President Joe Biden walked into the East Room of the White House without a swagger. He came to deliver his first prime-time address to the nation — one given on the anniversary of the country shutting down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of that speech was about hope. It was about seeing a shaft of light at the end of a dark horror. It focused on time finally beginning to tick forward — and us with it — after a year in which that valuable, irreplaceable commodity had slipped away before our eyes.
The president didn't sound boastful as much as he sounded relieved.
When Biden settled in behind the lectern and faced the cameras, he was wearing a mask, which he slowly removed. Wearing it was a display of pointed symbolism for all those who are ready to burn them as a sign of personal freedom. He was modeling best practices as a reminder to those who are simply at their wits' end and have only the tiniest wisp of patience left in their pandemic arsenal.
His attire was polished and formal with his white French cuffs and his crisp pocket square. The sum of it evoked all of the institutional power and authority at his disposal to make things better. But he also made it plain that he was not speaking as a voice from on high, but as a voice that understands, a voice on common ground. The government is not a conspiracy; it is not complicit in a plot. "We need to remember, the government isn't some foreign force in a distant capital," Biden said. "No, it's us. All of us. We the people."
Biden pulled a bit of paper from his suit pocket. It was his daily schedule on which was written the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus: 527,726 people. He didn't need to pull out that paper with such a flourish. But it was more symbolism. He carried that number — those people — with him as he moved through his routine. Each person who died was accounted for. Each death was part of Biden's day-to-day.
His speech could have been full of boasting about how every American will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1, about the passage of the American Rescue Plan, and about the promise that if all goes well and the virus doesn't outrun the vaccination program or outsmart the scientists, it may be possible to gather with family and friends on July 4 and celebrate a hard-won freedom. But it was not. Those were a recitation of facts, not chest-thumping.
Biden got to the promises of his $1.9 trillion relief package in the second half of his speech. But before that, he talked about the weddings and the family reunions and the first dates that went missing over the past year. He acknowledged the things that make so many Americans sad and heartbroken — losses they were, perhaps, too embarrassed to talk about because there were so many more terrible, deadly events unfolding.
"It's the details of life that matter," Biden said. And in those words, he recognized the loss of all of those little things that people might have shrugged off publicly but wept about privately.
Before the president got to his historic legislative achievement, he spoke to the rise of hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans. "So many of them, our fellow Americans, they're on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives and still — still — they are forced to live in fear for their lives just walking down the streets of America," Biden said. "It's wrong. It's un-American. And it must stop."
So much of the speech was about us: the diverse backgrounds from which we come, the small joys and triumphs that define our lives, the need to bolster each other's endurance for just a little longer. When he finally spoke about his Rescue Plan, it was less about what Democrats had pushed across the finish line without Republican support and more about a belief that government can do great things because the government is us. "National unity isn't just about how politicians vote in Washington," Biden said.
Biden signed the American Rescue Plan — the legislation that would put money into the pockets of low-income and middle-class Americans, slash child poverty and provide financial support to states to help speed the administering of coronavirus vaccinations — earlier in the day. In the Oval Office ceremony, he delivered remarks that lasted barely two minutes. There would be time to celebrate with fellow Democrats later.
He did not hold up the document for all to view his signature as his predecessor tended to do. This was just paperwork. The glory was in the heartland.
Hours later, as Biden spoke to the public about what the country had endured, he aimed to lift up a population, an entire country — not just the folks who supported him or believed the science or were their very best selves through these dark times. He spoke to those who have lost faith.
"We've lost so much over the last year," Biden said. "We lost faith in whether our government and our democracy can deliver on really hard things to the American people."
By his mere presence on television, Biden was declaring his pride in the country's progress. But as he put his weight on the lectern and leaned into the camera, he was also making clear that this hint of victory — despite all of the obstacles and setbacks and our own worst instincts — was shared.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts for The Washington Post. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.