WASHINGTON — After opening his presidency by playing down expectations for combating the pandemic, President Joe Biden and his top messengers are touring the country to raise hopes over his $1.9 trillion relief package.
The president — as well as his vice president and his wife — is promising that the spending will bring transformational change by halving child poverty, fueling record levels of hiring and pumping money to parents, schools and state and local governments. It’s a sharp turn from the start of the Biden administration, when vaccination goals were relatively modest and Americans were warned the country might not return to normal until Christmas.
Biden on Tuesday joins top messengers already crisscrossing the country to highlight the benefits of the plan, specifically focusing on aid for small businesses.
He was set to visit a small business in suburban Philadelphia, his first trip outside Washington for the “Help is Here” tour. Vice President Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff were reinforcing the small business theme Tuesday with stops in Colorado.
Biden’s administration estimates that 400,000 small businesses have closed because of the pandemic and millions more are barely surviving. His aid package includes a $28 billion grant program to support restaurants and drinking establishments. There are also $15 billion in flexible grants that can be allocated.
The road show began Monday with Harris visiting a COVID-19 vaccination site and a culinary academy in Las Vegas and first lady Jill Biden touring a New Jersey elementary school.
“We want to avoid a situation where people are unaware of what they’re entitled to,” Harris said at the culinary academy. “It’s not selling it — it literally is letting people know their rights. Think of it more as a public education campaign.”
The White House is wasting no time promoting the relief plan, which Biden signed into law last week, looking to build momentum for the rest of his agenda and anxious to avoid the mistakes of 2009 in boosting that year’s recovery effort. Even veterans of President Barack Obama’s administration acknowledge they did not do enough then to showcase their massive economic stimulus package.
The president, speaking Monday in Washington, declared that “hope is here in real and tangible ways.” He said the new government spending will bankroll efforts that could allow the nation to emerge from the pandemic’s twin crises, health and economic.
“Shots in arms and money in pockets,” Biden said at the White House. “That’s important. The American Rescue Plan is already doing what it was designed to do: make a difference in people’s everyday lives. We’re just getting started.”
Biden said that within the next 10 days, his administration will clear two important benchmarks: distributing 100 million stimulus payments and administering 100 million vaccine doses since he took office. It will have taken about 60 days to administer those doses, a pace much faster than the 100 days that Biden initially promised.
To commemorate those milestones, Biden and his top representatives are embarking on their most ambitious travel schedule of his young presidency, visiting a series of potential election battleground states this week.
The sales pitch was leaving Republicans cold.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the target of doses that Biden set when he took office as “not some audacious goal” but just the pace that he inherited. And he mocked Biden’s talk of Americans working toward merely being able to gather in small groups by July Fourth as “bizarre.”
The Biden plan cleared Congress without any backing from Republicans, despite polling that found broad public support. Republicans argued that the bill was too expensive, especially with vaccinations making progress against the virus, and included too many provisions not directly linked to the pandemic.
The White House has detailed a theme for each day, focusing on small businesses, schools, home evictions and direct checks to most Americans.
Jill Biden was joined by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on a tour Monday of Samuel Smith Elementary School in Burlington, where she highlighted steps the school took to reopen.
But her tour revealed the challenges ahead: In one classroom she visited, only two students were in attendance for in-person learning while the other 17 were virtual. The first lady sat down at a computer to say hello to the remote learners.
“I just love being here at a school again: Educators, parents and students, the entire school has come together to bring kids back to the classroom,” she said. “But even with your best efforts, students can’t come, they can’t come in every day, which means that their parents are still having to take time off of work or figure out child care solutions. And this school, like schools across this country, can’t fully reopen without help.”
Superville reported from Las Vegas and Madhani from Chicago.