On June 26, KDKA anchor Ken Rice asked Joe Biden if he would, as president, use his “federal leverage to mandate” that people wear masks in public. Biden said yes, “from an executive standpoint.” Rice followed up by asking, “So you would in effect mandate the wearing of masks?” Biden responded, “I would do everything in my [power]* to make it required that people had to wear masks in public.”
I am aware of no statute that enables the president to make mask-wearing mandatory, and if there were such a statute it might not be constitutional. The most charitable reading of Biden’s comment is that he would do what he could to encourage mask-wearing in public, but tacitly admitted that he couldn’t do much.
Some people nonetheless continue to be fixated on the question of a federal or even presidential mask-wearing order. On his ABC show on June 28, George Stephanopoulous asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “Is it time to mandate the wearing of masks across the country?” She said it was “long overdue.” Blake Burman of Fox Business News asked President Trump on July 1 if “there should be mandatory masks all across this country.” (He responded, “Well, I don’t know if you need mandatory . . . but I’m all for masks.”)
On Saturday, CNN anchor Alex Marquardt raised the question again: “There’s a retail trade group that asked President Trump to institute federal, so nationwide, mask guidelines at stores across the country as the country continues to re-open.” He asked political analyst Ron Brownstein if he saw “any chance [that] the president would issue a federal mandate on masks.” Brownstein responded that Trump’s hard-core supporters wouldn’t allow him to do it. In that case, his hard-core supporters would seem to be in alignment with U.S. law.
Marquardt may have been referring to a letter from the Retail Industry Leaders Association that called for uniform nationwide guidance to be issued by the country’s governors, or a letter from several business groups that asked Trump, among others, to develop model policies on mask wearing while also noting that “the decision to impose face covering requirements should remain at the state or local level.” Both letters evince more awareness of the structure of government in the U.S. than some politicians and journalists. Trump’s critics, in particular, should not need reminding that the president’s authority over anti-coronavirus policy isn’t total.
* It sounds to me as though Biden said “everything in my possible,” perhaps having failed to choose between saying “everything possible” and “everything in my power.”