s far as primetime presidential speeches go, Joe Biden’s debut performance as president will hardly make the history books.
In his first such address since entering the White House seven weeks ago, Mr Biden memorialised the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic by sharing in the nation’s collective grief, encouraging Americans to continue pulling in the same direction to defeat the virus, and insisting that he is no more important than each of them to the effort to protect the nation from Covid.
What a difference a year makes.
After four years of listening to Donald Trump turn every challenge facing the nation into a soundbite touting his own genius and abilities — the former president once unironically declared himself “the chosen one” to take on China on trade policy — it was jarring on Thursday to hear a president set aside concerns about his own political image to speak to a nation from the heart.
At the core of Mr Biden’s political brand is something that has been lacking for some time in the White House: humility.
The president spent less than 90 seconds of his 24-minute speech on Thursday discussing the merits of the $1.9trn Covid aid package he signed into law just hours earlier. Mr Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan Act is an historically massive piece of legislation that could come to define his presidency, with the ink still drying on it, and which passed Congress this week despite the opposition of every single Republican in Congress — and Mr Biden resisted the temptation of a victory lap or even an oblique jab at his political opponents.
He did not mention his predecessor by name and declined on this occasion to beat the previous administration over the head for what his aides have termed the “mess” he inherited from Mr Trump on the coronavirus pandemic.
We also didn’t hear Mr Biden on Thursday insisting to Americans that they need him, that he is the only one who can fix their problems.
In fact, his message was the opposite.
“I need you,” he said. “The American people, I need you. I need every American to do their part. That’s not hyperbole. I need you. I need you to get vaccinated when it’s your turn and when you can find an opportunity, and to help your family, and your friends, your neighbours, to get vaccinated as well.”
One of us?
Reading methodically from the teleprompter in his strained, gravelly near-whisper, Mr Biden quite obviously sought to tap into that approachability and down-to-earth decency that carried him through the Democratic primary process and into the Oval Office.
In his efforts to conquer the ongoing Covid pandemic, Mr Biden has adopted an interesting approach: bringing himself down to the level of the people and painting himself as one of them.
July 4 could mark ‘independence from virus’, Biden says
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us,” he said.
Mr Biden and his aides have persistently acknowledged throughout the first seven weeks of the new administration that there is only so much the federal government can do to put people in position to protect themselves during the pandemic.
“He can’t do this alone. The federal government cannot do this alone,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week, after multiple GOP governors had announced they would be rolling back Covid restrictions in their states such as occupancy limits at restaurants and public mask mandates.
But instead of scolding those Americans who may be loosening their adherence to public safety guidelines, Mr Biden on Thursday commended his fellow citizens for mostly pulling together to keep each other safe.
“America thrives when we give our hearts, when we turn our hands to common purpose. And right now, my friends, we’re doing just that. And I have to say as your president I’m grateful to you,” he said.
Biden’s message discipline
Mr Biden made one major announcement on Thursday that will come as welcome news to anyone who has not yet received a dose of one of the three vaccines currently in circulation in the US: every American adult across all states, territories, and tribes will be eligible for a vaccine by 1 May, a substantial acceleration of the timeline towards herd immunity.
“If we do all this, if we do our part, if we do this together, by July the Fourth there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighbourhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Mr Biden said of the increased capacity and accelerated rate of vaccinations.
But if you’ve been following the day-to-day comments and announcements from the administration, you’ll know that much of what Mr Biden said on Thursday was repetitive.
He promised once again to tell Americans “the truth” about how the pandemic is progressing.
“The fight is far from over,” he cautioned, a phrase that has been playing on repeat at the president’s public appearances since well before he even took office.
He urged Americans not to let their “guard down” and appealed to people’s patriotism to continue following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines.
Mr Biden has kept a steady tone throughout the pandemic, never selling the latest good news — such as the recent purchase of 100m more Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses this week — as false hope.