The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Biden prepares to host 1,000 for Independence Day, desire to declare victory collides with need for caution

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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In a televised address in March, President Biden offered a hopeful but tempered vision of where the country would be on the Fourth of July, saying there was a “a good chance” that “small groups will be able to get together” — and quickly adding, “That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people.”

But on Sunday, a sea of 1,000 largely maskless people will flow onto the South Lawn of the White House for an Independence Day party that marks the first large-scale event hosted by Biden as president: It is a barbecue that will serve as a marker of sorts for an America returning to normal.

But as the plans for the celebration have grown bigger, the coronavirus has evolved as well. A new, more contagious delta variant is now responsible for more than 1 in 4 U.S. infections, largely among people who have not been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The spread of the delta variant is alarming health officials worldwide. The number of new coronavirus cases increased across Europe for the first time in 10 weeks, the World Health Organization said Thursday. In the United States, health officials in Los Angeles County are recommending that even vaccinated people wear face coverings indoors. The White House has announced it will scramble “surge response” teams to combat the highly transmissible variant.

That backdrop for Sunday’s celebration suggests the tensions that Biden’s administration will face in coming months. The White House wants to take credit for ramping up vaccinations and overseeing a huge reduction in infections and deaths. But if handled poorly, that message could suggest the pandemic is over — a notion that is inaccurate, politically risky and potentially deadly.

Some Biden allies warned that the country, and the president, must take care to avoid declaring victory too soon. “I do think that we’re jumping the gun,” said Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think being cautious on that is really important, and focusing on what more we have to do is really important.”

Emanuel, who was on Biden’s presidential transition team, added, “We’re not at victory. We can’t say ‘Mission Accomplished’ yet. We want to just forget everything and go back to pre-2019, and I think it’s going to be a mistake, and there are people who are going to pay with their lives for it.”

His use of the phrase “Mission Accomplished” was telling; President George W. Bush in 2003 announced victory in the Iraq War in front of a banner bearing that slogan, only to have the fight soon take a deadly turn, resulting in many more casualties.

The administration has made significant progress getting vaccines into arms, but the pace has now slowed to fewer than 1 million shots per day, well below the mid-April peak of about 3.5 million daily. Biden will not meet his goal of having 70 percent of adults with at least one shot by the Fourth of July — the country is on track to clear that by early August, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“If you asked me, ‘Are you glad you set that target?’ I’d say that we probably got a few more [percentage] points of vaccinations out of simply having a goal that we could commit to and get people to work towards,” said Andy Slavitt, who stepped down last month as White House senior adviser on the coronavirus response.

Still, White House officials worry that low immunization levels in some states could fuel new outbreaks in coming months. Vaccination rates are high on the coasts but lag in the Midwest and South.

The anxiety, however, is not always reflected in the administration’s public tone.

“There’s a disconnect between the cautious message of the White House covid response team — that vaccinated people are safe but we need to still take precautions — and then a very public display of large crowds,” said Kavita Patel, a physician and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Obama administration.

Defeating the pandemic is central to Biden’s vision of his presidency, and any sign of delay or uneven success could be politically damaging. Beyond tangibly improving Americans’ lives, Biden is seeking to prove that the federal government still can achieve great feats.

White House officials say that’s exactly what has happened so far.

“Americans should feel great about what we have accomplished together as a nation over the last six months,” Anita Dunn, a top adviser to the president, said in an interview. “This huge step back to normal is something that everybody should be able to celebrate in a united way.”

And Biden does appear to be reaping political benefits. Sixty-four percent of respondents in a recent Fox News poll approved of Biden’s handling of the virus, including about 3 in 10 Trump voters.

Dunn also maintained that the White House is hardly claiming unconditional victory.

“This administration is not seeing July Fourth as a time to walk away from our efforts against covid,” she said. “We’re going to redouble those efforts to get the people who are not vaccinated to go get their vaccine, with new strategies to reach people who have, for whatever reason, not gotten it.”

Biden’s event Sunday will be the largest to date at the White House during his tenure. Guests will include essential workers along with military families, and everyone will be required to take a coronavirus test, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Those who are fully vaccinated will not be required to wear masks.

