The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden heralds U.S. emergence from the pandemic, but he risks celebrating too soon

The Biden administration will not reach its original vaccination goal for the Fourth of July. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy updates on the next phase. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
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President Biden sampled cherries at a Michigan orchard, then went for pie and ice cream. He went to church, spent an afternoon golfing and hosted a massive cookout on the South Lawn of the White House. Then in a Sunday evening speech, he declared the country's near independence from covid-19.

“We are emerging from the darkness of . . . a year of pandemic and isolation, a year of pain, fear and heartbreaking loss,” Biden said during a 15-minute speech to a jubilant crowd at the White House. Silent streets have become filled, he said, and empty stadiums are now full.

Biden chose his words carefully — notably stopping just short of declaring full independence from the virus and instead saying, “We are closer than ever” to doing so. His comments were more cautious and nuanced than the language some White House officials had used in recent days when discussing the symbolic value of the moment.

“We’re back traveling again. We’re back seeing one another again. Businesses are opening and hiring again,” he said. “Today, all across this nation we can say with confidence: America is coming back together.”

This holiday weekend, Biden set out to present himself as an avatar of a nation that is once again open for business and leisure — and to take credit for a moment where lockdowns and masks have largely been replaced by ballgames and family barbecues.

Steeped in Americana, Biden’s two-day sprint to a battleground state and back reflected some urgent political imperatives at an inflection point for his presidency — to put his stamp on the return to a more normal state and bring some measure of unity to a deeply divided nation on its 245th birthday.

Beneath the joyful mood lurked some uncomfortable truths and potentially competing challenges for the president. There is a risk that he is celebrating too much and too early, with vaccination rates still lagging and coronavirus variants posing a growing threat. The self-imposed goal of ensuring that 70 percent of American adults receive a vaccination shot by Sunday went unmet. Nodding to the looming worries, Biden on Sunday night said the victory was not fully won.

“Don’t get me wrong: Covid-19 has not been vanquished,” he said. “We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the delta variant. But the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.”

But after urging all Americans to get vaccinated — “it’s the most patriotic thing you can do,” he said — he again sounded a note of optimism, saying, “Today, while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation. And it’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”

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At the same time, strategists from both parties said they believe the pandemic — the issue that propelled Biden into the White House and has won him high marks from Americans during his first six months as president — is starting to fade as the dominant political topic. As conditions improve, the door is opening for polarizing debates over crime, immigration and border security to seize more attention as next year’s midterm elections draw near. Those issues do not play in Biden’s favor, polls show.

“What they have given to us on the border is a political nightmare,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.

Biden ran as a consensus builder eager to forge bipartisan deals on a wide range of issues. But his agenda has stalled on several fronts, including voting rights and police reform, due in large part to Republican resistance. A fragile bipartisan deal over infrastructure, which is his biggest current priority, faces an uncertain fate in a divided Congress.

Even as Biden aimed to hit unifying notes over the weekend, the raw political and cultural divisions that have animated the country were on vivid display. In Traverse City, Mich., where Biden visited Saturday, a large theater marquee read “Welcome President Biden” in big, bright letters. But supporters of former president Donald Trump marched past the theater in support of Biden’s predecessor, who has falsely claimed that the election was stolen from him through voter fraud. Their presence angered some local residents.

“Traitor!” one woman yelled at the Trump supporters after darting out of a store to confront them.

Amid these stark divides, the president’s handling of the pandemic stands out as the one area in which he has consistently been able to rally the majority of Americans behind his strategy — albeit with some strong resistance to his past calls to mask up and current pitch for Americans to get vaccinated.

Biden’s eagerness to showcase what he has done in the battle against covid-19 and how much the country has changed in the last year was clear on Saturday and Sunday.

In Washington, the South Lawn was packed with round tables full of eating and drinking, bounce castles and volleyball nets, and no masks in sight. A band played upbeat music on a large stage, the White House adorned with festive bunting. “America’s back together,” the slogan that the White House has been promoting, was plastered across signs.

When Biden asked the crowd to remember what life was like a year ago, an audible groan went through the audience, but he quickly pointed to the signs of how life now, for many, is far different.

