Biden’s First Primetime Speech Shows the Limits of Optimism

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You can’t shake Joe Biden’s optimism, that’s for sure.

On the one-year anniversary of a pandemic that has cost more than 529,000 Americans their lives, by some measures will have an economic toll of $16 trillion and stands to fundamentally change the way we go about our day-to-day routines forever, the President delivered his first primetime address to the nation last night.

Despite the challenges strewn across this country, he shimmied with confidence to the podium in the East Room of the White House, the iconic Cross Hall as his backdrop lined with the flags of the states. He summoned his signature optimism that Americans might unite in their shared battle, partisanship could give way to cooperation and the promise of tomorrow may match the President’s own faith in the country.

That dogged positivity was at odds with the ground realities Biden faces some 50 days into his tenure. Hours earlier, the President signed into law a popular $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief package that reached his desk with exactly zero Republican votes. Lawmakers are entombed at the Capitol behind barricades after a failed Jan. 6 insurrection sought to overturn the results of an election that gave Biden power, the Justice Department is still searching for the person who tried to blow up the political parties’ headquarters that day and there is little sense that D.C. will see the fencing fall any time soon. And Biden is still facing a coronavirus that, while perhaps bending to scientific breakthroughs, is still a long way from retreat.

Just don’t expect Biden to wallow in those hard truths. That simply isn’t what he thinks America needs to hear right now. “Even if we devote every resource we have, beating this virus and getting back to normal depends on national unity,” Biden said. “And national unity isn’t just how politics and politicians vote in Washington or what the loudest voices say on cable or online. Unity is what we do together as fellow Americans.”

Biden offered Americans a few solid cornerstones for his upbeat cadence. He promised that all Americans would be eligible for vaccines by May 1. He pledged to stand up an online portal to help people track down doses. And he summoned hope that life would soon return to pre-pandemic footing, perhaps as soon as families gather for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

But more than the return to pre-COVID-19 normalcy, the speech marked an important pivot. Biden stood as almost every one of his predecessors had before at moments of national consequence, calling on unity and healing, praising the collective power of the American spirit and heroic work of health care workers, public employees, educators and scientists to bring to heel this pandemic. It was a speech his immediate predecessor never got close to giving — and probably couldn’t have even if he had tried.

Biden is a complicated figure, for sure. He knows loss like few of his predecessors have. Even at the best moments of his life, he is still pained by the loss of two children and a spouse. His Catholic faith warms the chill that is his grief. Even as a young man, his friends say, he had the pained soul of an Irish poet paired with the can-do spirit of Captain America. As Biden is starting his ninth year with an office in the West Wing, it’s clear that’s not going to change.

Still, there remain limits to the power of positive thinking. He can praise “finding light in the darkness” as “the most American thing we do.” But that light cannot burn off the fog of partisanship that still keeps Washington grey. Republicans, it seems, are using the same playbook from the last time Biden was in the White House, as VP, to deny him any victories.

And Biden isn’t exaggerating that he sees the country as on a war footing against the pandemic. What’s unclear is if he and his fellow Democrats will ever adopt that stance when it comes to Republican opposition.

Optimism alone has seldom proven a winning strategy.

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