WASHINGTON — Having used a national television address Thursday night to offer Americans a bit of hope — including the tantalizing prospect of a Fourth of July with friends and family — President Biden now faces daunting challenges that will determine whether he succeeds in making good on that promise.
He must use the power of the government he leads to administer the coronavirus vaccine to most of the country in less than four months. To do that, he will test the operational limits of a health care system that has not faced a pandemic of this magnitude in more than a century.
At the same time, Mr. Biden needs to ensure that his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan quickly and efficiently delivers on the promise of its name — to bolster the economy, provide emergency cash for the unemployed, enable students to return to classrooms and provide expanded aid to the neediest.
If he can do both, the president will have a chance to win additional support from a weary public that is eager to cast off the heavy burdens that the pandemic has imposed on their lives. In his speech from the East Room of the White House, the president was explicit about his belief that his administration would meet those challenges.
“It’s never, ever a good bet to bet against the American people,” he said as he concluded. “America is coming back.”
But raising expectations creates risks for a new president who faces potential roadblocks ahead, any of which could undermine the public’s confidence in his ability to govern and create openings for Republicans.
The president acknowledged as much on Friday, as he celebrated the passage of the stimulus legislation with Democratic lawmakers in a ceremony at the White House. To all those in the Rose Garden with broad grins on their faces, he offered a note of caution learned through decades of experience.
“It’s one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan,” he said. “It is going to be another thing to implement it. It’s going to require fastidious oversight to make sure there’s no waste or fraud and the law does what it’s designed to do.”
He added, with emphasis: “And I mean it, we have to get this right.”
His promise of a return to a semblance of normalcy by the Fourth of July depends, as he made clear during his speech Thursday night, on the rapid deployment of the coronavirus vaccines to enough people that the country can safely emerge from the isolation brought on by the pandemic.
“It was important in his speech that he said, ‘This is our goal,’” said David Plouffe, who managed former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and served with Mr. Biden when he was vice president. “But a lot can go wrong, and I think he needs to say that every day.”
There is already evidence that the months ahead might not go smoothly.
Despite the president urging Americans to get vaccinated, a portion of the public remains deeply suspicious about the safety of the vaccines. Even if Mr. Biden can make doses available to every adult American by the end of May, as he has promised, he may still fall short if too many people refuse the shots.
Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, said the president’s optimism about the Fourth of July may be undermined by people she calls “vaccine complacent,” who will shrug off the need to get vaccinated against the virus.
“They’re not antivaccine. It’s not that they have some kind of philosophical issue against the vaccine,” she said. “It’s that they may not quite see what’s in it for them.”
Mr. Biden is clearly worried about that possibility. In his speech, the president practically begged Americans not to be afraid of vaccines that have already been given to millions of people around the country. “Talk to your family, friend, your neighbor,” he implored. “We need everyone to get vaccinated.”
But Mr. Biden and his advisers are well aware that the choices Americans make — including whether to wear masks and maintain social distancing rules for several more months — is not entirely within his control.
The recent decision by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas to abandon the state’s mask mandate was just the latest example of how deeply torn the country remains over following onerous restrictions, some of which are viewed as politically charged. The more states that follow Texas’ lead, the harder it will be for Mr. Biden to make good on his promise.
And even the parts that he oversees directly are likely to be a challenge. In his speech, Mr. Biden called the distribution of the vaccine “one of the most complex operations we have ever undertaken as a nation in a long time.”
In effect, the president has taken responsibility for ensuring that the vaccine makers can deliver the hundreds of millions of doses they have promised on tight time frames, avoiding the glitches and missed deadlines that slowed the early portions of the rollout.
Johnson & Johnson, which produces one of the three approved vaccines, initially fell far short of its production promises, forcing Mr. Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act and help broker a deal with one of the company’s chief competitors to increase manufacturing capacity. Another company, AstraZeneca, has produced millions of doses but has not yet won approval from the Food and Drug Administration amid concerns about side effects.
Finally, Mr. Biden faces a political challenge that could undercut his efforts to make people feel like the economy is working again.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
Mr. Biden pushed the American Rescue Plan through Congress without a single Republican vote. That gives his adversaries ample motivation to publicize its failures.
The White House has said it will mount an all-out public relations campaign over the next several weeks aimed at making sure that the American public understands what the legislation will do for them: direct payments, unemployment benefits, extra money to care for children and help for schools, businesses and local governments.
“The reality here, I think, will trump perception,” Mr. Plouffe said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be worried about the perception game, and the best way to win the perception game is to have, you know, incredibly strong execution and tell the story of that execution.”
The huge stimulus package encompasses a complex array of programs that will have to be enacted quickly across a host of government agencies. The White House is eager to avoid the kinds of breakdowns that plagued the small business assistance program last year, when crashing computer systems and opaque rules created logjams and inequities that marred the program’s initial stages.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Thursday that people could begin seeing deposits in their checking accounts as soon as this weekend.
But administration officials have quietly acknowledged that some of the money in the American Rescue Plan will not be spent for months or even longer. And they have indicated a desire to find someone to oversee the vast effort — a clear sign they recognize the danger if they stumble amid a need to move quickly.
G. Edward DeSeve, who was hired by Mr. Biden to carry out the stimulus program known as the Recovery Act in 2009, said the challenge for the president this time was far bigger and much more complicated.
Mr. DeSeve said Mr. Biden should create a “national investment board” to oversee the distribution of the $1.9 trillion and to make sure that all of the federal agencies were working together to ensure the money was spent wisely and in a timely manner.
“Focus on where the money is,” he said, “and then how it gets out to people and places in need, how it is implemented. They need to work together. This can’t be silos.”
On Friday, Mr. Biden appeared to agree with his former aide. During the Rose Garden celebration, the president recalled the difficult efforts in 2009 to ensure the effective rollout of a stimulus package that was less than half the size of the one he signed into law a day earlier.
“The devil is in the details of implementing this legislation,” Mr. Biden said. “I know from experience, when the president turned to me — like I haven’t done to the vice president, yet — and said, ‘take care of it.’”