President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the White House will "probably" move to send face masks directly to Americans as the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
"We're probably going to be sending out an awful lot of masks around the country very shortly, millions of them," Biden said during a roundtable event with black front-line workers. He said that the issue of masks was turned into a political issue, which cost "an awful lot of lives".
It was a plan originally proposed by health officials during the Trump administration but was blocked by the former president.
But in North Dakota, using those masks could be illegal. On Monday, the North Dakota House approved a bill and sent it to the state Senate that would make future mask mandates illegal. The bill's sponsor called mask mandates "diabolical silliness", characterizing them as a conspiracy run by "unelected, wealthy bureaucrats who are robbing our freedoms and perpetuating lies".
The North Dakota bill exemplifies some of what the Democratic president has faced during his first month in office as he has made fighting the COVID-19 pandemic his main priority and seeks to be what he declared in his inaugural address — a healer of the divides that separate the US.
The challenges, he said in his speech, included a nation ravaged by a pandemic, calls for racial justice and the rise of political "extremism".
"To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words," Biden said. "It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity." He used the word eight times in the 21-minute speech.
As his administration moves into its second month, Biden has been focused on vaccinating Americans and rebooting the economy. Stimulus checks follow closely behind in his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which would provide $130 billion of additional funding to schools, payments of $1,400 to most households and $50 billion to expand coronavirus testing.
But Biden's efforts to use his bully pulpit to pressure states to take actions against the pandemic the federal government doesn't control — such as keeping mask mandates in place or more restrictive actions — have had mixed results.
Governors and state public health officials have said that under the Biden administration, they have more regular communication with, and access to, senior officials in the White House than they did before.
"I applaud the Biden administration for having a regular line of communication with the governors," said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who attended a bipartisan meeting with Biden at the White House earlier this month. "They've been very responsive to us and have listened to us."
On the vaccination front, Biden said during the presidential transition that his goal was to administer 100 million doses by the end of his first 100 days. After taking office, he said he hoped to reach a pace of 1.5 million vaccinations a day.
In recent weeks, the pace of vaccinations has increased to an average of 1.6 million a day, above the roughly 1 million vaccines administered each day in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Since his first day taking office, Biden has signed more than 40 executive actions. Many were reversals of Donald Trump's policies. Others were meant to set a new tone in Washington.
The swift action has prompted praise from those on the left and ire from those on the right. They see them as not representing the "unity'' Biden called for in his inaugural speech. Many critics have questioned how Biden intends to keep his campaign promise of reaching across the aisle in Congress to work with Republicans.
Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted: "30 executive orders and actions signed in only 3 days' time. @POTUS, you can't govern with a pen and a phone."
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said: "I just wish that his actions matched the words of his inaugural in terms of being unifying and healing. I'm not seeing his initial actions being that, which is disappointing."
The New York Times, which supported Biden's election on its editorial page, advised him to "Ease Up on the Executive Actions, Joe" in an editorial on Jan 27. The newspaper said the orders were "no way to make law''. It urged him instead of ruling by fiat, to legislate via the narrowly divided Congress.
That Congress — where Biden served 36 years — is one of the biggest divides for the 46th president. It controls his legislative agenda, from the pandemic relief bill to an immigration plan that includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Hutchinson said he told Biden that the administration's proposed COVID-19 relief package was too large and needed to be more targeted. He also urged the president to secure bipartisan support for the plan. Though he met with 10 Republicans in the White House on Feb 2 and listened to their proposals for a smaller pandemic bill, Biden rejected it, saying the $618 billion offer was too small.
The bill is on track to pass the House by the end of this week and the Senate by the end of next week. But Democrats aren't expecting to get a single Republican vote in the Senate for the package so they will use a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation to win Senate passage without the threat of a filibuster, and that will even widen the divide with Congress.
While Biden has been singularly focused on the pandemic relief bill, he also has moved into an area where as a former senator and vice-president he is steeped in policy experience — foreign affairs. He has pledged to reinvest in alliances and diplomacy and emphasized democratic values.
On Feb 19, in a virtual address to the Munich Security Conference from the White House, Biden said: "I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship. But the United States is determined to reengage with Europe."
Before delivering his remarks, Biden met earlier over video conference with the leaders of the G7, the group of nations that includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US, to discuss a global response to the pandemic. The session also marked the US' official return to the Paris climate accord, 30 days after Biden announced he would reenter the US in the pact on his first day in office.
In a joint statement following that meeting, the G7 vowed to "work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism".
The G7 meeting touched on China as well, according to the statement. "With the aim of supporting a fair and mutually beneficial global economic system for all people, we will engage with others, especially G20 countries including large economies such as China," it said.