President Joe Biden culminated a big day of firsts for his presidency with an expression of optimism about the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic — if Americans get vaccinated and play by the rules.
Biden began his Thursday night address by reflecting on the loss of lives and lost opportunities of the past year — the foregoing of birthdays and weddings and even first dates — since the coronavirus crisis was declared a pandemic exactly one year ago.
The president pulled out a card with his daily schedule that included the count of American lives lost to the virus to date. It read 527,726 on Thursday.
“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.”
It was Biden’s first prime-time address to the nation as president, and though it began as so many of his remarks over his many decades in public life have — with a recognition of loss — he took the opportunity to pivot to a way forward.
“I will not relent until we beat this virus, but I need you, the American people, I need you. I need every American to do their part,” he said. “That’s not hyperbole, I need you.”
Biden said it was important to make sure everyone had confidence in the vaccines, and that people do get vaccinated, with a goal of families and friends being able to safely gather in small groups by Independence Day.
The president said there were still challenges, and new variants could emerge that would complicate the timeline, but he expressed hope that small groups will be gathering in the summer.
“We begin to mark our independence from this virus, but to get there, we can’t let our guard down,” he said, calling for continued mask-wearing and social distancing.
Biden signed his first major legislation earlier in the day, a sweeping $1.86 trillion coronavirus relief package that emerged from Congress looking remarkably similar to what he had originally proposed — especially given the peculiarities of the budget reconciliation process that Democrats used to advance it from bill to law without Republican votes.
The signing came one day ahead of schedule. What was expected to be a signing ceremony on Friday will now be a celebration with House and Senate Democratic leaders and key committee leaders in the Rose Garden before Biden departs for a weekend back home in Delaware.
There are plenty of firsts still to come, including Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress and the release of the administration’s first budget proposal, both of which have faced delays.
As is traditional for major addresses, headlines from the president’s speech were made public just as the three network newscasts were getting on the air.
Biden announced that he would be directing state, territory and tribal governments to take steps to expand vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1. Ahead of the speech, the administration sought to make clear that states should be able to get priority groups vaccinated ahead of that date.
“The White House COVID-19 Response Team has concluded that our accelerated vaccination efforts will enable prioritized vaccinations to be far enough along by end of April that all eligibility restrictions for vaccinations can be lifted by May 1st,” a White House statement read.
The optimism about some semblance of normalcy by the Fourth of July is rooted in the administration’s confidence that a widely vaccinated population will be a reality by then. The White House plans to support the efforts at the federal level by further expanding the availability of vaccines at community health centers and retail pharmacies, as well as through federally run mass vaccination sites.
In support, Biden announced he would be deploying more than 4,000 additional active duty military personnel in support of the vaccination campaign, which the White House said would bring the total number of troops involved to more than 6,000. The White House also said in a fact sheet to expect an uptick in the number of professionals eligible to give vaccinations across the country.
Biden praised the scientific miracle of the development of the three vaccines now authorized for emergency use in the United States, as well as for the success of NASA scientists in the recent landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars.
“It’s never ever a good bet to bet against the American people. America is coming back,” he said.