WASHINGTON, Sept 6 — When Joe Biden was criticised this week for failing to mask up after his wife caught Covid, he didn’t just put a brave face on it.
Rather, the 80-year-old US president did it again — and then flaunted the fact that he was breaking the guidance.
And by laughing it off the Democrat, who is running for re-election in 2024, showed he was in touch with Americans who are fed up with the pandemic.
Biden first raised eyebrows on Tuesday by removing his mask while draping the Medal of Honor around the neck of an octogenarian Vietnam War veteran at the White House.
Just hours earlier aides had said he would obey US masking guidelines following his wife Jill’s positive diagnosis on Monday, including wearing one around others.
But Biden went further on Wednesday, waving a black mask in the air as he sauntered in to deliver a speech on a dockworkers deal.
“I’ve been tested again today, I’m clear across the board. But they keep telling me, because this has to be 10 days or something, I got to keep wearing it,” Biden said in his opening remarks to a small audience.
Then he added with a grin: “But don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in, alright?”
The Democrat has hailed the country’s recovery from the pandemic but the United States has been experiencing a rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations in recent weeks.
Biden — who had Covid in 2022 — is also due to fly to India this week for the G20 summit in New Delhi where he will come face to face with other world leaders.
Criticism first came — albeit largely from right-wing media — after Biden took off his mask to give 81-year-old former army pilot Larry Taylor the Medal of Honor for saving four soldiers with a daring helicopter mission in 1968 in Vietnam.
The ceremony on Tuesday took place in a packed East Room of the White House, attended by dozens of people including Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Fox News accused Biden of “hypocrisy” for breaching the guidelines his own spokeswoman had said he would follow.
In the New York Post, TV host Piers Morgan said he had showed “maskless disrespect”, and branded him “incomprehensibly insensitive” for apparently leaving the medal ceremony early.
The White House faced a barrage of questions on Biden’s mask at a daily briefing on Wednesday — with the Ukraine war and US budget shutdown negotiations barely getting a mention.
Spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre defended the president, noting that Biden had again on Wednesday tested negative for Covid.
“The president is doing all that he can of course, in consultation with his physician, and so he’s keeping with the CDC (US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines,” she said.
The president removed his mask for the medal presentation “to deliver incredibly powerful remarks about this captain,” while his early departure was planned to “minimise his close contact with attendees,” she said.
Biden’s G20 travel plans remained unchanged, she said, without revealing whether he would don his mask to meet other leaders.
But could Biden’s bare-faced behaviour also have been sending a message to Americans that the darkest days of the pandemic are over?
That’s an important message for Biden too, whose approval ratings remain stubbornly low despite the US economy’s strong recovery from Covid.
“We are in a different phase,” Jean-Pierre said. “This is not new, people.” — AFP