The setting was only mildly traditional for a first presidential address to a joint session of Congress: 200 listeners in the House chamber instead of the usual 1,600. The galleries were empty, and the First Lady was seated on the House floor. The ceremonial entrance of the president, which is often a long time-consuming procession with handshakes and hugs, was a brisk walk to the podium with a few fist bumps. There was certainly nothing traditional about the two women standing behind the president, as vice-president and Speaker of the House.
But the structure of Joe Biden’s speech did follow the formula of many past addresses to Congress, and by Biden standards, it was well-delivered. He stuck mostly to his prepared remarks, adding a few flourishes. Here were some highlights:
Biden immediately said that “America is on the move again … choosing hope over fear, truth over lies, and light over darkness.” That was as close as he came to a blunt reference to the presidency he ended on January 20.
He kept the bragging tightly limited to the administration accomplishments on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing the associated micro- and macroeconomic needs. It was basically a retroactive sales pitch for the American Rescue Plan. There were a few hortatory lines about vaccinations, including the quote from the Arizona nurse saying: “Every shot is like giving a dose of hope.”
The big pitch for his jobs and families plans
Very quickly, Biden got into the agenda he expects Congress to tackle in the weeks and months ahead, and which will likely be moved by the Democrats-only budget reconciliation process (though an infrastructure deal with Republicans remains possible).
What was most unmistakeable about this entire presentation was its relentless framing as practical and patriotic relief for low-to-middle-class Americans. He posited “Buy American” as a central principle of his economic policy, regularly came back to economic challenges from China, and delivered what were certainly poll-verified descriptions of the beneficiaries of his proposals:
Independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic growth for years to come.
These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree.
75% do not require an associate’s degree.
The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America.
This was a well-crafted pitch aimed right at the heart of the GOP’s white working-class constituency. But there was plenty for Democrats, too: an emphasis on the economic plight of women, and plenty of numbers about the beneficiaries of his plans:
[T]he American Families Plan puts money directly into the pockets of millions of families.
In March we expanded a tax credit for every child in a family.
Up to a $3,000 Child Tax Credit for children over 6 — and $3,600 for children under 6.
With two parents, two kids, that’s up to $7,200 in your pocket to help take care of your family.
This will help more than 65 million children and help cut child poverty in half this year.
And it was probably the most explicitly pro-union speech a president has given in many decades: “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class.” He gave the PRO Act, which Republicans and their business constituencies bitterly oppose, a nice shout-out, and added a reference to the IBEW in touting his plans for electrical charging stations on highways.
The economic populist thematics were just as notable in the “broccoli” part of the American Families Plan as in the “dessert.” The tax plan will be criticized by Republicans as “class warfare,” because it really and proudly is: “It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest one percent of Americans to pay their fair share.”
There was a lot of partisanship implied, but almost never expressed. He said something positive about Republican infrastructure proposals, and nothing negative about the Republican obstruction that is the obsessive focus of his and his party’s legislative strategy. It was as though the 45th president had been just a bad nightmare.
The less popular things
In the tradition of such addresses, Biden eventually covered the waterfront of issues. But the placement of topics very clearly reflect public opinion, and likely Biden’s priorities:
Two issues on which he made a rare reference to the GOP were gun safety and immigration, where he quite accurately called out Republicans for obstructing legislation popular with voters from both parties. But while scoring some points, you didn’t get the sense he thinks anything will change, with the possible exception of relief for Dreamers, which many Republicans in theory support. Given the timing of the speech, so soon after the Derek Chauvin trial, it was unsurprising that a pitch for police reform sounded a bit more optimistic, and Biden was careful to identify with the conviction of so many Black Americans that the verdict in that trial was just a starting point.
His quick shout-out to transgender Americans was wonderful. But his very slight attention to voting rights was troubling, given its importance not just to Democratic constituencies but to the electoral prospects of his party.
From the point of view of traditional presidential addresses, the foreign-policy sections were unusual. His main reference to national defense was to call an end to the Afghanistan War far overdue. Other foreign-policy subtopics were climate change and trade, with the latter subject bringing forth some additional warnings toward China. And then there was this amazing sentence: “The investments I’ve proposed tonight also advance a foreign policy that benefits the middle class.” Here as elsewhere Biden never strayed far from a love song to the middle class that probably had focus groups nodding approvingly.
A workmanlike speech
Biden added another note of implied partisanship in his altar call when he reminded listeners of the Capitol riot and the threat to democracy it represented. But beyond that, his entire speech was one long, implied contrast with his predecessor, short on thunder and lightning but very clear on policy priorities and relatively light on exaggerations, much less the smorgasbord of lies offered in Trump utterances long and short. Like Biden himself, it was solid and workmanlike, and he managed to make you forget now and then the unusual setting and the bitterness of the last election. I’m sure it was an effort he’s glad to get behind him, so that he can return to the task of quietly turning the federal government 180 degrees.