By Katie Rogers
WASHINGTON — Seeking to comfort Americans bound together by a year of suffering but also by “hope and the possibilities,” President Joe Biden made a case to the nation Thursday night that it could soon put the worst of the pandemic behind it and promised that all adults would be eligible for the vaccine by May 1.
During a 24-minute speech from the East Room, Biden laced his somber script with references to Hemingway and personal ruminations on loss as he reflected on a “collective suffering, a collective sacrifice, a year filled with the loss of life, and the loss of living, for all of us.”
Speaking on the anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic and the moment at which the virus began tightening its grip on the United States, the president offered a turning point of sorts after one of the darkest years in recent history, one that would lead to more than half a million deaths in the country, the loss of millions of jobs and disruptions to nearly every aspect of society and politics.
With the stimulus bill about to give the economy a kick, the pace of vaccinations increasing and death rates down, Biden said Americans were on track to return to a semblance of normal life by July 4 as long as they took the chance to get vaccinated and did not prematurely abandon mask wearing, social distancing and other measures to contain the virus.
In putting a date, however cautiously, on the calendar, Biden also offered something intangible: hope for a summer with barbecues, family gatherings and hugs for grandparents.
“July 4th with your loved ones is the goal,” he said.
Biden did not mention his predecessor, Donald Trump, but his address drew sharp contrasts to him, repeatedly citing the need to tell the American people the truth, appealing for unity, celebrating the accomplishments of science and calling for continued vigilance against a virus that he said could still come roaring back.
“Just as we were emerging from a dark winter into a hopeful spring and summer is not the time to not stick with the rules,” Biden said. “This is not the time to let up.”
Biden set out concrete steps to build on the progress so far, starting with a requirement that states act by May 1 to make all adults eligible to be vaccinated. The administration had already announced last week that it would have enough doses to begin inoculating every adult by the end of May. Biden said that Americans should expect to get in line for a vaccine by May 1, but not to expect to have been vaccinated.
He said the federal government would also create a website that would allow Americans to search for available vaccines, make the vaccine available at more pharmacies, double the number of mass vaccination sites and certify more people — including dentists, paramedics, veterinarians and physician assistants — to deliver shots into arms.
“I’m using every power I have as president of the United States to put us on a war footing to get the job done,” Biden said. And after reminding Americans that the initial spread of the virus last year was met with “silence” and “denials,” the president stressed that a government stepping in to help its hardest-hit citizens was a powerful positive force.
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” Biden said. “It’s us, all of us.”
The speech, which advisers said the president had line-edited for the better part of a week, followed Biden’s signing of the stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, into law, setting off a huge disbursement of federal funds to individuals, states and struggling businesses through legislation that also amounted to a down payment on an expansive Democratic agenda.
Among its many other provisions, the plan provides some $130 billion to assist in reopening schools.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said to reporters who had gathered in the Oval Office, “and giving people in this nation, working people, the middle-class folks, people who built the country, a fighting chance.”
Biden signed the landmark legislation and scheduled his speech a year to the day after Trump declared from the Oval Office, in an early indication of what became a catastrophically misguided pattern of denying the reality of what faced the United States and the world, that a “low risk” coronavirus pandemic would amount to nothing more than “a temporary moment in time.”
Hoping to build political support for the rest of his agenda, including a large infrastructure program and an expansion of health care, Biden now intends to begin a campaign to sell the benefits of the stimulus legislation to voters.
One of the most easily digestible parts of the plan will take effect in days. Direct payments of up to $1,400 per individual are scheduled to arrive in the bank accounts of Americans as early as this weekend, said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. Expanded federal unemployment benefits will be extended.
The legislation provides the largest federal infusion of aid to the poor in generations, substantially expands the child tax credit and increases subsidies for health insurance. Restaurants will receive financial help and state governments will get an infusion of aid.
This week, about halfway through Biden’s first 100 days, the new administration has celebrated not just the passage of the stimulus plan but also progress in filling out the president’s Cabinet. On Wednesday alone, the Senate confirmed three of his picks: Merrick Garland as attorney general, Marcia Fudge as secretary of housing and urban development and Michael Regan as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But, just as the vote had been, the reaction to the relief bill in Washington was split along party lines, even though it is widely popular in national polling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed the package as “the most consequential legislation many of us will ever vote for,” and chastised Republicans who, she said, “vote no and take the dough.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, dismissed the relief package as “far-left legislation that was passed after the tide had already turned.”
The president and his advisers said that the urgency of getting direct payments into the hands of low- and middle-income Americans, reopening schools and lifting children out of poverty was worth the cost, financially and also politically. Biden, whose early message of political unity was quickly overtaken by a need to “go big” on the stimulus plan with only Democratic votes, has been determined to lay out a more hopeful vision, and reframe the virus as an opportunity to come back stronger.
There are significant challenges. The country remains deeply divided, politically and culturally. In his speech Biden condemned a spate of anti-Asian American violence as “un-American” scapegoating over the cause of the virus.
A substantial number of people remain hesitant about getting vaccinated even as supplies grow, and the administration is directing federal funds to campaigns to convince skeptical Americans that the shots are safe.
“I know they’re safe,” Biden said in his address. “We need everyone to get vaccinated.”
Biden and his advisers say they know it is not enough to help the nation emerge from the pandemic and are planning to use the stimulus legislation and the positive trends in containing the virus to build support for further initiatives.
On Thursday, the White House underscored the importance of the plan by delivering the bill to Biden’s desk ahead of schedule and summoning journalists to the Oval Office at the last minute to witness the signing. A celebration of the bill with congressional leaders was still scheduled for Friday. Psaki told reporters that the celebration would be “bicameral” but not “bipartisan.”
The White House’s decision to go out and sell the stimulus package after its passage reflects a lesson from the early months of the Obama administration. In 2009, fighting to help the economy recover from a crippling financial crisis, President Barack Obama never succeeded in building durable popular support for a similar stimulus bill and allowed Republicans to define it on their terms, fueling a partisan backlash and the rise of the Tea Party movement.
This time, Biden and some of his most high-profile administration members, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Jill Biden, the first lady, will crisscross the country to sell the plan to bipartisan audiences, betting that Republican support for pandemic aid exists in individual districts, even if politicians in Washington have refused to cooperate. Biden will visit Pennsylvania and Georgia next week.
But even as his advisers publicly hailed the passage of the stimulus plan, Biden made it clear that he also wanted to use his speech to reflect on how many lives had been upended, or lost, and show the nation that he understood what that loss meant.
“Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do,” Biden said. “In fact it may be the most American thing we do, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company