Speaking from the White House Thursday night in his first prime-time address as president, Joe Biden insisted that Americans should be ready to feel good about themselves and their country again. Then he laid out some ambitious benchmarks that will determine how justified they are in doing so.
The occasion of Biden’s speech was the first anniversary of the World Health Organization classifying the spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic. It also came the same day he signed the American Rescue Plan Act, the first major piece of legislation that has passed since he took office, which lays out $1.9 trillion in spending meant to help knock out the virus and revive the economy that it obliterated last year.
The details of the bill have at this point been well publicized, though. What Biden introduced in his speech were two dates: May 1 and July 4. The former is the date that he says his administration will “direct” states to make vaccine shots available to all adults. The latter, as you might imagine, has symbolic importance: It’s the time by which he says enough Americans should be vaccinated that they should feel comfortable gathering together in modestly sized groups with family and friends.
The May 1 date seems intentionally chosen to be a little startling: Previously, the administration had mentioned the end of that month as the time by which enough vaccine doses for every American would be available, and the end of July as the time by which they could be fully distributed. Neither of those targets is necessarily contradicted by the president’s declaration that “you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1,” though. There has also been an emerging belief among some experts that the public interest is better served by getting as many shots out the door as fast as possible, to whoever lines up for them, than by a slower process of careful prioritization. The timeline announced Thursday, then, was less a promise than a national call to action—a statement of urgency directed not just at state-level political leaders and medical administrators but at the regular civilians at home who will have to take responsibility for finding themselves a shot.
Biden did, however, lay out goals that he can be judged on. For one, he promised that by May 1 the federal government will “launch, with our partners, new tools to make it easier for you to find the vaccine and where to get the shot, including a new website.” The site, Biden says, will allow every American to easily identify the nearest location where vaccinations are available. Promised the president: “No more searching day and night for an appointment for you and your loved ones.”
Such a tool would indeed be very useful. It would also seem to be an enormous logistical and technological undertaking, given the number of different public and private entities that are already involved in vaccine distribution. (There is almost certainly no one in the White House who is not aware of what happened the last time a Democratic administration promised to launch a health care website.) The administration also said Thursday that it would use ARP funds to more than double the number of community health centers, pharmacies, and federally run vaccination sites involved in the effort to finish the job that it says will be done, or at least done enough to barbecue, by July. Those are lofty goals to set after a year that has made clear how hard it is to get things to work—things like unemployment systems and elections, for example—in a fractious nation of 330 million people who don’t agree on the purpose of government or even about which major-scale events have and haven’t taken place in reality.
“This country can do anything, hard things, big things, important things,” Biden said toward the conclusion of his speech. Now he’s given his administration four months to deliver a specific series of them.