President BidenJoe BidenManchin cements key-vote status in 50-50 Senate The Memo: How the COVID year upended politics Post-pandemic plans for lawmakers: Chuck E. Cheese, visiting friends, hugging grandkids MORE is being urged to combine his well-known empathy with some positivity Thursday night when he makes a primetime address on the anniversary of when much of the country went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 8 p.m. speech, which will be Biden’s first prime-time address since taking office, will occur a year after then-President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: How the COVID year upended politics Biden seeks his moment with pandemic address A year with the coronavirus: How we got here MORE restricted travel into the United States, the NBA suspended its season and the famed actor Tom Hanks announced he’d contracted COVID-19 in Australia.
Americans have since lived through one of the most difficult years in history, with daily life suspended, nearly 530,000 people killed by the coronavirus and a divisive presidential campaign capped by a mob attack on the Capitol fueled by Trump’s false statements about the election.
The light at the tunnel now is approaching, with Biden saying the nation will have enough vaccine for every American adult by the end of May.
Movie theaters in Manhattan have started to open, baseball parks are planning to welcome fans for Opening Day and a more normal summer and school year appear as if they are on the horizon.
The president on Wednesday hinted that his speech would be forward-looking as the country inches closer to a return to normalcy.
“Tomorrow night, I’m going to primetime address the American people and 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 said at an event with executives from Johnson & Johnson and Merck.
“I’m going to launch the next phase of the COVID response and explain what we will do as a government, and what we will ask of the American people,” Biden said.
The event was held to highlight a new deal under Biden that will deliver another 100 million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Thursday’s speech is expected to be less than 20 minutes long, a White House official said, and will focus on the lives lost and sacrifices made by the American people.
Biden will also highlight the rapid development and distribution of vaccines, and he will “level with the American people about what is still required to defeat the virus and provide a hopeful vision of what is possible if we all come together,” the official said.
Some public health officials are urging the president to lean into the good news.
“We need to give people hope for what is not far on the horizon,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former health commissioner of Baltimore.
She said Biden should not be afraid to set ambitious, but achievable goals, like saying that vaccinated Americans should be able to enjoy pre-pandemic activities.
Otherwise, she said, people who are weary of living with pandemic restrictions will just give up.
Continually urging caution in the fight against the virus is not an incentive to getting people vaccinated.
“The finish line is in sight. But we’re not there. And it’s as if we’re just stopping. We’re so close. And so I think [Biden] could rally the American people and …. set the goals for what where we should be before reopening occurs,” Wen said.
Congress also just gave Biden a major victory when Democrats passed his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, with stimulus checks being sent out to Americans shortly.
Biden has been adamant about the need to remain vigilant against the virus by wearing masks for at least the next several weeks and avoiding large gatherings when possible.
At the same time, governors across the country have been easing or entirely lifting coronavirus restrictions in recent weeks as cases and hospitalizations decline.
Biden will look to balance the message of continued vigilance with one of optimism, as the country steadily ramps up its inoculation campaign and after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the first time this week said fully vaccinated Americans can gather together indoors without masks.
“There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of the past year,” Biden said Wednesday. “But we cannot let our guard down now or assume that victory is inevitable.”
The administration so far has been careful to temper expectations about the road ahead, even as public support for Biden’s handling of the pandemic is extremely high.
Three vaccines are currently in distribution that prevent death and severe illness from COVID-19, and while demand still far exceeds supply that will change in the coming months. Biden has said there will be enough supply by the end of May for every American who wants a shot to get one.
More than 60 percent of the population over the age of 65 has received at least one dose, and about half that number have been fully inoculated.
White House officials would not say whether Biden will use the speech as something of a victory lap for the American Rescue Plan, but the passage of the bill is likely to loom over the proceedings as the administration prepares a public relations campaign to build support for the legislation.
Biden will officially sign the legislation on Friday at the White House. The bill includes direct stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, funding for schools and money for vaccine development and distribution efforts.
Biden frequently strikes a personal tone when speaking about the pandemic, invoking the empty seat at the kitchen table many Americans see after losing loved ones to the virus and the feeling of helplessness due to economic hardship.
Part of what supporters said set Biden apart from his competitors in the election was his empathy. The public could draw a direct contrast to Trump, who was regularly criticized for lacking empathy in talking about the pandemic, which he regularly downplayed
“This has been the most that America has suffered, more than anything in my lifetime, and certainly not since World War Two,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.
“So I think showing that deep caring and compassion for what all Americans have been through is crucial.”