Joe Biden signed the historic $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package into law on Thursday, hours before he will deliver his first primetime TV address as US president to mark one year since the virus triggered widespread shutdowns across the country.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said in brief remarks before signing the landmark legislation.
Biden is expected to use his televised speech to hail the stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan, which the White House has touted as the biggest progressive spending package in generations that is critical for steering the US towards the end of the pandemic.
But Biden is also expected to acknowledge the ongoing pain caused by the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 530,000 Americans and brought unemployment, hunger and dislocation to tens of millions more. And he is also expected to offer hope, asking for optimism as beleaguered Americans face what comes next.
Previewing the speech, Biden said he will outline what his administration plans to do to help guide the US through a huge vaccination program and rebuild shattered lives and businesses in the months ahead. “I’m going to launch the next phase of the Covid response,” the Democrat said on Wednesday.
“There is light at the end of this dark tunnel of the past year. But we cannot let our guard down now or assume the victory is inevitable. Together, we’re going to get through this pandemic and usher in a healthier and more hopeful future.”
A White House official said the speech will last less than 20 minutes and will note how controlling the pandemic and administering vaccines has been the “greatest operational challenge the country has faced”. So far, more than 62 million people across the US have been vaccinated. Biden said this week that the US “hit a record of 2.9m vaccinations in one day in America” on Saturday.
The speech is resonant in its timing, coming a year to the day since the World Health Organization declared the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic. It’s also a year to the night since Donald Trump, the former president, delivered a similar televised address on the pandemic that came after he repeatedly claimed the virus would somehow disappear on its own.
One year ago the pandemic became tangible for most Americans, with many companies telling staff to work from home, if they were able to, sporting bodies such as the NBA canceling games and Broadway shows shuttering in New York City.
The period since has seen waves of the virus surge across the country, with the deficient response of several states and the Trump administration seeing healthcare systems pushed close to collapse and millions of frontline workers, particularly people of color, suffer the brunt of the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, more than 14% of working Americans were out of a job.
Biden has sought to instill optimism over the course of the pandemic since becoming president, with the rate of new infections and hospitalizations now starting to fall. His administration has set a goal of 100m vaccine shots in the first 100 days, something the president was upbeat over in a visit to a Washington DC hospital this week.
“We’re really warping the speed now,” Biden said. “We’re doing pretty good across the country. We’re going to hit 100m soon.”
Life remains upended for millions of Americans, however. The stimulus package is the first major legislative victory of Biden’s presidency and promises to raise millions of Americans out of poverty. It includes $1,400 payments for eligible individuals along with hundreds of billions of dollars more to bolster vaccine distribution, extended unemployment assistance and child tax credits.
No Republicans in Congress voted for the bill, claiming it was bloated and unnecessary, but Biden, a Democrat, appears to have strong public support for the measures. Polling has shown a clear majority of American voters support the Covid aid package and approve generally of the way the president has handled the coronavirus crisis since taking office.
Challenges still remain in delivering vaccines, however, as well as the actions of several states, such as Texas, that have started to ease restrictions such as mask mandates. More than 18m doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine will be shipped to states, tribes and territories this week, the White House said, with another 100m additional doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine set to be delivered later this year.
Biden has previously said there will be enough vaccine for all American adults by the end of May. There is still no plan for the vaccination of children, although the president is also hoping to push forward the reopening of schools.
The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has new guidelines that allow the gathering of fully vaccinated people with vaccinated grandparents or friends without masks or socially distancing, but there is still no indication when it will be safe for people to travel again or for life more broadly to return to normality.
“There are a lot of folks who are older, people with chronic diseases,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told ABC. “Let them get vaccinated and I think it will happen in the next month or so then we can begin to relax these restrictions and get our lives back.”