WASHINGTON—Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus shutdowns in the U.S., and the 50th day of Joe Biden’s presidency. In his first televised prime-time address from the East Room of the White House Thursday night, Biden was marking milestones.
Including one milestone he’s promising soon: that every American will be eligible to receive a vaccine shot by May 1, the aim being to have people host small backyard barbecues by Independence Day.
And another milestone just reached: hours earlier, Biden officially signed his COVID-19 $1.9-trillion economic relief package.
“Today, I signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a historic piece of legislation to deliver immediate relief to millions of people,” Biden said.
The President clearly doesn’t plan to allow that achievement to go unnoticed. Biden planned a big formal celebration in the Rose Garden of the White House Friday, followed immediately by a week-long, cross-country “Help is Here” tour to promote the measures.
He wants the nation to celebrate, clearly, both the economic package and the rapid progress to vaccinate the entire country by early summer.
“After a long, dark year, one whole year, there is hope of light and better days ahead. If we all do our part. This country will be vaccinated soon, our economy will be in demand. Our kids will be back in school. We will have proven once again that this country can do hard things, big things, important things,” he said.
The early part of his speech, was marked by Biden’s characteristic empathy, his embrace of grieving, after a year of disease, death and lockdowns.
“I carry a card in my pocket with the number of Americans who have died from COVID to date. It’s on the back of my schedule. As of now, total deaths in America are 527,726,” he said.
“They were husbands, wives, sons and daughters, grandparents, friends, neighbours, young and old.
“They leave behind loved ones, unable to truly grieve or to heal, even to have a funeral.”
Biden talked about the job losses, the missed weddings and graduations, the pain of isolation.
“The things we used to do, that always filled us with joy, had become things we couldn’t do. And it broke our hearts.”
While he was pointing to better times ahead, he also warned that it isn’t quite time to declare victory yet.
“We need everyone to get vaccinated. We need everyone to keep washing their hands, stay socially distanced, and keep wearing the mask as recommended by the CDC,” said Biden, raising the prospect of further lockdowns as an unwelcome alternative. “Because, even if we devote every resource we have to beating this virus, getting back to normal depends on national unity.”
It’s a fine balance that the president tried to strike, between wanting people to know help is arriving and better times are on the horizon, and acknowledging the continuing pain of the country’s staggering losses of life and livelihoods and the work ahead.
In his campaign speeches, beginning just over a year ago in South Carolina, he telegraphed his belief that it is in embracing the pain of loss that he has found a sense of mission, both personally and politically. It was a belief that seemed a blueprint for this speech, marking the pandemic year and the road he sees ahead out of it.
“Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do,” he said Thursday night, and spoke of “being strong in all the broken places.”
Biden, as a candidate for president, was pitched as a transitional figure, a bridge between generations of Democrats, and a safe moderate landing spot for a nation to catch its breath after the ideological chaos of President Trump. That image of him has, itself, shifted in the first days of his presidency. It’s a change marked clearly by this speech.
He still wants to be America’s grief counsellor, he seemed to be saying, but he wants to prepare Americans to celebrate with him.
He’s aiming to be not just transitional, but transformational.
He invoked the development of vaccines and the landing of the Mars rover to say the U.S. was still proving it could do big things, hard things, and was going to keep doing them.
“History, I believe, will record that we faced and overcame one of the toughest and darkest periods in this nation’s history,” he concluded. “I promise you we will come out stronger with a renewed faith in ourselves, renewed commitment to one another, to our communities and to our country.”
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