking for missteps. The degree to which such criticisms stick will depend largely on if the administration can continue to tell a broader story of success in terms of pandemic management and recovery.

"July will also be a crucial time for Biden to secure successes on other key agenda items like the infrastructure bill. If progress stalls there as well, negative stories will stick more than they might otherwise, while a success on infrastructure will help downplay the missed vaccine target."

Norman also noted that while missing the 70 percent deprives Biden of the chance to take a "victory lap," criticism of him "is likely to be muted by the failure being mostly demand—rather than supply—driven."

"Vaccine rates aren't higher because many Americans are refusing to get inoculated rather than because they lack access," she said.

"Of course, self-refusals are considerably higher among Republicans than Democrats.

"So, it's unclear how many GOP politicians will want to stand up and criticize Biden for failing to reach his vaccine target when it's predominantly their own right-leaning constituents who are the most vaccine-reluctant."

Despite this, Gift suggested there could be room for re-evaluation from Biden and his team on addressing vaccine hesitancy.

"At the same time, I do think it's reasonable for Biden's team to self-reflect on what it's done well (and not so well) in addressing vaccine hesitancy," Gift said.

"A more concerted effort at persuasion and meeting Republican voters where they are, rather than simply criticizing or dismissing their choices (as some in left-wing circles have arguably been guilty of), is likely to be most effective in allaying vaccine concerns and bolstering inoculation rates."

While the president might not thank his predecessor for much—the GOP accuses Biden of not giving former President Donald Trump sufficient credit for the vaccines—Trump's record in office is a useful defense against backlash over his own missed goals.

"If Biden consistently fails to match the message with the delivery across his agenda, the Republicans will undoubtedly seize on his 'failures' quickly. At the moment, it's pretty much all they've got. But they have to be careful too," Shanahan said.

"Trump, the snake oil salesman and barker in chief didn't get infrastructure sorted or deliver a better Republican healthcare plan for America. He didn't build the wall or lock her up.

"By opening the door on any disconnect between Biden's promises and the actuality of what he does, the GOP leave themselves open for some pretty brutal push-back on under-delivery when they were in power."

It's not just Republican ire. Biden must also be cautious of criticism from within his own party. Progressives will press him on targets such as raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and on promises made regarding climate change.

Moreover, as the debate continues over his infrastructure package, he is facing pressure from progressives not to compromise too far on a deal with Republicans—with questions raised from both sides of the political spectrum about his desire for bipartisanship.

"He is in credit at the moment, having started more radically than most commentators expected," Shanahan said.

"But the progressive wing of the Democrats will hold his feet to the fire. Biden has a tough midterm season coming up and has to balance their demands for a continuing radical agenda with his naturally centrist instincts.

"His path to success is actually quite narrow and strewn with rocks both from the GOP and from his own side. The honeymoon's over; now we'll see whether he has the skill to do more than just preside."

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment on the vaccine target.

joe biden speaks from state dining room
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the nation's COVID-19 response and the vaccination program in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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