Biden also signed letters that were recently sent to parents across the country touting an expanded tax credit under the sweeping pandemic relief law he signed in March. The letters include an estimate of monthly payments starting in July. “Our economy is on the mend and I believe brighter days are ahead,” the letter says. Trump was criticized for having his name attached to stimulus checks, but Biden has yet to face a similar public outcry over the letters regarding their cost or improper politicking on taxpayers’ dime.A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be discuss the administration’s strategy, said the economy is fundamentally the most important issue to voters and expressed confidence that the president’s actions on that measure, including through the covid relief law, would be well-received by the public.

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Biden said in March that July Fourth would be the time when families could gather in small settings with friends for backyard barbecues.

“That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together,” he said at the time. “But it does mean small groups will be able to get together.”

But as progress continued, expectations increased and Biden instead pegged the day to celebrate the nation’s independence as one to also mark the independence from the virus.

In his speech Sunday night, Biden reflected on the more than 600,000 people who have died of the coronavirus in the United States and warned that the job of defeating the virus is far from over.

He reiterated his calls for Americans to get vaccinated. ­Sixty-seven percent of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, some have cautioned that the images from the White House — about 1,000 essential workers and military families invited to gather Sunday — could send the wrong message at a time when the delta variant is spreading. But Biden officials said they were taking the necessary precautions.

“The event at the White House is being done in the right way,” Jeff Zients, the administration's covid response coordinator, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It’s an outdoor event with testing and screening. Vaccinated people not wearing masks. Unvaccinated people masked. It’s being done in the right way, consistent with CDC guidelines.”

As Biden traveled to Michigan, gone were the masks he donned for so long and the social distancing he and others observed for many months.

Instead, when Biden arrived on the tarmac in Traverse City, he doled out hugs and handshakes, and flashed a toothy smile during a selfie the local mayor snapped with him.

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The president toured a cherry orchard and sampled the fruit as he strolled through with local officials. Later, Biden's eyes lit up as he removed his aviator sunglasses and inspected the pie selection at the orchard store. He declared himself partial to apple and cherry. Before leaving town, Biden stopped for ice cream, enjoying a giant cone.

In downtown Traverse City on a Saturday, a picturesque waterfront stretch, the streets were filled with locals and visitors, who swigged beers under sunny skies and ate at restaurants. One especially ebullient group belted out the lines to “Sweet Caroline” as they rode a pedal pub.

In Washington, the area in front of the White House was similarly busy midday Sunday, with people milling about in Lafayette Square, but later in the day the area was cordoned off by police tape ahead of Biden’s event. Capacity limits on restaurants and other venues have now been lifted. And the traditional fireworks display went forward, with a larger crowd than the muted one from last year when the mayor urged people not to attend.

However, the images on Independence Day also reflected the fits and starts of moving past the coronavirus. The annual parade on the National Mall was canceled, the concert traditionally held on the West Lawn of the Capitol was prerecorded, and masks were still required on public transit.

Biden has gotten widespread credit for his handling of the pandemic, with a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that 62 percent approve while only 31 percent disapprove, which has helped keep his overall approval rating steady at 50 percent. But more Americans disapprove of his handling of immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Republicans are eager to make a larger focal point in the months ahead.

The images of Biden this weekend were far different from those of him from a year ago. Last year, he posted a video from his home that focused on the racial reckoning that was gripping much of the country in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The United States, he said, had never lived up to the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.”

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“America is no fairy tale,” Biden said. “It’s been a constant push and pull between the two parts of our character, the idea that all men and women — all people — are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart. We have a chance now to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed, a full share of the American Dream.”

Almost the entirety of his remarks were focused on righting the wrongs of systemic racism.

“We remain locked in the battle for the soul of this nation, but believe me, truly, it’s a battle we can and we will win if we act together,” he said from a video recorded at his home in Wilmington, Del. “Happy Fourth.”

On Sunday, he stood over a large crowd and delivered a speech that included a wide mixture of topics, one that honored the troops, had a nod to the Founding Fathers and a mention of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Without mentioning the divisive 2020 presidential campaign that has led to false claims about the election results, or the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, he also urged the nation to defend a democracy he suggested was tenuous.

“We are the guardians of that very idea of America. It’s up to us to save it, to preserve it, to build on it. And I know we will,” he said. “It’s never ever been a good bet to bet against America. Never! We just have to remember who we are. We are the United States of America.”

“Folks!” he added. “Happy Fourth of July, America!”