WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon strolled out of the White House with a triumphant demeanor – notably without wearing a mask – and declared the country on the precipice of defeating a pandemic that has killed more than 580,000 Americans, damaged the economy and been the single-most dominant issue of his young presidency.

The occasion was the surprise announcement by federal health officials that Americans who are fully vaccinated can go without masks or physical distancing in most cases – marking a crucial milestone in the nation’s battle against the pandemic.

“I’ve said many times: As tough as this pandemic has been, we will get through it,” Biden said, appearing alongside a maskless Vice President Kamala Harris in the Rose Garden. “We will rebuild our economy, reclaim our lives and get back to normal. We’ll laugh again. We’ll know joy again. We’ll smile again – and now, see one another’s smile.”

“Better days are ahead,” he added. “I promise you.”

Can we talk about the end of the pandemic now? Yes, but …

Building an effective response to the virus has been the central project of Biden’s presidency – the one issue his advisers thought he would be judged on more than any other and the one, they think, that could unlock progress for other ambitious items on his agenda. Biden has argued that the past year has exposed American inequities in a more vivid way than ever before, and he has laid the groundwork for the types of sweeping changes that he is trying to persuade Congress to pass.

Those policies – including raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for $4 million in new spending on priorities ranging from infrastructure to child care – are meeting stiff resistance from Republicans and qualms from some Democrats. The coming weeks will test whether the progress he has overseen on the central crisis of our time is enough to dislodge a partisan Congress.

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The progress in recent weeks against the virus has been unmistakable. Vaccines are now widely available, and schools are reopening. States are lifting pandemic restrictions, allowing restaurants to open, and even longtime critics are expressing newfound optimism.

“This should come from the president. It’s that big, after all the country has gone through,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s spokesman. “This is a welcome moment. A turn-the-corner moment. And it should come from the president.”

Fleischer spoke from the sidelines of his son’s baseball game, and he noted that the school’s policy still requires masks.

“Don’t be fooled,” he said. “The nation still has a ways to go.”

Still, the decision caught insiders by surprise. Biden spoke late in the afternoon at a hastily convened event in the Rose Garden. And it seemed to be an acceleration of his earlier goal that the country would be getting back to normal by the Fourth of July. The administration is still aiming to have 70% of eligible Americans having at least one shot of the vaccine by that date.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

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This week, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared at a combative Senate hearing where they were forced to defend the administration’s mask guidance.

Republican senators grilled them on inconsistencies in federal policies and on how the administration could expect Americans to be excited about vaccination if little in their lives would change after getting the shots.

The White House was informed about the CDC’s decision Wednesday night, according to a White House aide.

Shortly after the CDC made its decision public, the White House “covid ops” team issued an all-staff email explaining that White House aides don’t need to wear masks at work if they are two weeks past vaccination.

White House staff will still be tested regularly, according to the email, which was sent by Anne Filipic, the White House director of management and administration, and reviewed by The Washington Post. In the brief note, she indicated that more changes are coming to White House protocols. Only a limited number of staff work at the White House complex at this time; the email did not say when additional aides will be allowed back.

For Biden, wearing a mask – and attempting to persuade others to wear one, too – became one of the guiding principles of his presidential campaign and of the early months of his presidency. During the campaign, as he sat alone in the basement of his home, he would wear a medical mask for local television interviews. When he emerged for one of his first public appearances almost a year ago, on Memorial Day, he wore a specially ordered black cloth mask.

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When President Donald Trump and his allies made fun of Biden, he changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of him wearing a large black mask. To him, it was a symbol that he trusted science and that he was willing to wear a mask to protect those around him.

So on Thursday afternoon, it was a different moment, one equally filled with symbolism.

“It’s a great milestone, a great day,” Biden said. “It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”

The man who started his presidency issuing federal mask mandates was now working in a White House that, minutes after the CDC announcement, changed its policy to allow vaccinated employees to remove their masks.

“Some people said we couldn’t do this – that it would not be until the fall that we had this many people vaccinated, that 2021 might be a lost year for our country, as 2020 was,” he said. “But we proved the doubters wrong.”

First lady Jill Biden, while traveling to West Virginia with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., exited the airplane Thursday without a mask. They were greeted by actress Jennifer Garner, who showed up with a mask but, reassessing the situation, removed it.

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“Free at last,” a maskless Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said to reporters at the Capitol.

As Biden was hosting a half-dozen Republican senators Thursday in the Oval Office, they removed their masks in an indication of how swiftly policies were changing. The day before, the White House had insisted that the top four congressional leaders wear masks during a visit.

“Those masks are a symbol of what we’ve been through, and this is a big step toward normalization and will be greeted with great relief by millions and millions of Americans,” said David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to former president Barack Obama. “It is not the end, but it is a milepost on the way to the end.”

Axelrod said the Biden administration has deftly handled messaging during the pandemic. “They have had to walk a very difficult line, because on the one hand things are improving and you’re telling people things are improving and you’re lifting these encumbrances,” Axelrod said. “At the same time, more people need to be vaccinated. And you’ve got places like India that are still overrun.”

The administration will now turn toward trying to persuade more Americans to get their shots. But the promotion that those who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear masks may not be convincing to those who were not inclined to wear masks in the first place.

There also may be lingering anxieties among parents with children younger than 12, who are unlikely to be able to get vaccinated for several more months.

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And there is always peril for politicians who prematurely declare victory.

“It was very clearly a moment of happiness for the country, but there is risk,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked in GOP House leadership. “If, because of ripping the Band-Aid all off all at once we see spikes and in six weeks people are told they have to mask up again, that will not be received well.”

Heye also said there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered quickly. How can anyone know for sure if the person next to them is vaccinated? When will state and local rules catch up to the federal guidance?

“There is rightly excitement and trepidation,” Heye said. “What surprised me about the announcement was that it wasn’t a little more staggered and more part of a process.”

During his remarks, Biden cautioned those who aren’t vaccinated to continue wearing masks to protect themselves and others who are unvaccinated, and he urged all Americans to get the shots. Vaccination rates have slowed after peaking in April.

“The choice is yours,” Biden said. “You all made this possible. Now let’s finish the work of beating this virus and getting everything back to normal.”

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He also pleaded for understanding as some people might be uncomfortable quickly shedding masks after a year of using them.

“Please treat them with kindness and respect. We’ve had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much polarization on this issue about wearing a mask,” he said. “Let’s put it to rest.”

Biden has been among those who some have criticized for wearing a mask even when outdoors or when he is around others who have been vaccinated. But as he approached the lectern on Thursday, he and Harris were both without masks.

“You’ve got a great smile,” Harris told the president before he spoke.

And as he concluded, he briefly wrapped his arm around her and they grinned at each other, smiles visible as they headed back toward the West Wing.