After savoring the passage of his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package in the Rose Garden last week, President Joe Biden begins the tough work of enacting what he called a “transformational” piece of legislation, while also trying to sell Americans on the progressive goals the bill embraced.
As stimulus checks are rolling into the bank accounts of Americans, the President and first lady and Vice President Kamala Harris and the second gentleman are all hitting the road this week for a “Help is Here” tour, including stops in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Georgia and Nevada. They’ll explain how they will achieve the goals Biden laid out in a speech to the nation last week, including making all adult Americans eligible for the vaccine by May 1 – a move he hopes will set the stage for small gatherings with friends and family by July Fourth.
But with ambitious timelines comes risk. Those benchmarks are now the criteria against which the administration will be measured at a precarious time with a pandemic that has defied many predictions and prognosticators over the past year.
The President’s Covid-19 response team said in a briefing Friday that they believe they will have enough vaccine supply in place for all American adults by the end of May after securing commitments for 200 million doses from Moderna, an additional 200 million doses from Pfizer and another 100 million doses from Johnson & Johnson.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist said Sunday that the administration still has a great deal of work to do in expanding the number of vaccination sites and vaccinators to ensure there’s the infrastructure to vaccinate all Americans who want to get their shots by the end of May. The administration has repeatedly touted that it has doubled the amount of vaccine going out to the states during Biden’s first seven weeks in office – and are now averaging about 2.2 million shots per day – but major challenges remain.
Fauci noted that Americans are still at risk, pointing to the fact that cases have gone down but plateaued as they did in Europe, where many young people abandoned mask wearing, triggering a new surge.
“If things go as we planned, just as the President said, by the time we get into the early summer, the Fourth of July weekend, we really will have a considerable degree of normality. But we don’t want to let that escape from our grasp by being too precipitous in pulling back,” Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
Still, even the availability of the vaccine in the US doesn’t mean Americans will get it.
The number of Americans who are still hesitant to get the vaccine remains high, even as confidence in the vaccines has improved. And though the White House is focused on improving vaccine equity, data shows that White Americans are still getting vaccinated at much higher rates than Latinx and Black Americans, even though those communities have shouldered a much higher share of the cases. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis earlier this month of available US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that among people who had received a first vaccine dose – in instances where data about race and ethnicity was known – two-thirds were White, 9% were Hispanic, 7% were Black and 5% were Asian.
The political complications for Biden in convincing reluctant Americans to get the vaccine also came into sharper focus last week with a new CNN poll showing that 28% of Americans said they do not plan to get a coronavirus vaccine, compared with 69% who said they will (or already have gotten a dose of the vaccine).
Among that 28% who said they don’t plan to get it, 46% were Republicans, 32% were independents and 7% were Democrats. Experts say generally that in order for America to achieve herd immunity, between 70% and 85% of the population must be protected.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, highlighted that problem during a press briefing Friday after visiting a vaccination clinic in Atlanta where he said hesitancy among “White Republicans” remains a concern and suggested expanding partnerships between pharmacies and “local churches, civic clubs and others to continue to build up the confidence and convince people that, look, this is the right thing to do.”
Biden's first 100 days
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday the administration does not have any concrete plans for targeted outreach to Republicans hesitant to take the vaccine and acknowledged that group will be challenging for Biden to persuade. Former President Donald Trump and his wife Melania got the vaccine at the White House privately in January. Trump did not join other former Presidents and their wives taking part in a new public service announcement showing them getting the vaccine and encouraging Americans to take it.
“We recognize, as a Democratic administration with a Democratic President, that we may not be the most effective messenger to communicate with hardcore supporters of the former President. And we have to be clear-eyed about that,” Psaki said, adding that doctors, medical experts and community leaders might be better suited to persuading that population.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said Trump “didn’t help any” with vaccine hesitancy by minimizing the threat of the virus with his messaging about masks and other precautionary measures throughout the past year, but said the former President is not solely to blame.
“You can’t pin all of it on him,” Hogan told CNN’s Tapper. “I mean, there’s a lot of disinformation campaigns out there from the right and the left, a lot of people who are vaccine-hesitant. And we’re doing everything we can to overcome that with public information spots, spending millions of dollars to try to convince people.”
Republicans try to reshape narrative about Covid relief bill
Biden said at last week’s signing ceremony that his massive relief bill – the first big win of his administration – was “only the beginning.”
And although many aspects of the bill are broadly popular with the public, Biden’s plan to sell it on the road this week stems in part from what he views as the Obama administration’s failure to win enduring public support for the 2009 stimulus package that was passed after the 2008 economic collapse. (Obama tapped Biden to implement that bill).
Not a single Republican supported Biden’s package in either the House or the Senate, and many GOP lawmakers have framed it as too large, too expensive and too lavish in its spending, despite expressing their support for certain provisions after it passed. Others have argued that that level of economic stimulus is no longer needed to get the economy roaring again.
Before Biden’s first prime-time address Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the American economy is on the road to recovery not because of the relief bill, but because of the “five historic bipartisan bills” passed last year “to save our health system, protect our economic foundations and fund Operation Warp Speed to find vaccines.”
“The American people already built a parade that’s been marching toward victory,” McConnell said. “Democrats just want to sprint in front of the parade and claim credit.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed GOP criticism of the bill during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “You can be sure that all of their states and communities will be benefiting from this, and they won’t be complaining about it back home.”
For Biden, the trips this week are about more than selling his own first major legislative win. He is also intent on rebuilding Americans’ trust in government and its ability to help average people after four years in which Trump continually undermined government institutions.
Whether Americans buy that pitch in this highly partisan climate will go a long way toward determining Biden’s success in the Oval Office.
In his prime-time address, Biden promised to tell Americans if aspects of his stimulus legislation fall short, and he amplified that message on Friday in the Rose Garden.
“It’s one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan. It’s going to be another thing to implement it,” the President said.
“It’s going to require fastidious oversight to make sure there’s no waste or fraud, and the law does what it’s designed to do. … We have to get this right. Details matter, because we have to continue to build confidence in the American people that their government can function for them and deliver.”
This story has been updated with additional comments Sunday.