As he gently told a traumatized 8-year-old girl, “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared,” Joe Biden showed that the days of presidential pandemic denial and indifference to America’s suffering are over.
His reassuring words to second grader Layla Salas came during a CNN town hall in Wisconsin on Tuesday night when he also tried to move the nation on from the divisive aftermath of the impeachment trial of the predecessor he referred to as “the former guy.”
“For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump,” Biden said, depriving the ex-President of the attention he craves.
That particular moment emphasized Biden’s chosen position in the center of American politics where he won the election. His unwillingness to seek public revenge against his just-impeached predecessor, or to join other prominent Democrats in vociferously condemning the Republican senators who voted to acquit former President Donald Trump over the US Capitol insurrection, may disappoint more radical members of his own party. But with his restraint, Biden practiced what he has preached: an effort to bring a fractured nation together and to ensure that political disagreements don’t become “uncivil wars.”
In these two answers, the President took care of the politics of his prime time appearance in which he needed to show compassion for a country demoralized by a year-long battle against the virus and to lead it out of Trump’s dark shadow.
The President also offered some hope — with a specific promise against which he will be judged — for 600 million doses of vaccine to be available by the end of July.
“What’s going to happen is it’s going to continue to increase as we move along. We will have reached 400 million doses by the end of May and 600 million by the end of July,” Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in Milwaukee.
Questions Biden cannot answer
But on some substantive questions that Americans desperately want answered — including how long the pandemic will last and when everyone can get the vaccine — Biden could not give definitive answers. And there is fresh confusion and some equivocation from the administration on when all kids will be back in school and whether or not vaccinating teachers is a prerequisite for it to happen.
Biden’s prediction that life could be back mostly to normal by Christmas may strike many Americans, who had longed for freedom to return with the spring and the summer, as daunting evidence of a long haul ahead.
He also seemed to take pains not to over promise on the question of when children can return to in-person learning. He hoped kindergarten through eighth grade pupils could go back to five days a week, and that this could happen by the end of his 100 days in office in April. But he couldn’t say when older students, who are more susceptible to spreading Covid-19, would get the same treatment. He did advocate for pushing teachers to the front of the line for vaccinations, in an effort to get schools open more quickly, amid criticism from Republicans that he is unwilling to upset teachers unions, a powerful Democratic constituency.
Vice President Kamala Harris said on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday that teachers should be “a priority,” but she left it up to states on who should get vaccinated when. And in an appearance on CNN’s “New Day,” the vice president’s chief spokeswoman Symone Sanders repeatedly declined to answer whether the President thinks that kindergarten through grade eight schools can open even if teachers have not been vaccinated, repeatedly peddling the administration line that teachers should be “prioritized” that fails to clarify the question.
Biden’s caution could be the positioning of a politician who is setting low targets he thinks he can outperform. It is appropriate given the capricious nature of a virus that is mutating in a way that makes it more infectious and potentially more resistant to vaccines.
“I don’t want to over promise anything here,” the President said, contrasting sharply with his predecessor’s predictions that church pews would be full by Easter 2020 and that the virus would magically disappear.
The President was disingenuous when he blamed poor reporting and a “miscommunication” on the perception that his team saw children in school buildings for one day a week as a mark of success. The comment came from his White House last week and was later walked back.
Biden also said inaccurately that there were no vaccines when he took office — a puzzling statement given that he received both doses of the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine before his inauguration. There were limited doses developed by private companies and scientists in an impressive initiative sponsored by the Trump administration, but the former White House made a poor first of the initial rollout that badly complicated Biden’s own plans. Even still, about 1 million doses per day were being administered by the time Biden took office on January 20.
Still, Biden’s missteps paled in the comparison to the hurricane of lies, false statements, bitter political attacks and self-aggrandizement that regularly dominated Trump’s appearances in rally speeches and town hall events on conservative media.
And despite his characteristic stumbling over some precise figures, the President came across as far more engaged and well briefed on all aspects of the pandemic than senior officials in the Trump administration.
‘You’re going to be fine’
With his self-deprecating asides, easy interaction with the audience and folksy recycling of his parents’ “God love you” wisdom, Biden displayed the capacity to emotionally connect with individuals and a sense of humanity that enabled him to cross over some partisan divides in his election win.
This shone through his encounter with Jessica Salas, a Milwaukee graphic designer who told him that her children often ask whether they will get Covid-19 and die.
“Kids don’t get Covid very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden told Salas and her daughter, Layla, displaying a keen sense of the isolation of kids who can’t go to school and go out and play with their friends.
“Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine, and we’re going to make sure mommy’s fine, too,” Biden told the little girl.
It was the conversation that millions of Americans have had with their children over the last 11 months, and reflected Biden’s capacity as a grandfather to speak to children on their level and the emotional depth of a man who has known deep personal pain and tragedy in his own life.
Salas told CNN that Biden addressing her daughter like that was a “totally unexpected” moment.
“And that was really, really awesome. Afterwards she was like, ‘Mommy, he told us everything’s gonna be OK.’ Which, obviously, wasn’t his exact words, but the fact that she felt his sentiment meant a lot,” Salas said.
The President also touched on other points during the more than 60-minute town hall, including immigration, promising a “reasonable path to citizenship” for undocumented migrants who he said needed to be treated with “dignity.”
In one meandering answer in which he meditated on the racial awakening sparked by the killing of Minnesota man George Floyd at the hands of police last year, the President declared, “We have a chance now, a chance now, to make significant change in racial disparities.” However, it was difficult to clearly pinpoint a clear set of policies in what even he admitted were long-winded remarks.
In more reflective moments, Biden also revealed that every living President but one had called him since he moved into the White House last month. He didn’t reveal private conversations but his mischievous grin directed at Cooper left no doubt that the missing connection was with Trump.
The President also revealed that he had never been up in the White House residence before he took the oath of office, and talked of his discomfort at accepting help from the domestic staff that serves the First Family.
“I was raised in a way that you didn’t look for anybody to wait on you. And it’s where I find myself extremely self-conscious,” he said, encapsulating a performance characterized by presidential humility that he sees as the antidote to a scary and polarized time in American history.