JOE BIDEN’s first address before a joint session of Congress will make history on a few different fronts: He’ll deliver a speech more than a year into the pandemic with the smallest audience in recent memory and a backdrop of two women sitting behind a president for the first time.
His prime-time speech on Wednesday night comes together after a months-long delay in order to safely convene but now coincides almost exactly with his 100th day in office – a symbolic marker the administration has used to set certain benchmarks as it pertains to defeating the coronavirus and fulfilling campaign promises either through legislation or executive order.
But the unprecedented and unusual nature of the rite of passage for nascent presidencies reflects the moment America is in as it confronts multiple crises, an increasingly polarized electorate and slow but steady efforts toward social progress and equity.
Biden will likely strike a similar tone to his inaugural address and again call for bipartisanship at a politically fraught time but his maiden address to Congress serves several other purposes, including a chance to take a victory lap to tout passing the American Rescue Plan and administering more than 200,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccinations within the first 100 days.
And he’s capping off his first few months with higher and steadier approval ratings than his predecessor.
But he’s also likely to use the spotlight to sell top proposals, like his infrastructure jobs plan and newly released domestic programs, and convince lawmakers – both in the room and watching virtually – that the government should keep spending trillions of dollars to transform the country. Biden and lawmakers are currently in negotiations over a $2.1 trillion proposal that goes beyond the traditional scope of infrastructure. And hours before the speech, his White House released details of his American Families Plan to greatly expand education and social welfare programs.
Since taking office, Biden has used speeches to elevate pivotal moments in the country and is expected to do that again Wednesday when he’ll address policing reform and the growing number of Black people who have died at the hands of police since former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd last year.
“While the major policy announcement in the speech is, of course, the American Families Plan, a historic investment in education and child care, he will also use the speech as an opportunity to talk about many of his other priorities, including police reform, immigration, gun safety, his ongoing work to get the pandemic under control, and to putting Americans back to work,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Tuesday’s press briefing.
Normally, around 1,600 people are packed into the House chamber to listen to presidential addresses – lawmakers, their guests, Cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court justices.
A president typically speaks about a month into taking office, but the invitation for Biden to address Congress was delayed until it was safer to accommodate larger crowds indoors.
But because of limitations, mostly due to COVID-19 and some heightened security measures, the in-person crowd will be capped at 200. Washington is still reeling months after mobs breached the Capitol with noticeable changes: an inner fence that still surrounds the building, members of the National Guard stationed around the complex and the immediate area.
This year, the raucous and rowdy audience will likely be more muted – as well as the theatrics of both parties. The party in power usually gives rounds of thunderous applause and standing ovations when a president highlights accomplishments and goals. And the minority sometimes finds subtle ways to protest.
Biden will still have some pomp and circumstance as he’s escorted into the chamber. But the downsized audience and transition to mostly virtual watchers could change the dynamics and reactions in the room and how the speech is perceived by millions.
But perhaps what will ultimately be more consequential on Wednesday is not the speech itself but the imagery of the night.
Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California will be seated behind Biden wearing masks and become the first two women in history to share the dais with the president. Biden is expected to recognize the historic moment in a nod to government better reflecting the makeup of the country and installing more women and people of color at the helm.
Harris has attended joint addresses and State of the Union speeches as an audience member when she was a U.S. senator. But Pelosi is a familiar fixture on the dais during her two tenures as speaker – and previously sharing it with Biden himself during the Obama administration.
Pelosi made headlines at former President Donald Trump’s final State of the Union address last year when she shredded a paper copy of the speech on-camera following his remarks.
Aside from Biden’s backdrop, the audience seated before him will also look notably different with a much thinner GOP presence. Many Republicans have opted not to attend because of seating limitations and are opting to watch remotely so some newer members can have the in-person experience.
Republicans on Tuesday preemptively hit Biden over his repeated vows for bipartisanship as they seek to paint him as an extremist who takes his cues from the left wing of his party. Democrats ultimately advanced additional coronavirus relief through special budget rules that allowed them to pass it with a simple majority vote and no GOP support.
But Biden and his team have met multiple times with Republicans to try and find compromise on infrastructure, though the gulf between the parties remains large since the GOP counter offer is a significantly reduced version of the American Jobs Plan. Winning over 10 Senate Republicans to pass infrastructure reform through regular order will still be a herculean task for Democrats.
“I was inclined to believe him when he made his inaugural speech, but we have not seen any evidence of that in the way that he has governed,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “So far, it’s been one-party rule on pretty much everything that they’ve tried to do.”
After Biden’s speech, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone Black Republican in the upper chamber, will deliver the GOP response.
As the GOP grapples with its post-Trump identity and internal power struggles, the party chose someone for the rebuttal who’s well-liked by the former president – though not a steadfast ally – and a respected member on both sides of the aisle that hews more closely to the center.
Scott, who has publicly detailed his firsthand experience with racism as an elected officeholder, is taking the lead for Republicans in negotiations over police reform as Congress seeks to redefine policing in America and test whether it can again find bipartisan consensus after passing narrow hate crime legislation in the wake of increased attacks on Asian Americans.
But persuading Republicans to work with Democrats isn’t Biden’s sole objective on Wednesday night. The president will also need to keep progressives happy and show that he’s serious in addressing key issues like climate change and immigration.
So far, progressives and Biden have had a healthy working relationship and have applauded him on his swift action on coronavirus aid. But they warn of slowing down the pace to try and accommodate Republicans whom progressives believe will never budge or be serious negotiators.
The left of the party has gotten particularly frustrated with the White House response to the influx of migrants, particularly children, arriving at the southern border and the mixed messaging over raising the cap on the number of refugees who can enter the country. The issue has put Biden on the defensive as his party pushes for the prioritization of comprehensive immigration, including a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
“A decisive blow has been struck against COVID, but a laundry list of open items remains,” according to a memo from several progressive organizations like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement.
“The longer bipartisan political theater supplants substantive progress on the crises facing America, the worse off the country will be, and the likelier it is that voters sour on Democrats by the time next fall rolls around.”
- US News