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Biden to offer hopes for a return to normalcy in first prime-time speech

President Biden listens as Johnson & Johnson and Merck executives speak at an event Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
President Biden listens as Johnson & Johnson and Merck executives speak at an event Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden, in his first prime-time address since taking office, is planning on Thursday night to speak to a nation still reeling from the deadly coronavirus pandemic, offering a look back on the devastating year as well as previewing what he will characterize as a coming return to some sense of normalcy, according to White House officials.

Biden views the speech as a key marker to reflect on his first 50 days in office, one that comes almost exactly a year after the nation began to shut down as a result of the pandemic and at an inflection point in his own presidency, officials said. It was last March 11 that then-President Donald Trump gave his own widely criticized Oval Office address, suspending travel from Europe while also telling Americans of the virus: “The risk is very, very low.”

The president will also mark the successful passage of the administration’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which Biden is scheduled to sign during a White House ceremony Friday.

White House advisers believe the coronavirus response will be the determinative factor in the success of Biden’s presidency, acknowledging his term will rise or fall on his team’s ability to get the virus under control and Americans back to work.

“It’s a speech about where we’ve been, where we are and where we can be,” said Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser. “And I think it will speak to the shared experience of this country over the last year.”

Biden is expected to travel to Pennsylvania next week and hold his first solo news conference of his presidency this month, as well as offer a joint address to Congress in the coming weeks, though a specific date has not yet been set. The president’s top advisers have also been contemplating an additional speech before the congressional address, which would outline his vision and approach for the next steps in his presidency, providing indications of his upcoming priorities.

Administration officials are so optimistic about the relief package — which according to public opinion polls is popular with the majority of Americans — that they view their job less as pitching it to an already supportive public than explaining how Americans can access the various benefits.

“You don’t actually need to go sell this bill,” Dunn said. “It’s one of the few bills that has become more popular as it moved through Congress, not less. We don’t need to convince people that Americans need help; we need to tell them how they can get that help.”

A CNN survey released Wednesday found that 61 percent of Americans supported the overall $1.9 trillion relief legislation, with a clear majority in favor of four major parts of the plan, including increasing child tax credits, expanding school funding, and injecting more money to state and local governments.

Biden prepares to send checks, but big stimulus challenges loom

Biden also has a 51 percent overall approval rating, which is higher than Trump’s 45 percent at a similar time into his presidency but below where Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton stood at this point.

Republicans have criticized the plan as too costly and too sprawling, saying Biden used it to push through liberal priorities that had little to do with combating the coronavirus. They have also criticized Biden for not doing more outreach to Republicans, who voted unanimously in the House and Senate against the bill.

“We could have done it for far less than half that and still had the same effect on covid-19,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), part of a group of senators who initially sought to negotiate with Biden, said Wednesday on Fox News. “More than half of this money isn’t even spent during this calendar year. Nobody expects a year from now we’re going to be in this crisis, the way we are now.”

Republicans have also argued that Biden is taking far too much credit for the success of vaccinations, saying the groundwork was laid before he took office.

“Democrats inherited a turning tide,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a Tuesday floor speech. “The vaccine trends and economic trends were in place before this bill was ever voted on, before this president was sworn in. But they’re determined to push to the front of the parade with this effort to push America to the left.”

Biden was able to keep his party unified during the debate over the relief package, but that task could get more difficult depending on what legislation he chooses to pursue next.

“When you are making sure every member of the working class has $1,400 and is getting out of poverty, it’s easier to keep people together,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who ran against Biden in last year’s Democratic presidential primary. “The differences took place around the edges. It’s always going to be that way.”

Ahead of Thursday’s speech, Biden’s White House paused to assess the midway point to his first 100 days, the timeline on which many of his goals during the campaign were set.

His first two weeks were marked by signing executive orders, including reentering the Paris climate accord, ending the ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries and reversing the ban on transgender people in the military. He also rejoined the World Health Organization, which has been coordinating the global response to the pandemic.

Biden wants to sell the stimulus. The White House is still figuring out how.

On immigration, facing a crisis at the nation’s southern border, Biden immediately paused deportations of some undocumented immigrants — a directive that a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked — and unveiled a proposal for a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, including an eight-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrations.

“We feel good and positive about the things we’ve been able to accomplish in this short amount of time,” said White House counselor Steve Ricchetti.

Biden offered three key promises for his first 100 days, which administration officials said were deeply intertwined. He imposed a mask mandate on federal property; promised to deliver 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days; and pledged to open the majority of K-8 schools.

Some initially criticized Biden for setting an artificially low vaccination goal, and he himself at one point suggested he thought 150 million doses was a more appropriate aim — before his administration reestablished 100 million as the goal.

Now the Biden administration is far exceeding the pace needed to meet that benchmark. The Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency-use authorization in late February for a third coronavirus vaccine — a one-shot version from Johnson & Johnson that helped increase the country’s vaccine supply.

On Wednesday, Biden announced he had directed the Department of Health and Human Services to purchase an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — a significant boost to the nation’s vaccine supply, which would allow the administration to potentially deliver booster doses or begin vaccinating children.

When he took office Jan. 20, the seven-day average was 984,000 shots per day, according to CDC data. The most recent average now is about 2 million shots per day.

Earlier this month, Biden announced he expected the country to have enough vaccine doses for every adult by the end of May, though that does not necessarily mean that every American adult — or even every one who wants a vaccination — will be fully inoculated by then.

“The biggest change is we have a strategy. We have predictability,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said in an interview. “We have confidence in the vaccines coming in and the United States has been executing on a plan. That’s made all the difference in the world, frankly.”

As White House officials still attempt to determine which pathway to pursue next, they also say they need to ensure that implementation of the pandemic relief measure is done as intended. With a sprawling $1.9 trillion spending plan, there is ample room for controversies to flare, even if the plan itself has strong public support.

“This is a significant package, and we want to make sure we both explain and deepen the awareness on the package itself for people and families and make sure we execute and implement on that,” Ricchetti said.