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The Memo: Biden looks to lock in gains in big prime-time speech

The Memo: Biden looks to lock in gains in big prime-time speech
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President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE will deliver his first prime-time address Thursday, marking the anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The speech gives Biden an opportunity to solidify political gains as his administration gets off to a broadly positive start in the battle against the virus. He will again have the opportunity to drive home his message when he gives his first address to Congress and first formal press conference in the coming weeks.

The rate of vaccinations is rising, while the rates of deaths and new infections are falling. A tangible, but less easily measured, sense of optimism is beginning to percolate after a grim 12 months for the nation.

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There are already signs that Biden is enjoying broad public approval. The nation remains polarized but the controversy over the 2020 election that was generated by former President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE has begun to fade.

In an Economist-YouGov poll conducted Feb. 27 to March 2, Biden’s response to COVID-19 won the approval of 52 percent of adult respondents and the disapproval of 35 percent.

Eighty-five percent of Democrats surveyed held a positive view of Biden’s response, while only 20 percent of Republicans felt the same way. But the president scored well with independents, of whom 50 percent approved of his response and 34 percent disapproved.

Biden’s performance was given a strong thumbs-up from Americans 65 and older, a group that is at particularly high risk from COVID-19. Sixty-two percent of those older respondents approved of his response and just 35 percent disapproved.

Democrats express satisfaction but not surprise about the ratings.

“It is not only that he has handled it well so far — which he has; he has done a good job of communicating with people — but it’s also that people are experiencing this in real life,” said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

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Carrick added: “The ramping up of the vaccines is obvious now, and it is something you encounter from your neighbors and people you are talking to on the phone or online.”

There are, of course, plenty of things that could go wrong.

The logistics of the vaccination process are dizzyingly complex. There is still some skepticism about the safety of the vaccines, particularly among groups — notably African Americans — who have past experience of mistreatment or discrimination at the hands of the medical community.

Biden has complained about the actions of some Republican governors, including Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, in fully reopening their states. The president described any belittling of the importance of safety measures such as mask wearing as “Neanderthal thinking.”

There is also the fate of Biden’s COVID-19 relief package to consider. The near-certain passage of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is a significant victory for the new administration in the face of united GOP opposition.

But even though the bill is popular with the public at the moment, there have been warnings from some experts, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, that the stimulus could begin to stoke inflation.

GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak argued that Biden’s Thursday speech was primarily intended as a White House celebration for the likely passage of the COVID-19 measure.

“It seems to me it is more about passing the House stimulus bill, and taking a victory lap for it,” he said. “He is trying to take credit and salt the fields of public opinion on that bill.”

Mackowiak also claimed that the administration had sought to take excessive credit for some of the moves made to combat the virus, including the rise in vaccinations in general and the deal between Merck and Johnson & Johnson under which the former will help produce vaccines developed by the latter.

The GOP strategist pointed out that discussions between the two companies began during the Trump administration.

There have also been some shakier moments in the Biden administration’s response to the virus, including muddled communications on the crucial question of reopening schools.

Republicans might also take heart from the fact that there are other topics on which the new president is significantly weaker.

Immigration is the most obvious example. The Economist-YouGov poll showed the public divided on Biden’s performance on that question, with 41 percent of respondents approving and 42 percent disapproving.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the number of migrant children in custody near the southern border has tripled in the past two weeks.

But, for the moment at least, Biden’s public standing is being buoyed by the growing optimism around COVID-19.

His approval rating in a Reuters-IPSOS poll conducted March 3-4 showed 58 percent of adults surveyed approving of his overall job performance and 35 percent disapproving. The 23-point net positive rating showed no fall-off at all since his January inauguration.

Thursday evening’s speech is the new president’s best opportunity yet to try to lock in some of those gains.

“He’s been very disciplined about how he has been approaching this pandemic and there has been a tamping down of the politicization of the issue,” said Carrick. “It’s all been a big-time positive for him.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.