Joe Biden has launched a publicity blitz for his coronavirus rescue plan but faces disruption from a messaging war with Republicans over an escalating humanitarian emergency at the US-Mexico border.
In brief remarks at the White House on Monday ahead of a national tour, the US president touted the $1.9tn relief package passed by Democrats in Congress last week, Biden’s first major legislative victory.
“In the next 10 days, we will reach two giant goals: 100m shots in people’s arms and 100m cheques in people’s pockets,” he said.
The law will cut child poverty in half, Biden said, and is “focused on rebuilding the backbone of this country – working families, the middle class, people who built this country”.
But it is one thing to pass the bill, another to implement it, the president warned. “The devil is in the details. It requires fastidious oversight … We’re going to have to stay on top of every dollar spent.”
Biden added: “We can do this, we will do this. Help is on the way.”
The president, who has still not held a formal press conference after nearly two months in office, did take one question from a reporter about whether his predecessor Donald Trump should encourage sceptical Republicans to take the coronavirus vaccine.
Biden replied: “I discussed it with my team, and they say the thing that has more impact than anything Trump would say to the ‘Maga’ folks is what the local doctor, the local preacher, the local people in the community would say. I urge all local docs and ministers and priests to talk about why it’s important to get that vaccine.”
Maga refers to Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again.
The year-long coronavirus pandemic has infected nearly 30 million Americans, killed 534,890 and put millions out of work. But about 107m vaccine shots have been administered, leading Biden to predict a return to a semblance of normality by Independence Day on 4 July.
His stimulus package includes direct $1,400 payments to millions of Americans – the first of which hit bank accounts over the weekend – as well as an extension of unemployment benefits, funding for state, local and tribal governments and money to accelerate vaccinations and reopen schools.
It was announced that Biden has appointed Gene Sperling, a longtime Democratic economic policy expert, to oversee the implementation of the package.
Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and their spouses are starting an ambitious cross-country “Help is Here” tour to extol its benefits with daily themes such as small businesses, schools, warding off evictions and direct cheques.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday: “We want to take some time, more than a moment, to engage directly with the American people and make they sure they understand the benefits of the package. What the president recognises from his own experience is that, when it’s a package of this size, people don’t always know how they benefit or what it means for them.”
The PR offensive began on Monday with Harris heading to a Covid-19 vaccination site and a culinary academy in Las Vegas and the first lady, Jill Biden, touring a New Jersey elementary school.
Biden himself is due to visit a small business in Delaware county, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday. He and Harris will appear together on Friday in Georgia, a swing state where Democrats’ victory in two Senate runoffs in January were fundamental to the passage of the bill.
The White House has said it does not believe Barack Obama’s administration did enough to champion its $800bn economic rescue programme in 2009. Democrats went on to suffer a heavy defeat by Republicans in the House in the following year’s midterm elections.
This time the new law is broadly popular among the public, posing a headache for Republicans who were united in voting against it and described it as an overpriced bundle of liberal pet projects unrelated to the pandemic.
Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, said: “The policy argument is a fair one and in fact is the right one to be making but it’s hard in the context of what we see, which is, do you want your $1,400 cheque or do you not? That’s a much easier argument for the Democrats to make in the short run. So I think Republicans have a tall order ahead of them.”
Republicans are instead seeking to change the political narrative by switching attention to the southern US border, where there has been a surge of people trying to cross and a record number of children are now in US custody.
CBS News reported that by Sunday morning, US border patrol was holding more than 4,200 unaccompanied children in short-term holding facilities, including “jail-like stations unfit to house minors”. Nearly 3,000 of them had been held longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.
Sensing Biden’s first major vulnerability since taking office, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, led a group of Republicans to the border in El Paso, Texas, on Monday. They argued that Biden has created a crisis by halting construction of Trump’s border wall, placing a moratorium on deportations and promising a pathway to citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants.