Comment: Biden sounded empathy, uplift, frustration on covid

Much of the messaging has been heard before, but the president made his appeal to the persuadable.

By Inkoo Kang / The Washington Post

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been advised that hostility toward the vaccine-hesitant won’t persuade them to seek immunization any faster; it might even make them dig in their heels.

Perhaps that’s why President Biden gave an evenhanded (if blunt) speech in a televised address to the nation Tuesday as the omicron variant spreads throughout the country and questions swirl about how best to celebrate the holidays this year.

Tempering earlier language about “a winter of severe illness and death — if you’re unvaccinated — for themselves, their families, and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm,” Biden instead sought to provide reassurance and answers. Standing in front of a fireplace and Christmas decorations in the White House’s State Dining Room, he softened his occasional brusqueness with a forced quarter-smile, appearing authoritative but not overbearing.

Though his periodic teleprompter fumbles detracted somewhat from the air of competence he strove to project, the president couldn’t be clearer in his messaging: Get vaccinated to protect yourself and your loved ones from the latest version of the coronavirus.

“I want to start by acknowledging how tired, worried and frustrated I know you are,” Biden began in a speech that swerved between individual empathy, patriotic uplift and straight-talking frustration. “For many of you,” he continued, “this will be the first, or even the second Christmas, we look across the table to see an empty kitchen chair.”

In the first section of his address, he opted for a Q&A format that he hoped would lay to rest much of the confusion that omicron has reintroduced to our lives. Yes, we should feel OK celebrating the holidays with our families. Yes, there’s reason to feel safe with the new variant’s proliferation, as long as we get all of our vaccines. (“Just last week,” he noted, “former president Trump announced he had gotten his booster shot.”) No, this isn’t a return to March 2020, he asserted, adding later that there is no intention to shut down schools or businesses again.

The address wasn’t aimed at news junkies, a group that probably knew much of this already, but for casual news consumers who may be unsure which information sources are reliable. Even for a political speech, Biden’s address was repetitive, hammering home again and again, in increasingly unvarnished language, the necessity of immunization. “If you’re unvaccinated,” he intoned, “you are at a higher risk of getting severely ill from covid-19, getting hospitalized and even dying.”

But Biden reserved his harshest language for those profiting off anti-vaccine messaging. His voice grew stern as he slammed those spreading “dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media.” “These companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters,” he said, his previously sluggish delivery growing emphatic. “It’s wrong. It’s immoral. I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it. Stop it now.”

Biden’s opponents surely bristled against such accusations. But they weren’t his target audience; they couldn’t be won over anyway. The president was talking to the persuadable, especially those who might find higher meaning in public health measures. Calling getting vaccinated a “patriotic duty,” Biden did what presidents try to do: unify (as much as is possible in our tribalistic political climate). Recalling that the United States was one of the first countries to get the vaccine, he promised, “There is no challenge too big for America.”

Biden also outlined outreach programs intended to combat the omicron variant more systematically. It glossed over all the logistical challenges and bureaucratic hurdles that have resulted in recent headlines: the disparities in covid concern and response across the country, the delays in vaccine appointments, the difficulty of obtaining at-home tests, the exorbitant costs of said tests. (The distribution of half a billion tests is a key component of Biden’s new plan.)

But longer-lasting than those tests may be the common-sense, can-do-it optimism with which Biden unfurled the next phase of his administration’s fight against the coronavirus. The science is here, and it has spoken. It’s up to the rest of us to listen.

Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for The Washington Post.

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