President Joe Biden will use his first evening address to the nation to open the next chapter of the coronavirus pandemic, taking stock of the worst year in recent memory while projecting hope the next one will be better.
Fifty days into his term and at what officials describe as a critical juncture in the trajectory of the crisis, Biden will offer the most forward-looking remarks to date toward reopening the country, even as more than 1,000 people die per day.
He will occupy the same television space his predecessor used one year ago to tell Americans the risk of the virus was “very, very low,” offering a vastly different message following nearly 530,000 US deaths, an economic meltdown and a dramatic altering of everyday life.
To make his case, he will have 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.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country, and giving people in this nation — working people, middle-class folks, the people who built the country — a fighting chance. That’s what the essence of it is,” he said as he signed the measure earlier Thursday. “And I’m going to have a lot more to say about that tonight.”
The President is set to trumpet the 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.
Biden’s approach to the virus so far has earned him the approval of a majority of the country. A CNN poll conducted by SSRS this week showed 60% of Americans approve of the President’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic; 34% said they disapproved. His overall approval rating stood at 51%.
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.