WASHINGTON - One year after the nation was brought to a near-standstill by the coronavirus, President Joe Biden is outlining his plan Thursday to get the country "closer to normal" by the Fourth of July, using his first prime-time address to to offer Americans fresh hope and appeal for their help to meet his timetable.
Speaking in the White House East Room, Biden will announce moves to speed vaccinations, including directing that all states make all adults eligible for doses by May 1. Previewing his remarks, senior administration officials said Biden would also announce steps to expand the number of places and categories of people who can give shots, aiming to let Americans gather at least in small groups for the Independence Day holiday.
Biden is marking one year since the onset of the pandemic that has killed more than 530,000 Americans and disrupted the lives of countless more.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden's remarks, officials said Biden would announce that he is deploying an additional 4,000 active-duty troops to support vaccination efforts and will allow more people — such as medical students, veterinarians and dentists — to deliver shots. He is also directing more doses toward some 950 community health centers and up to 20,000 retail pharmacies, to make it easier for people to get vaccinated.
Biden will require states and territories to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1, as the country expects to have enough supply to be able to fully vaccinate adults by the end of that month.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 08: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on International Women’s Day as Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost (L) and Army Lieutenant General Laura Richardson (R) listen during an announcement at the East Room of the Whi
But even as he offers optimism, the officials said Biden would make clear that the July 4 timetable requires cooperation from Americans to continue to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing and follow federal guidelines meant to slow the spread of the virus in the near term.
The speech comes hours after Biden on Thursday signed into law a $1.9 trillion relief package that he said will help the U.S. defeat the virus and nurse the economy back to health. Some direct checks to Americans could begin arriving this weekend.
"This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country," Biden said as he signed the bill in the Oval Office.
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Most noticeable to many Americans are provisions providing up to $1,400 in direct payments, some of which could begin landing in bank accounts this weekend, and extending $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into early September. Also included are expanded tax credits over the next year for children, child care and family leave — some of them credits that Democrats have signaled they’d like to make permanent — plus spending for renters, feeding programs and people’s utility bills.
The House gave final congressional approval to the sweeping package by a near party line 220-211 vote on Wednesday, seven weeks after Biden entered the White House and four days after the Senate passed the bill. Republicans in both chambers opposed the legislation unanimously, characterizing it as bloated, crammed with liberal policies and heedless of signs the crises are easing.
Biden originally planned to sign the bill on Friday, but it arrived at the White House more quickly than anticipated.
"We want to move as fast as possible," tweeted White House chief of staff Ron Klain.
Previewing his Thursday night remarks, Biden said he would "talk about what we’ve been through as a nation this past year, but more importantly, I’m going to talk about what comes next."
Biden’s challenge is to honor the sacrifices made by Americans while encouraging them to remain vigilant despite "virus fatigue" and growing impatience to resume normal activities given the tantalizing promise of vaccines. Speaking on the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic, he’ll mourn the dead, but also project optimism about the future.
"This is a chance for him to really beam into everybody’s living rooms and to be both the mourner in chief and to explain how he’s leading the country out of this," said presidential historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley.
"This is a big moment," Brinkley added. "He’s got to win over hearts and minds for people to stay masked and get vaccinated, but also recognize that after the last year, the federal government hasn’t forgotten you."
Biden’s evening remarks in the East Room are central to a pivotal week for the president as he addresses the defining challenge of his term: shepherding the nation through the twin public health and economic storms brought about by the virus.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released initial guidance for how vaccinated people can resume some normal activities. On Wednesday, Congress approved the president’s $1.9 trillion "American Rescue Plan," aimed at easing the economic impact of the virus on tens of millions of people. And the nation was on pace to administer its 100 millionth dose of vaccine as soon as Thursday.
Almost exactly one year ago, President Donald Trump addressed the nation to mark the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic. He announced travel restrictions and called for Americans to practice good hygiene but displayed little alarm about the forthcoming catastrophe. Trump, it was later revealed, acknowledged that he had been deliberately "playing down" the threat of the virus.
For Biden, who has promised to level with the American public after the alternate reality of Trump’s virus talk, the imperative is to strike the correct balance "between optimism and grief," said Princeton history professor and presidential scholar Julian Zelizer.
"Generally, the country likes optimism, and at this particular moment they’re desperate for optimism, but you can’t risk a ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment,’" he said, warning against any premature declaration that the threat has been vanquished.
Fifty days into his presidency, Biden is experiencing a polling honeymoon that his predecessor never enjoyed.
According to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released last week, 70% of Americans back the Democratic president’s handling of the virus response, including 44% of Republicans.
The White House hopes that as Biden assumes the role of cheerleader for the virus relief package, the elements of the $1.9 trillion bill that are popular with Republicans will boost his support even further.