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The Lessons of One of the Worst Years in American Life

His goal, his chief of staff, Ron Klain, said in an interview, is “laying up the next steps in this rescue and what, now that we’ve got this bill passed, are we really going to do in the coming months to get back toward a more normal way of life in this country.”

All of Mr. Biden’s instincts tell him that declaring a move to recovery too soon carries dangers. It would signal that states could follow the example of Texas, eliminating mask mandates, opening restaurants and bars too quickly, and making themselves vulnerable to a resurgence — what Mr. Biden called “Neanderthal thinking.”

He said as much in the speech, arguing, “This is not the time to let up.”

“We need everyone to get vaccinated,” he said, an unspoken recognition that soon there may be more supply than willing takers. “Keep wearing a mask,” because “beating this virus and getting back to normal depends on national unity.”

Though Mr. Biden made no mention of it, his top cabinet members have emphasized that even eliminating the virus at home is not enough. As his secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said last month, “Unless and until everyone in the world is vaccinated, then no one is really fully safe, because if the virus is out there and continuing to proliferate, it’s also going to be mutating.”

“And if it’s mutating,” he added, “it’s also going to come back and bite people everywhere.”

But the subtext of Mr. Biden’s message on Thursday evening, was that for the first time, people can begin to imagine a post-Covid world. After a year behind closed doors, the government can start to think about managing the virus to the point where it does not drive every policy decision, and families can find a way to go to dinner, or visit grandparents, without wondering whether it is a life-or-death decision.

All of which raises the question of what will be permanently changed and what, when the history of this national trauma is written, will prove recoverable. And what will the country have learned?

The past provides a mixed guide. There were too few lessons gleaned from the 1918 pandemic, an event that most history books overlooked, and that many Americans first heard about in any detail a century later, when it returned to afflict the nation in a different form. But in 1918, as in 2020, the president’s instinct was to play down its severity, invoking the odd logic that Americans would be dispirited by the truth even as their family and friends succumbed around them.