One year after his predecessor told Americans from the Oval Office that the nation was “at a critical time in the fight against the virus,” President Joe Biden has promised that the nation is finally on the verge of a return to normalcy.
But 50 days into his presidency, and hours after signing into law the nearly $2 trillion relief bill that he promised would help “rebuild” the American middle class, Biden’s own primetime address from the White House on Thursday night was aimed at an audience exhausted by a year of catastrophic loss, social isolation, and a government disaster response that was, in many ways, its own disaster. In his remarks, Biden promised that the pandemic that has overturned nearly every part of American life could soon, finally, be over—as long as Americans do their own part.
“I promise, I will do everything in my power—I will not relent until we beat this virus,” Biden said. “But I need you, the American people, I need you, I need every American, to do their part. That’s not hyperbole. I need you.”
Now that “help is on the way,” as Biden said in his remarks, being able to actually follow through on his promises—reopened schools within 50 more days, with universal availability of the coronavirus vaccine to all adults by May 1 and a degree of normality by Independence Day—will be the greatest challenge of his presidency. It will also test the confidence of Americans in their government’s ability to tackle a crisis, a confidence that Biden himself admitted had been strained to breaking over the past year.
“We’ve lost so much over the last year: we’ve lost family, friends. We’ve lost businesses and dreams we spent years building. We’ve lost time,” Biden said. “We lost faith in whether our government and our democracy can deliver on really hard things for the American people.”
“The only way to get our lives back, to get our economy back on track, is to beat the virus,” Biden said, likening the upcoming implementation of the American Rescue Plan to a “war footing” for the entire nation. “But this is one of the most complex operations we’ve ever undertaken as a nation… and thank god, we’re making some real progress now.”
Passage of one of the largest economic stimulus packages in U.S. history already presented enormously complex problems for Biden’s administration to solve, but the next phase of the national strategy to address the pandemic and its economic fallout will be even more complicated.
Biden’s promise to expand the population of people eligible for vaccination to include all Americans over age 18 will require doubling the number of pharmacies participating in the federal pharmacy program. The effort will also entail doubling the number of mass vaccination centers run by FEMA and the U.S. military, and granting the ability to provide vaccinations to include dentists, EMTs, midwives, and even veterinarians—all operating under the imprimatur of the Department of Health and Human Services in the largest single vaccination initiative in history.
“If we all do our part, there’s a good chance that families, friends, and neighbors will be able to gather in small groups to celebrate Independence Day on July 4,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the president’s address. “We know people in this country are eager to get back to family and friends, the next phase where wartime effort will help get us closer to normal.”
Biden also called on Americans to look to their better natures as the social fabric has frayed amidst the pandemic—with particular focus on the rising rates of hate crimes and attacks on Asian Americans in cities and towns across the country.
“Too often, we’ve turned against one another,” Biden said. “Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated. At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, are on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives. Still, they are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.”
Even the massive cash infusion from the American Rescue Plan intended to make this promise will present its own logistical hurdles. Beyond the topline $1,400 direct payments to American taxpayers and the extension of additional unemployment benefits through the beginning of September, the bill allocates $350 billion in funding for state, local, and tribal governments to cover massive revenue hits due to the recession. Republicans, who universally opposed the plan, have criticized the funds as a giveaway to tax-heavy states (despite a few already lauding the distributions to their own states).
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday called the implementation of the act “the greatest operational challenge the country has faced,” and said that Biden would “strike a balance” between highlighting a major political victory and acknowledging that roughly 1,500 Americans are still dying every day from COVID-19.
“He is delivering on his commitment to being truthful about the challenges that we continue to face, what is going to be required of the American public to get to a return to normalcy,” Psaki said. “But he also wants to provide a sense of hope and what’s possible if we abide by the guidelines.”
Those “wartime efforts,” Biden admitted on Thursday, come after a year of incalculable sacrifice on the part of every American. But exhaustion at the prospect of this latest, hopefully final, push to defeat the virus, he said, cannot be the reason that the nation falls short.
“We all lost something” in the past year, Biden said, noting “the collective suffering, the collected sacrifice. A year filled with a loss of life, and a loss of living.”
But “finding light in the darkness,” he continued, “may be the most American thing we do.”