But he sought to project a guarded optimism. “We’re making this progress because of all of you,” Biden said, flanked by a dozen local and federal workers who had been administering vaccines. “I want to show the American people the extraordinary effort being made.”
To a group of emergency relief workers, Biden said, “Folks, they’re doing God’s work, as my mother would say.” And he adopted a tone of unity amid a natural disaster, noting that he was traveling in the company of Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn.
“They’re conservative Republicans, and I’m a Democratic president,” Biden said. “We disagree on plenty of things; there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are plenty of things we can work on together, and one of them is represented right here today — the effort to speed up vaccinations.”
It was in a sense the most traditional of presidential activities: visiting a disaster area to offer reassurance. But it unfolded in the most nontraditional of moments, when presidential travel has been sharply curtailed and most interactions take place from a distance and through masks.
Biden has made empathy a centerpiece of his political brand, and he campaigned as a potential healer in chief who would bring compassion and civility back to the office of the president. But in his first weeks on the job, he has balanced that with routine boasts about what he has achieved.
As Biden flew to Houston, for example, his administration touted an accelerated pace of vaccinations along with a declining rate of deaths and infections. The White House also announced that it had helped to create or expand 441 federally funded vaccination centers. The day before, the president announced that 50 million Americans had received vaccination shots.
But more than all of that, this week Biden has tried to honor the dead and to comfort the living.
It represented a distinct shift from his predecessor, Donald Trump. The enduring image of Trump in a disaster area was when, following Hurricane Maria in 2017, he tossed rolls of paper towels to a crowd in Puerto Rico. At other times, Trump blasted Democratic leaders of cities and territories that had endured natural disasters, saying the problems were exacerbated by corruption and mismanagement and even threatening to withhold aid to states like California because of their political leanings.
Biden at first appeared to take a low-key approach to touting the government’s response to the winter storm, possibly trying to create a contrast with his predecessor’s often politicized response to disasters. But in recent days, he has focused more public attention on the tragedy.
On Friday, Biden traveled through Houston with Abbott, surveying the largest city in a state that was declared a major disaster area after last week’s storm caused power outages that knocked out electricity to millions.
Dozens died, including people poisoned by carbon monoxide as they tried to heat their homes and a boy who authorities believe froze to death while sleeping in his bed.
The storms also strained aid agencies that were already reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
“We’re here to help,” Biden said as he joined volunteers packing bags of food for the Houston Food Bank’s Backpack Buddy Program, which helps feed hungry children. “So put us to work!”
Texas’s other senator, Republican Ted Cruz, did not accompany Biden, since he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. Cruz had faced heavy criticism for traveling to Cancún, Mexico, in the storm’s aftermath, and Friday he made light of the episode at the conference.
“Orlando is awesome,” Cruz joked. “It’s not as nice as Cancún, but it’s nice.”
Later, Biden also toured a mass vaccination center at NRG Stadium, where the Houston Texans football team plays. The center opened Tuesday and can vaccinate up to 6,000 people a day, a prelude to mass vaccination sites in other cities, including two in Texas.
The day’s events unfolded as the nation is about to enter its second socially distanced year. Biden’s team said he was eager to come to Texas and conceded that he missed regular interactions with constituents.
Before the pandemic, Biden was known to linger for hours after campaign events, conversing with people who had come to see him. He sometimes collected their phone numbers or offered his own contact information, particularly if they had connected over a story of loss.
He often choked up as he talked about the death of his oldest son, Beau, and forged a campaign trail friendship with Brayden Harrington, a boy with a stutter, noting that he had overcome his own childhood speech impediment.
Biden also met with the family of George Floyd, the Black man whose death at the hands of the Minneapolis police ignited angry protests across the country and calls to end systemic racism.
But Biden’s personal touch was muted after he grounded his campaign in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, which turned large rallies into potential superspreader events and made people think twice about close interactions.
Biden, who in his late 70s faces a higher risk of suffering some of the worst symptoms of the coronavirus, turned his basement into a television studio, conducting TV interviews and making speeches from there. He traveled minimally — often to other parts of Delaware, his home state.
That decreased travel has continued into Biden’s presidency, making it a rarity in this age of near-constant presidential travel. All but two of his official trips in the first month of his presidency were in the D.C. area. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has been strategic about travel because a presidential visit can strain local resources, especially officials who are dealing with a widespread disaster response.
On Friday’s trip, Biden also reiterated his message of bipartisanship, though some Republicans have complained that he honors the concept more in his words than his deeds.
“We’re not here today as Democrats or Republicans. We’re here today as Americans,” the president said. “And when a crisis hits our states like the one in Texas, it’s not a Republican or Democrat who’s hurting, it’s our fellow Americans who are hurting. And it’s our job to help everyone in need.”
Overall this week, Biden has tried to project that he empathizes with the struggles of Americans, even if most Americans see those words through television, phone and computer screens.
As he memorialized Americans who had died of covid-19 Monday, he reflected on his own tragedies. His wife and baby daughter were killed in 1972 when their station wagon was broadsided by a truck as they were shopping for a Christmas tree. Biden’s two sons were seriously injured.
His younger son, Hunter, has struggled with substance abuse for much of his adult life. Beau died when his father was vice president.
On Monday, Biden touched on one of the crueller features of the coronavirus, the fact that it forces people to be apart from their loved ones when they are dying of the disease.
“I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens,” Biden said. “I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands, as they look in your eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it.”
Seung Min Kim contributed from Washington to this report.