In his first joint address to Congress, President Joe Biden set out to sell one of the most liberal agendas in generations with nods to the bipartisanship that he and anyone around him insist has been his brand for more than 40 years.
But this speech was by no means a plea for unity.
While Biden’s first address was light on brand-new policies and surprise announcements, he anchored the new administration in a populist sales pitch, advocating for passage of his twin trillion-dollar spending plans: the American Jobs plan—an infrastructure bill that Biden called “the largest jobs plan since World War II”—and the just-introduced American Families Plan, which would guarantee four years of additional public education to every American.
“The American Jobs Plan will create millions of good paying jobs—jobs Americans can raise their families on,” Biden said.
A presidential address before a joint session of Congress is the best chance for the leader of the free world to get a “mic drop” moment, announcing a major policy proposal with the largest possible audience. President Barack Obama announced a “cancer moonshot.” President George W. Bush tied Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to the fight against global terrorism in his “axis of evil” speech. President Lyndon Johnson launched a “War on Poverty.”
Biden’s proposals were just as far-reaching; he just didn’t give his agenda a grand moniker. The address—delivered in a quiet voice to a largely empty room—instead was front-loaded with domestic proposals that are, at least according to polling, widely popular among American voters: infrastructure, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, paid family leave for every new parent. It was only later in Biden’s remarks that he touched on more sensitive issues like police reform and the insurrection at the Capitol.
Biden nodded to some key wish-list items for progressive Democrats in his remarks that did not make the cut in the infrastructure and families legislation, including negotiating prescription drug prices. But the remarks attempted to shield Biden from the Republican accusation that he’s beholden to the more left-wing members of his party.
“Sometimes I have arguments with my friends in the Democratic Party—I think you should be able to become a billionaire and a millionaire,” Biden said, in a line that was not in his prepared remarks. “But pay your fair share.”
The speech was not without victory laps, particularly on the pandemic, which was raging as Biden took the reins of the federal government in January.
Within the first few minutes of his address, Biden claimed credit for the “dose of hope” that COVID vaccines have offered Americans, suggesting he “inherited a nation in crisis” from former President Trump.
“The worst pandemic in a century,” Biden said. “The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.”
He noted that when he was sworn in, less than 1 percent of seniors were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, 100 days later, nearly 70 percent of seniors are fully protected. And 220 million people have received at least one shot.
But he suggested there is more work to be done on the economy, the nation’s aging infrastructure system, the crisis of climate change, and racial injustice.
Those are all easier to address in a speech, however, than in reality.
On the economy, Biden touted his “American Jobs Plan” as a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself.” He said it would help millions of people get back to work and rebuild the nation’s outdated infrastructure. And he claimed that nearly 90 percent of the jobs created by his plan wouldn’t require a college degree.
“The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said.
His infrastructure plan though is still far from final passage—if it ever does pass. And in the meantime, more than 9 million people in the United States are still unemployed.
On climate change, Biden also pointed to his infrastructure plan, saying his blueprint would put engineers and construction workers in jobs to build more energy efficient buildings and homes, electricians in jobs installing 500,000 vehicle charging stations along the nation’s highways, and farmers planting cover crops that would reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“And all the investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle,” Biden said. “Buy American.”
But again, there are a number of difficult issues for Democrats to sort out in Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan—even if they don’t need a single GOP vote to pass it using the special reconciliation process. Democrats are divided on certain tax raises that Biden has proposed to partly pay for the program, and individual members have a number of pet issues they want addressed in particular ways.
On racial justice, Biden name-checked George Floyd and called on the Senate to approve policing reforms that have already passed the House.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said Wednesday night. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”
However, other than imploring congressional Democrats to “find a consensus” with congressional Republicans— as well as imploring Americans to “rebuild trust with law enforcement” and “root out systemic racism in the criminal justice system”—Biden didn’t seem to offer any real breakthroughs on an issue that continues to fracture the nation.
The president’s bipartisan brand was cultivated over decades in the Senate working with Republicans. It was further burnished during his two terms as vice president when he took over fiscal cliff negotiations and allowed the GOP to make large tax cuts permanent. And even as congressional Republicans called Biden out for not actually working with them on a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, the American people perceived Biden’s plan as bipartisan. More than 40 percent of Republicans supported the measure.
As Biden pushes ahead with another partisan proposal—this time, his infrastructure plan—the president and his advisers are counting on Joe’s bipartisan and blue collar image to get the bill to his desk.
Unlike the usually packed House floor and gallery for a president’s first joint address, Biden’s speech Wednesday night was delivered to a drastically reduced crowd of about 200 in the chamber. It looked more like the audience for a spirited House debate than a State of the Union. (Technically, the president’s first joint address is not considered a State of the Union, which the president is constitutionally obligated to deliver “from time to time.”)
The speech comes more than two months later than incoming presidents traditionally make their first remarks to a joint session of Congress, a delay which the White House blamed on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the inherent challenges of planning a large indoor event during the early days of the administration.
Biden opened his remarks by commenting on the unusual nature of Wednesday night’s proceedings—proceedings that he had watched in-person 36 times over his decades in the U.S. Senate and eight times as vice president.
“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is very different,” Biden said, “a reminder of the extraordinary times we are in.”
COVID restrictions substantially limited who could attend Biden’s address, with only 30 senators, 40 House members, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the dean of the diplomatic corps, and about 30 staffers allowed on the floor. The usually packed House gallery was instead sparsely filled with about 60 additional senators and representatives.
Restrictions also required those attending to refrain from handshakes or fist-bumps, although attendees seated on the center aisle of the House Chamber—informally known as “Ass-Kissers’ Alley” during State of the Union addresses by dint of members trying to get a moment of face time with the president—largely flouted that rule as Biden walked past.
A seat in the House chamber during a presidential address would ordinarily be one of the hottest tickets in town, but congressional Republicans were conspicuously uninterested in Biden’s speech—with many of them delivering ‘I have to wash my hair’-type excuses.
Rep. Greg Pence (R-IN), brother of former vice president Mike Pence who accused Biden of not offering “one iota of bipartisan collaboration,” begged off for a Lincoln Day dinner. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), one of many Republicans who has attacked Biden for a “lack of bipartisanship” in pushing his infrastructure and tax plans, cited plans in her district. (Those plans apparently included livetweeting the address and implying that Biden didn’t usually stay up this late). Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), who promised in his most recent reelection campaign to “be a bipartisan legislator,” said he’d already made plans.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), at least, was more straightforward about his opposition to attending the address, despite calling for “compromise and bipartisanship” in passing legislation last month. “Ha,” he told Punchbowl last week as he boarded an elevator. “No comment.”
Of the Republicans who did show up, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was perhaps the most interested in making a splash. At one point during the speech, she loudly unfolded a thermal space blanket and draped it over her lap. No one seemed to pay much attention to the stunt.
Biden himself made a point of staying on the floor of the House Chamber for close to 15 minutes after the address, meeting with as many members in attendance as would have him.
Only three Republicans joined him.