“Good to be back!” were the first words from Joe Biden tonight in his first address to a joint session of Congress, sort of.
This probably wasn’t the exuberant address to Congress that the creature of Congress thought he’d be giving when he first announced he was running for president for the third time in 2019. Yet, on the eve of his 100th day in office, a big government boosting Biden, to paraphrase ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, took to the moment he has been handed, not the one he might have wanted or wished to have.
“In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us, in America, we do our part,” Biden proclaimed added the end of the just over one hour speech. “That’s all I’m asking. That we all do our part.”
Seeing the crises of the last few years as an opportunity to take the reins on a historical cycle, Joe Biden was all about doing his part in what a pivotal 99th day in his administration.
Entering wearing a mask and speaking to sparsely attended and echo filled House of Representatives chamber, the once long serving Senator from Delaware fist bumped with both his former primary rival Bernie Sanders and the GOP’s Rep Liz Cheney as he walked to the podium. Behind him were two women who have made history — Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, America’s first female Speaker of the House and the first female Vice President of the United States.
Undoubtedly taking the old adage of ‘proper preparation prevents poor performance’ to political heart the past few weeks, the 46th President of the United States today lamented that when he took office “America’s house was on fire” and now declared “I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.”
Adhering to Covid safety protocols in what was likely a fully vaccinated room, Biden faced a select and socially distanced crowd of 200 on Wednesday. That’s way down from the audience of 1,600 that his predecessors have faced for such occasions. The maskless Biden also spoke before First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, an array of elected officials, a duo of cabinet members and Chief Justice John Roberts.
It could have been a hard crowd.
One of the last true retail politicians around, the 78-year old Commander in Chief has never been much of a big room orator, even in a scant filled House chamber. Still, despite a slight return of his well-known stutter, Biden sold his big bucks agenda by raising his voice when he had to, lowering it to a near whisper when he wanted to, and leaning in to the camera’s lens when he needed to emphasize a point.
Still, stage managed to the nearest media inch, even with a number of ad libs, and with all the hallmarks of an unmentioned victory lap as well as the launching of a crusade, Wednesday’s speech was far reaching in its goals.
“He’s like LBJ, without the cursing,” MSNBC’s Joy Reid correctly noted earlier in the day. “I’m going to give you government you can see and touch,” Reid added in a summation of the Biden agenda.
Pushed by the coronavirus pandemic, plus the economic and social crisis’ in the nation, Biden went from openly calling himself a transition figure during the campaign, to a transformative figure embracing a big chunk of progressive populism.
“In our first 100 Days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver,” he said, in an effort to show that his agenda enjoys popular support across party lines, even if Republicans in Congress are not on board.
“We’re vaccinating the nation. We’re creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results people can see and feel in their own lives. Opening the doors of opportunity. Guaranteeing fairness and justice. That’s the essence of America. That’s democracy in action.”
Having begun to shift the DC dynamic of the last 40 years with the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through a thread thin and VP enhanced majority in the Senate, Biden is not turning to an infrastructure-focused American Jobs Plan and the wide ranging American Families Plan next. Coming in at around $2 trillion and $1.8 trillion respectively, the unequivocally ambitious proposals are set to be paid for by tax hikes on the rich, long a progressive priority with strong support in polls.
Given the upheaval of the past year, including the pandemic, a racial reckoning, economic turbulence and the Capitol insurrection, Biden’s speech also was a look forward past the crises.
Aiming for the Greater Society, so to speak, the man first elected to the Senate when LBJ was still alive pledged to end cancer as we know it, fix immigration, embrace Dreamers, reinvigorated the fight against violence against women, and tackle discrimination against African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and LGBTQ Americans. “To all the transgender Americans watching at home – especially the young people who are so brave – I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said.
Parts of his speech could have been crafted by Aaron Sorkin, as Biden went through a list of ideals out of The West Wing: Ending child poverty and gun violence, rethreading the social safety net, asserting American power overseas but ending the nation’s involvement in Afghanistan, expanding health care, fighting climate change, rebuilding roads and schools and more.
Unlike his old boss and unmentioned Barack Obama, and before him, Bill Clinton, the current Democrat in the White House was as unapologetic in his pitch as a Jed Bartlet or Andrew Shepherd in full flight. Sen. Tim Scott called it all “a Washington power grab” in his rebuttal for the GOP. A nice line, but the South Carolinian seemed to be fighting a battle that the other army had already planted a flag on and left behind.
Not formally a State of the Union, Biden’s remarks tonight were covered live on all the broadcasters, all the cabler newers, C-SPAN, BBC America, Univision, Telemundo and others, as well as online.
Of course, as one would expect in a democracy, not everyone was on the same page.
In the immediate moments before the President entered the chamber, Fox News rallied their target market with another attack on his remaining son and Tucker Carlson firing up the conservative base. If that message was missed, the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel had “Other Networks love Joe; Ignore Hunter Scandals” on its lower third of the screen.
Bolstered by strong-ish poll numbers, Biden has more than the network’s love, and he clearly wanted to use tonight to turn that into political muscle before next year’s midterms.
In a call to arms and action speech about “winning the 21st century,” ex-legislator Biden praised the assembled and absent “all of you” for helping to turn things around from the chaos and reality denying of the previous administration. Even Texas’ perpetual presidential hopeful and sometimes sleepy Ted Cruz stood and applauded Biden’s call for more Americans to get vaccinated. Though as soon as he was on Fox, Cruz typically raged against the “radicals and socialism” of Biden’s speech.
On Thursday, Biden will hit the road in the traditional sales jobs following such a speech, including visits to the political King’s Landing of Georgia and Pennsylvania, the state of his birth. Often mocked during the Obama years for his gaffes and long winded remarks, a pointed Biden this evening looked like he was in his element — literally, as he would say.
After the speech was over, Biden hung back to chat up members of both parties and clearly relishing it.
In that context, tonight’s address to select members of Congress may not have been the speech that Joe Biden, circa 2019, thought he would deliver. In a world that has changed dramatically, it was a bet that it was the one Americans wanted to hear.