In a speech that actively sought to rebut the denials and divisions cultivated by his predecessor, Biden said his efforts could allow for small Independence Day gatherings on July 4.
“After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special where we not only mark our independence as a nation but begin to mark our independence from this virus,” he said.
He cast the effort to beat back the virus as a collective and patriotic initiative even as he lamented the untold losses suffered by Americans over the past year.
“Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it may be the most American thing we do,” he said.
For Biden, it was a moment to summon a deep well of empathy as he spoke to a nation ready to move beyond its collective grief and exhaustion. His words were similar to the ones he delivered for much of the last year as a candidate, but the message carried a far heavier weight as he addressed Americans from the Cross Hall of the White House.
He did not mention his predecessor by name — the burden, by this early stage of his presidency, is his and his alone — but he made clear he was turning a page from the Trump era.
“We know what we need to do to beat this virus,” Biden said. “Tell the truth.”
The President delivered a careful balance of optimism, along with a strong dose of reality, as he told Americans: “This fight is far from over.” He also issued a clarion call for “national unity,” imploring Americans to set aside the partisan fights over masks and restrictions.
“I will not relent until I meet this virus, but the American people: I need you,” Biden said. “I need every American to do their part.”
Biden also spoke out forcefully against a recent rise in hate crimes targeted at Asian Americans, a sharp cry from his predecessor who as recently as Wednesday referred to the “China virus” when taking credit for vaccine development.
“Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated,” Biden said.
“At this very moment, so many of our fellow Americans are on the front lines of this pandemic, trying to save lives. And still — 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,” he said.
Using his executive authority, Biden is directing states, tribes and territories to render all adults eligible for the vaccine by the start of May. He used use the July 4 holiday as a target date by which all Americans can gather in small groups with family and friends.
Most states are already speeding along to wider eligibility for vaccines, and one — Alaska — has already opened vaccinations to every person over 16.
Fifty days into his term and at what officials describe as a critical juncture in the trajectory of the crisis, Biden offered the most forward-looking remarks to date toward reopening the country, even as more than 1,000 people die per day.
To make his case, he had on his side declining case counts, millions of vaccinated Americans and a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that he signed into law Thursday afternoon. The confluence of positive signs has made for an optimistic moment that Biden is eager to seize.
He laid out new steps the administration believes makes the May 1 timeline realistic, including expanding the types of professionals who are able to administer vaccine shots. Dentists, veterinarians and paramedics will all be included in the new approved list.
He will detail a national website launching at the start of May that provides information about locating a vaccine.
And he’ll unveil a doubling of the number of federal mass vaccination centers and will announce an additional 4,000 active duty troops will participate in the vaccination effort.
Officials said the target by which enough vaccine will be available for anyone who wants it — the end of May — hasn’t changed. And they cautioned that it would still take longer than that for every person who wants a shot to receive one.
In his speech, Biden also addressed school reopening efforts, announcing a summit convened by the Department of Education and expanded testing capacity for K-8 facilities.
The President also trumpeted the new stimulus law across the country beginning next week as the government sets about trying to implement it.
Biden said a day before his speech he planned to “address the American people and talk about what we went through as a nation this past year” as well as “what comes next.”
“There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of the past year,” he said, “but we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable.”
Taking to the airwaves in prime time, when most Americans are in front of their televisions, has traditionally been reserved for the most important presidential messages and key junctures for an administration.
White House aides have been working with Biden for the past week on developing the tone of the speech and finalizing its text, striving to achieve the correct balance between optimism about reopening and acknowledgment of the painful reality that thousands of Americans are still dying each week.
“He has been reviewing drafts of the speech last week; he was, of course through the course of this week, and making line edits,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday. “He has been providing line edits in order to ensure he is striking the right tone and providing the right level of clarity as he prepares to address the country this evening.”
Biden has been almost fully focused on the pandemic in the early days of his presidency, overseeing an increase in vaccinations and the massive economic relief plan, which cleared final passage in Congress on Wednesday.
He has proceeded cautiously on promising an end date to the crisis, aware that hiccups in the vaccine rollout or emerging variants of the virus could stymie what has been steady progress toward reopening.
But inside the White House, advisers are aware of the growing weariness among the public over sustained lockdowns and believe that carefully looking forward while still encouraging vigilance is the correct approach.
Still, even with high hopes for economic improvement from the relief bill, there were indications in the poll that Biden has yet to win over the public on his handling of the economy. His rating for handling it stands at 49% approve to 44% disapprove.
Aware that his political rise or fall will be determined by the pandemic, Biden is set to begin selling his efforts more forcefully, beginning with Thursday’s speech from the White House East Room. He’s due to travel to Pennsylvania next Tuesday to talk up the Covid-19 response and will visit other states over the next several weeks.
Other high-profile representatives of the administration, including first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, are also set to hit the road on what the White House is branding the “Help is Here Tour.”
The President has taken his experience during President Barack Obama’s administration to heart, believing the 2009 stimulus package wasn’t properly messaged to the American people. He has encouraged aides to more fully own the relief this time around, encouraged by polls showing a wide majority of Americans — including most Republicans — support it.
He is adopting one lesson from the Obama-era bill by promising to name an “implementation czar” to oversee the rollout of the new law, which includes provisions like $1,400 direct payments and an expansion of the child tax credit that will require a managed government effort. Biden himself oversaw the 2009 implementation as vice president.
Back then, however, the country was just entering an economic hole that would take several years to dig out from. Americans were still coming to grips with the scale of the crisis and were far from sensing an end to it.
Now, Biden faces a country that can — for the first time in months — feel the end of the pandemic nearing, helped along in part by the increase in vaccinations. Capitalizing on that optimism, and in some ways taking credit for it, is now his goal.