President Joe Biden supports health officials' warnings that it's too...

President Joe Biden supports health officials' warnings that it's too soon for states to end mask mandates while U.S. COVID-19 vaccinations are still ramping up. Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

President Joe Biden's press secretary saw fit to draw a distinction Thursday between calling someone a Neanderthal and linking their thought process to ancient humans who died out 40,000 years ago.

"The behavior of a Neanderthal, just to be clear — the behavior of," Jen Psaki told reporters demanding an explanation of Biden's flashpoint remark a day earlier. "The president — what everybody saw yesterday was a reflection of his frustration and exasperation, which I think many American people have …"

On Wednesday, Biden called it a "big mistake" for Texas and Mississippi to drop their mask mandates and business-capacity limits with the coronavirus pandemic still in play and vaccinations still ramping up. "Look, I hope everybody's realized by now, these masks make a difference," he said. "The last thing — the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that ‘In the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it.’

"It still matters."

The verbal fire was returned, as expected.

"Mississippians don't need handlers," the state's governor, Tate Reeves, tweeted Wednesday. "As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts. I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them."

GOP message-crafters could put Biden's crack in the same rhetorical kit bag as former President Barack Obama saying that when some voters "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion," and Hillary Clinton saying in 2016 that half of fellow candidate Donald Trump’s supporters belonged in a "basket of deplorables."

Biden's shot at red-state governors mirrored to some degree Trump's attacks on blue-state leaders for emergency COVID-19 measures they chose last year.

Clearly, Biden still sees a need to counter his predecessor's spurning of masks, espousal of fringe theories, undermining of experts and flouting of social-distance rules.

The current context is brighter. Federal-versus-state frictions now center on when to lift coronavirus restrictions — rather than when and how to impose them. Health authorities advise that the states are not yet out of the woods. That is far more hopeful than bracing for the worst to hit.

But there remains a dark spot — the fact that masks ever became a matter of political contention. Biden's "Neanderthal" jibe is unlikely to help get mask-phobes to cooperate, no matter what the rules say.

Face masks never were a genuine freedom-versus-safety issue, compared with the libertarian questions raised by lockdowns, quarantines and limits on religious gatherings. But in some places, mask paranoia persists.

Last July, Michael Pendleton, a political scientist at Buffalo State University, said of the mask kerfuffle: "You can go back to the nineteenth century and find all kinds of conspiracy theories, but there was no social media then to spread it.

"Today, of course, it’s rampant, and right-wing media outlets are eager to jump on these kinds of theories, too," Pendleton said.

For his part, Mississippi's Reeves dished out a zinger in response to Biden. He said: "Given how long ago Mr. Biden was elected to the U.S. Congress, he certainly should know how Neanderthals think."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attempted to drive his own narrative on the COVID-19 spread in his state with evidence-free blame of the Biden administration's immigration policy.

Even extinct hominids have their lobbyists. In Germany, the Neanderthal Museum tweeted support for Biden's fervor for statewide mask mandates but invited him to visit "once it is possible."