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Ex-presidents club (mostly) comes together to encourage vaccinations

Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are appearing in ads as part of an effort to persuade people to get vaccinated.
Then-President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center April 25, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.
President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on April 25, 2013.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The exclusive club of former presidents — minus its most recently inducted member — is featured in two national ad campaigns released Thursday that are aimed at building confidence among Americans in the coronavirus vaccines, according to copies of the videos provided to NBC News.

One of the spots, which runs a minute long, shows images of former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, being vaccinated.

"In order to get rid of this pandemic, it's important for our fellow citizens to get vaccinated," Bush says, adding later: "So roll up your sleeve and do your part."

The other, a 30-second video, features Clinton, Bush and Obama during President Joe Biden's inauguration in January, talking outside at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Obama says the vaccines are the "first step to ending the pandemic and moving our country forward."

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Former President Donald Trump and former first lady Melania Trump are not part of the campaign. The Trumps were vaccinated before the former president left office in January. Trump did not allow any official images to be taken of him being vaccinated, a person familiar with the matter said, and he has shown no interest in being an active part of the elite club of his living predecessors.

Trump's office declined to comment.

Clinton, Bush and Obama were quietly vaccinated weeks ago and offered the images for the campaign facilitated by the Ad Council, an organization that coordinates public service announcements, and the COVID Collaborative, a group of health, education and economic experts, people familiar with the effort said. Clinton, Bush and Obama had offered in December to get their vaccine shots publicly once they were eligible. Carter's office announced last month that he had been vaccinated.

The images were saved for release Thursday, which coincides with Biden's plans to mark one year since the country began shutting down because of the virus. The spots are scheduled to air on national and local television stations across the country and on digital and social media platforms.

Both public service announcements, which are not affiliated with the Biden administration — they were put together by the Ad Council and the COVID Collaborative — begin with the presidents noting that Covid-19 vaccines are available to millions of Americans and that they will soon be available to everyone.

In the longer one, each of the presidents talks about what he wants to get back to once the pandemic is under control. For Clinton, that's to "go back to work" and "to be able to move around." Obama says he wants to hug his mother-in-law and see her on her birthday. And Bush says he's looking forward to going to Opening Day in a fully packed Texas Rangers stadium.

"This is our shot," Clinton says after images of him and his wife being vaccinated are shown.

"Now it's up to you," Carter adds as an image of him smiling and holding up his vaccination record card is shown.

The former presidents stress that the vaccines are safe and urge Americans to get vaccinated as soon as doses become available to them.

"The science is clear," Bush says in the 30-second spot. "These vaccines will protect you and those you love from this dangerous and deadly disease."

"They could save your life," Clinton adds.

The spots are not part of the White House's much-anticipated national campaign to combat vaccine hesitance, which is expected to be unveiled this month, but once that effort is rolled out, the former presidents could help the administration convince skeptical Americans that the three vaccines available in the U.S. are safe, people familiar with the discussions said.

A spokesperson for Obama, for instance, said he "looks forward to publicly promoting the vaccine, taking his cues from the administration about what would be most helpful and when."

Biden administration officials have said they are reluctant to roll out the campaign until the vaccines are more available across the country, a benchmark that appears to be nearing.

Biden, who has said there will be enough vaccine doses for all eligible Americans by the end of May, made a point to publicize his receiving a vaccine shot during the transition, as did Vice President Kamala Harris.

So far the Biden administration has launched vaccine awareness efforts targeted at specific communities that have been skeptical of the vaccines. They include African Americans, Latinos, rural residents and military families.

The absence of Trump as part of the past presidents' effort disappointed some vaccine cheerleaders, given the high rate of hesitance among his supporters. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans say they will "definitely not" get vaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Trump urged Americans to be vaccinated during recent remarks at a Republican conference, but he has not made a broad push for it.

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Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House Covid-19 response team, declined to say Friday whether the administration has reached out to Trump about vaccine awareness. "We're glad that everybody who has taken the vaccine is talking about it, including him," Slavitt said of Trump.

Former Vice President Mike Pence was vaccinated live in front of the media. His team has made the video available for use in any future public service announcements, and "he'd be happy to participate in other opportunities if asked," a spokesman said.

The administration's vaccine confidence campaign is expected to include a national message, coupled with detailed, targeted efforts aimed at those who are most vulnerable to the virus or have a high prevalence of vaccine hesitance.