Joe Biden's White House Gets Short With Joe Manchin and Unvaccinated

The Biden administration's abrupt change of tack on Senator Joe Manchin after he rejected President Joe Biden's signature Build Back Better Act, and on the unvaccinated as the Omicron variant continues to spread, signals a sense of "extreme urgency" within the White House, experts say.

The White House on Sunday issued a scathing statement after Democratic Senator Manchin of West Virginia reversed course and firmly declined to vote in favor of Biden's ambitious spending bill.

"I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can't. I've tried everything humanly possible. I can't get there," Manchin said during a Sunday appearance on Fox News of Biden's roughly $1.75 trillion plan. He cited concerns over inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the national debt.

On Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Manchin's rejection of Biden's legislation is "at odds" with his discussions with the president earlier in the week.

Manchin's comments on Fox News represent a "sudden and inexplicable" reversal in his position, and "a breach of his commitments" to the president and his colleagues in the House and Senate, Psaki said.

Manchin's support had been critical because Democrats maintain a razor-thin majority in the Senate, holding 50 out of 100 seats, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

Psaki's statement Sunday is by far the most critical from the Biden administration of the Democratic senator.

"Senator Manchin will have to explain to those families paying $1,000 a month for insulin why they need to keep paying that, instead of $35 for that vital medicine," said Psaki. "He will have to explain to the nearly two million women who would get the affordable day care they need to return to work why he opposes a plan to get them the help they need."

She also suggested that Manchin's decision to reject the legislation will result in millions of children being thrown back into poverty.

"The fight for Build Back Better is too important to give up. We will find a way to move forward next year," Psaki said.

And days earlier, the White House for the first time issued a stark warning that the unvaccinated will face "a winter of severe illness and death."

Emphasizing the highly transmissible nature of the Omicron variant, Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, on Friday told reporters that White House medical experts anticipate the variant will lead to a rise in cases across the country.

Addressing the vaccinated, Zients said "You've done the right thing, and we will get through this."

"For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm," he added, echoing remarks made by Biden on Thursday.

His message largely echoes remarks from health officials in the E.U. and U.K., many of whom have warned of a difficult winter ahead due to those who remain unvaccinated, and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

In the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid has warned that those who are yet to be vaccinated against COVID-19 could cause "huge damage" and overwhelm hospitals.

"Instead of protecting themselves and protecting the community, they choose not to get vaccinated," Javid said during an appearance on the Trevor Phillips show on Sunday. "They are really having a damaging impact."

High Stakes

Julie Norman, deputy director of University College London's (UCL) Center on U.S. Politics (CUSP) told Newsweek the White House's "shift in messaging" in recent days comes as the president faces "a tough year-end with a new Covid variant, rising inflation, and now, a stalled legislative agenda."

She said she expects the Biden administration will start "pulling out all the stops to get Manchin back to the table."

Speaking to Newsweek, Leslie Vinjamuri, Director of the U.S. and Americas Program at Chatham House, said the change of tack by the Biden administration reflects a sense that "the stakes are extremely high and that time is of the essence."

"There is probably also a strong sense that past strategies have not worked so well," said Vinjamuri. "Uptake on vaccinations is not what it needs to be, and Joe Manchin has pulled his support from President Biden's signature legislation and in the ninth inning."

Vinjamuri added that she believes the Biden administration is doubling down on the rhetoric that unvaccinated Americans are largely to blame for the ongoing pandemic "out of a sense of extreme urgency."

"It is also signaling that this is now a matter of individual choice and that logic has always resonated very strongly in the United States," she said. "Essentially the administration is asking Americans, do you wish to live or to die? If the answer is to live, then get vaccinated."

Newsweek has reached out to Manchin's office and the White House for comment.

President Joe Biden speaks at a briefing
President Joe Biden removes his face mask before delivering remarks about the Build Back Better legislation's new rules around prescription drug prices in the East Room of the White House on December 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The White House in recent days has shifted its messaging on Senator Joe Manchin, after he rejected Biden's Build Back Better act, and on the unvaccinated. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images