President Joe Biden delivered his first prime-time address to the nation Thursday, on the anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being labeled a pandemic and on the day he signed a $1.9 trillion relief package — the first major piece of his agenda to pass through Congress.
Below are some takeaways from Biden’s speech:
1. An Independence Day goal line — with caveats
It’s been just under a year since former president Donald Trump set an ambitious goal for moving beyond the coronavirus, aiming to have things fully open again by an upcoming holiday: Easter. That goal, as with many of Trump’s predictions and goals during the pandemic, proved to be overly optimistic.
But on Thursday, Biden gave another holiday to aim for: July 4. Biden cast it as a chance to “not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus.”
The goal is less ambitious in many ways, including in just how back-to-normal Biden aims to be. He said the goal will be to have small gatherings, rather than the “packed churches” that Trump suggested could be just around the corner.
But with patience with restrictions waning, Biden seemed to recognize the need to set a goal line for some kind of return to normalcy.
Biden also gave people another date to mark on their calendars: May 1, when he said all adults should be eligible to receive the vaccine. Biden stressed that it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be able to actually get one by then.
Getting people to do what they need to in the meantime — including getting vaccinated — is now the name of the game. But Biden sought to at least give them a holiday to look forward to and hope to celebrate in a manner that’s somewhat familiar, while also making clear, repeatedly, that it will be a celebration that needs to be won.
“So for all of you asking it when things will get back to normal, here is the truth: The only way to get our lives back, to get our economy back on track, is to beat the virus,” Biden said. “You’ve been hearing me say that for a while I was running and the last 50 days I’ve been president. But this is one of the most complex operations we’ve ever undertaken as a nation and a long time.”
2. Some stern words for skeptics
Along with the call for people to do what’s needed to meet the goal for normalcy, Biden had some surprisingly stern words for skeptics of government scientists and their proposed mitigation techniques.
With some states moving away from mask mandates and many Americans – and especially Republicans – still resisting even voluntary masking, Biden labeled it the “easiest thing to do to save lives,” sounding a bit exasperated while adding “sometimes it divides us.”
While encouraging people to listen to scientists, Biden also addressed the skepticism of the scientists who work for the government.
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” Biden said. “No, it’s us, all of us, we the people. For you and I, that America thrives when we give our hearts, we turn our hands to common purpose.”
Biden’s speech was heavier on unity talk than these bits of somewhat tough love, but unity talk is to be expected. How Biden confronts those who resist mitigation, especially now that it’s a Democratic administration asking for it, will be one of the biggest tests from here on out. And Biden in a few moments didn’t try to sugarcoat it.
3. Pumping up his vaccine record — a bit too much
The biggest early test of his administration has been the vaccine rollout. But as has been the case before, Biden’s effort to pitch it as a success story was overstated.
Biden at one point said that two months ago, “this country didn’t have nearly enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all or even near all of the American public, but soon we will.” The vaccines were still very new at the time, though, with really no expectation that we’d have near the amount needed to vaccinate everyone when Biden came into office. Biden and the administration have in the past oversold the idea that there was no vaccine distribution plan.
Later in the speech, Biden suggested his vaccine rollout was vastly exceeding what its doubters suggested was possible.
“You may recall, I set a goal that many you said was a kind of way over the top,” Biden said. “I said I intended to get 100 million shots in people’s arms in my first hundred days in office. Tonight, I can say we’re not going to meet.”
Biden has said versions of this before, but as fact-checkers have noted, there is little evidence that there was such huge skepticism of that goal in the media when he first set it. And indeed, when Biden came into office, there had already been several days of 1 million people being vaccinated – the daily number required to hit 100 million in 100 days.
In other words, to hit the goal, he mostly just needed to keep things moving the direction they were going. There is always some game-playing when it comes to setting expectations and then beating them, and vaccines continue to ramp up. But casting this as some unthinkable feat goes too far and detracts from legitimate claims to success.