WASHINGTON — “We all lost something,” President Biden said in his remarks to the nation on Thursday evening marking the one-year anniversary of the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. Seeking unity in sorrow, Biden noted that the end was close, though the endgame would prove tricky.
If all went well, he said, there could be a normal Independence Day to look forward to, barbecues and fireworks and all.
Above all, he paid tribute to the 527,726 dead from COVID-19, as well as to the millions who have lost jobs, who have had their education relegated to a screen, who no longer have the simple but necessary freedoms they once took for granted.
“I promise you, we’ll come out stronger,” Biden said, trying to temper the moment’s difficult realities with a measure of optimism. To that end, he made several promises, most notably that he would direct every state to make the coronavirus vaccine available to every American adult by May 1.
But becoming eligible for the vaccine is not the same as actually having the vaccine administered. That makes the real-world impact of that promise somewhat unclear, even if it does signal to states that they should move more quickly through tiers of eligible recipients.
He also announced that 4,000 additional National Guardsmen would be called up to help with the vaccination effort. Two thousand National Guardsmen are already participating in that work.
And though he didn’t engage with Trump and his legacy, he drew a clear line between his response and that of the man he defeated in the presidential race last November, in large part by promising to handle the pandemic more coherently. In his remarks, he described how vaccination has accelerated since he took office.
“When I took office 50 days ago, only 8 percent after months, only 8 percent of those over the age of 65 had gotten their first vaccination,” Biden said. “Today, that number is 65 percent.”
He also said a major push was coming to reopen schools, something that Trump promised but could not accomplish. The issue has bedeviled Biden as well.
Looking cautiously beyond the pandemic, Biden ventured that Americans could have a semi-normal Independence Day, though only if people continued to follow public health measures in the meantime and got vaccinated when they could. Several times he pleaded for people to wear masks, something his predecessor, Donald Trump, disliked doing intensely.
The holiday, Biden said, would be when Americans “not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.” And although the Fourth of July is months away, Biden preemptively cautioned against planning large gatherings. Some critics on social media thought it improper for the president to already impose such limits.
Grief is familiar terrain to Biden, who lost a wife and daughter to a car accident in 1972 and then a son to cancer in 2015. In both cases, he emerged from mourning with a single conviction: “You’ve got to have purpose,” as he told Time magazine last January, when he was a presidential candidate and most Americans had barely heard of the coronavirus.
Earlier in the day, Biden signed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus, which has been described as the most significant domestic legislation in a generation. As the pandemic winds down, he and Vice President Kamala Harris will tour the nation, making the case that such an enormous outlay was both necessary and effective.
In the meantime, Biden will also begin to make the case for a massive infrastructure package, while watching carefully for any resurgence of the pandemic, which, he warned, could lead to another round of unwelcome lockdowns.
But no such lockdowns loom on the immediate horizon, and even though the president spoke with sorrow on Thursday evening, he also strove to restore Americans’ battered faith in the institutions of their democracy.
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distance capital,” Biden said. “No, it’s us, all of us. We the people.”
Without mentioning Trump by name, Biden lamented that, under his predecessor, people had “lost faith in whether our government and our democracy can deliver on really hard things for the American people.” He promised that government can, and will. To hear the president tell it, the first 50 days of his administration are proof that it already has.