The president plans to address the gathering, and in the evening the traditional fireworks will be on display above Washington.

President Donald Trump, who had a taste for patriotic pomp, held a pair of celebrations last year over the Fourth of July weekend, including the first-ever fireworks at Mount Rushmore. That event drew criticism from Biden’s campaign and Democrats who said Trump was sending the wrong message amid a surging coronavirus outbreak.

Now it’s the Biden administration that’s on the receiving end of criticism, from at least some experts, that Americans are being given muddled guidance about what precautions they should take.

“I keep thinking about the mistakes the Trump administration made with having unclear metrics or not sticking to them,” Patel said, citing conflicting messages from Los Angeles County, which last week urged residents to resume wearing masks indoors, and the CDC, which has not made such a recommendation. “I hate to say it, but I think we’re seeing patterns repeat themselves.”

Some elected leaders are striking a more somber tone than the Biden administration, particularly in parts of the country where vaccinations are lagging and coronavirus numbers are creeping up.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D), for example, launched new public service announcements Wednesday warning of the risks of the delta variant and urging Kansans to take extra precautions during the holiday weekend.

“As we all begin to travel and gather with friends and family, it’s critically important to keep our communities and loved ones safe,” Kelly said in a statement. About 62 percent of Kansas adults have received at least one vaccine shot, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.

Perhaps the biggest looming question is whether the United States at some point might have to reimpose a national mask recommendation, particularly for indoors. In addition to Los Angeles County, Israel, an early leader in vaccinations, last Sunday reinstated an indoor mask mandate amid a renewed surge in cases.

White House officials have said repeatedly that the CDC will independently make any determination on mask mandates, stressing that they want the agency to be free of the political interference that marked the Trump years. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has signaled no change to the agency’s current guidance that fully vaccinated Americans do not need to wear masks.

“If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States,” she said on NBC’s “Today,” adding that it is “exactly right” that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks.

Speaking on a New York Times podcast that was published Thursday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain echoed that view. “At this time, I don’t think there’s any reason to think that masking guidance will change,” he said.

To the extent that the Biden administration has succeeded in beating back the virus, the accomplishment has an ironic downside: Americans are now less focused on an issue that plays to Biden’s advantage politically. Republican leaders say the pandemic’s shrinking presence in the public discourse is opening space for voters to scrutinize other, less-positive aspects of Biden’s record.

“You go around the country, it’s not what people are talking about,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is coordinating Republican efforts to retake control of the Senate. “You go to Florida, people aren’t talking about it. It’s not on the news.”

In a recent Gallup survey, just 8 percent of Americans listed covid-19 as the most important problem facing the country, down from a high of 45 percent in April 2020.

Scott’s team pointed to a recent survey of New Hampshire voters conducted by St. Anselm College that showed several issues ranking higher than covid-19 among voters’ concerns, including government spending, immigration policy, health costs and climate change.

Starting immediately after the Fourth of July weekend, the White House will get outside help amplifying Biden’s message. Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, will launch the first installment of a $2 million ad campaign including spots that tout Biden’s response to the pandemic.

“They’re delivering for us,” a narrator says. “Hundreds of millions of vaccines so that we can finally be together again.”

The online campaign will be aimed at voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, said Guy Cecil, the group’s chairman, and will seek to reach first-time voters who backed Biden, as well as some who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 but turned to Trump in 2020.

Cecil lauded the Independence Day event at the White House, saying it was appropriate for the president to lead Americans in celebrating how far they had come. “It’s fair to say the country has been through a lot over the last year and a half,” he said. “Everyone needs a moment to take a breath and celebrate the progress that we’ve made.”

Even so, many Democrats say Biden cannot base his political message solely, or even mostly, on defeating the coronavirus.

“For the long-term future of the Democrats, the single most important thing we need to do, and the single biggest opportunity we have, is not just to stay on covid, but to develop an economic profile,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked on Biden’s campaign. “We never win elections when we’re not ahead on the economy.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.