As the nation prepares to hear President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, there is enormous importance and pressure on his language around our ongoing struggle with Covid-19. The pandemic remains a major fissure between Americans — burrowing into the ground substance of who we are, a divisive gap we must bridge.
As many have already pointed out, hope is not a strategy.
We are divided over everything pandemic-related, from whether we should wear masks to requiring workers to be vaccinated. The debates and division among physicians and scientists on these matters have widened this gap, creating more confusion instead of the clarity we desperately need. The president must deliver a message that can break through the noise, give comfort to those who are still scared and instill faith in skeptics bolstered by lies and misinformation.
Americans’ emotions are running high, with good reason. Here are three points Biden's State of the Union needs to deliver on to keep us even-keeled and hopeful.
Normal is within reach, thanks to a smarter, more effective government
Polling indicates that most Americans are optimistic that the pandemic is nearing its end, with some political consultants encouraging the president to declare victory, signaling a return to normalcy. A premature declaration when much of the world remains unvaccinated and deaths still exceed 1,500 per day is not advised. But Biden should highlight the progress made under his watch: hundreds of millions of Americans vaccinated, free tests and masks to those who want them, the largest global share of vaccines for other countries and a return to health care diplomacy.
We all hope that the worst is behind us. But as many have already pointed out, hope is not a strategy. The goals have not changed, and this should be re-emphasized: We have a better ability to detect new threats; a nimble approach to policies that safely guide communities, families, schools and the workplace; and the prompt availability of essential treatments that do not cannibalize global access.
Americans want to know that government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are constantly improving and working to deliver on shared goals such as vaccine access for all, including young children. People do not necessarily need or want more government, but they deserve a government that can clearly communicate critical issues across a broad nation with diverse populations.
We will adopt a zero tolerance policy for lies and the deceit of the American public
The effects of misinformation are long-standing and existed prior to the pandemic. But its destruction has never been more palpable than in the current Covid climate.
America’s children now have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction. Lies about Covid have caused countless Americans to die unnecessarily, including children, with credit to the influence of people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert Malone. If the same distortions drive parents away from additional childhood vaccines, we are going to see generations dealing with disabilities and deaths that likely could have been prevented.
Elevating attention to misinformation to the Cabinet level and allocating resources in the president’s proposed budget to Congress would convey the decisive actions required to match the sinister efforts to dupe the public. Of all the things any one administration can do, tackling this issue could be the most important effort to guarantee the economic and national security of our nation.
The systems that failed you at the start of the pandemic will not be ignored again
The pandemic has revealed systematic failures in virtually every sector of society — health care, supply chain, education, housing, nutrition, the list goes on. Much of Biden’s "Build Back Better" policies have touched on these sectors, but resurrecting prior language would be a mistake. We need to hear that the ongoing grief and fatigue of the nation will not be in vain. Typical policy phrases such as “health care access” or “universal preschool” need to be replaced by actual solutions that address the everyday experiences of the majority of Americans.
We are divided over everything pandemic-related, from whether we should wear masks to requiring workers to be vaccinated.
Working parents want to hear that they will not sacrifice their entire paycheck to child care and that any child over the age of 3 will be able to go to school no matter where they live. Families need to know that the rising cost of groceries or a tank of gas is not lost on the president. Our health care system may have front-line heroes (a label many of us don’t necessarily want), but there is little to be desired of the system in which people are left without reliable primary care, where navigating bureaucratic insurance policies designed to deny care is the norm, not the outlier. Biden should reinforce that Americans should not receive confusing surprise medical bills in the mail, prescription drugs they can’t afford and doctors that don't even have availability for appointments.
Finally, Biden should honor the near million lives lost due to Covid alone in the United States by announcing a permanent memorial in our nation’s capital, which sadly will continue to grow over time. Yes, it’s symbolic, but it would do the important job of commemorating the lives of those we have lost, a monument to our resilience and our willingness to keep shouldering on.