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The tragedy of why Joe Biden can't make the states do what he wants during the pandemic

People across the country are continuing to ask why the schools are still closed in so many places. Thus far, President Biden has had a lot to say about it, though his stated plans seem to keep changing. Everyone who is willing to be even marginally honest knows the reason, of course. The teachers’ unions don’t want to go back to in-person learning. They’re demanding that every teacher be vaccinated before that happens, even though the CDC and virtually every other medical authority say that it’s not required.

This situation has left some observers wondering why Biden doesn’t simply mandate that all of the teachers be vaccinated first. This debate led NBC News to publish an “explainer” about the limits of the power of the pen and the phone when it comes to issues of states’ rights. (Just in case it wasn’t already obvious.)

President Joe Biden wants to vaccinate teachers to speed school reopenings, but more than half the states aren’t listening and haven’t made educators a priority — highlighting the limited powers of the federal government, even during a devastating pandemic.

“I can’t set nationally who gets in line, when and first — that’s a decision the states make,” Biden said while touring a Pfizer plant in Michigan on Friday. “I can recommend.”

Under the Constitution, the powers of the federal government are far-reaching but not all-encompassing. States have always retained control over public health and safety, from policing crimes to controlling infectious disease, including distribution of coronavirus vaccines that Washington helped create and whose supply it controls.

The shorter and more digestible answer would be to say that this is a feature, not a bug. The nation was conceived as a collection of states, and while federal power has grown alarmingly over the past couple of centuries, the courts still recognize the rights of the individual states to chart their own course in many matters. Public health falls into that category.

Still, NBC was able to dredge up one “expert” who was willing to talk about how bad it is to give the states the authority to chart their own destiny.

“There’s a pretty strong argument that the confusion we’ve created has, in fact, cost human lives,” said Donald Kettl, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and author of “The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work.” “We pay a pretty high price sometimes for letting states go their own way.”

He added: “The founders were very conscious of the fact that it was a collection of states that had succeeded in winning the Revolutionary War. If you roll that forward, you end up with this patchwork of different vaccine priorities, mask mandates and lockdown rules, because the federal government cannot force states to do things.”

You can look at this question from two angles and it works out the same either way. From the strictly constitutional view, the Supreme Court has regularly ruled that the individual states have the authority to “provide for the public health, safety and morals of their residents.” (Somewhat humorously, the linked SCOTUS case from 1991 had to do with nude dancing at a go-go bar, not vaccinations, but the same principle applies.)

If you don’t care for the constitutional law approach, common sense should be of help here as well. It’s a big country and there are many differences between the people, conditions, and complicating factors you’ll encounter in each region. Wildly varying population density from place to place is probably one of the biggest factors. One-size-fits-all solutions are rarely the best option when you’re talking about any issue more specific than assuring the basic rights of citizens. What works fine in Slope County, North Dakota might be a complete disaster in South Central Los Angeles.

Either way, the question should be asked and answered at this point. Why can’t Joe Biden force all of the states to move teachers to the front of the line for vaccinations? Because he doesn’t have the constitutional power to do it. It’s the same reason he can only impose a federal mask mandate on federal property or when people are crossing state lines. And Joe Biden is (thankfully) smart enough to know his limits in this situation.