Five takeaways from Biden’s address to Congress
President Biden gave his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, the eve of his 100th day in power.
It was one of the biggest moments of Biden’s presidency so far, even as his remarks were delivered to a sparsely populated House chamber because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Here are five big takeaways from Biden’s address.
A calm case for big action
Biden is proposing huge measures. But he does so with a calmness and moderation of rhetoric that seeks the support of centrist voters — and makes him a slippery target for Republicans.
Having already passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief program, Biden is now pushing for around $4 trillion more in spending on traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and social infrastructure such as better child care, paid leave and cheaper college.
If Biden were to succeed in what he is aiming to do — something that will be a tough climb given his party’s razor-thin congressional majorities — he would remodel American society on a bigger scale than any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.
But Biden prides himself on his connection with the middle class, and the language he uses to push his proposals has none of the fiery radicalism of figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Biden is pressing for higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for some of his proposals. But he emphasized he didn’t want “to punish anyone” with high taxes, insisting that he was only seeking to get the well-off to pay their “fair share.”
The doctrine of “trickle down economics” favored by Republicans since President Reagan’s time has “never worked,” Biden said. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out.”
He took a similar approach on other hot-button issues. He couched a push for immigration reform as an imperative to end an “exhausting war” on the topic. He called for tighter gun controls, saying that he was not “changing the Constitution” but “no Amendment to the Constitution is absolute.”
More broadly, Biden cast his economic proposals in patriotic terms, suggesting they were necessary if America is to fend off global competitors.
Biden’s measured style is one of his biggest political assets, particularly in such an intense time. That skill was on full display again on Wednesday.
Pictures spoke a thousand words
There were two standout images from the president’s address.
One was the rows of empty seats in the House chamber. Only 200 guests were permitted because of the pandemic, rather than the usual 1,600 who attend.
When Biden entered the chamber, he at times almost had to search for senators and congressmen to greet.
The state of the chamber was a reminder of what strange times the nation is living through, even as Biden took something of a victory lap regarding the pace of the COVID-19 vaccination process.
The other key visual was a more positive one. Biden’s address was the first of its kind where a president was joined on the podium by two women — Vice President Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Biden began his remarks by acknowledging the historic first.
“Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President — no president has ever said those words from this podium. And it’s about time,” he said.
The barely mentioned elephant in the room
Biden made almost no direct references to former President Trump during his address.
His predecessor was alluded to in reference to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that saw Trump supporters try to ransack the very chamber in which Biden spoke.
Biden noted that when he took office the nation was reeling, not just from the pandemic but from “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
But the former president was not named, and Biden’s remarks included notably few references even to the Trump administration’s record.
This is consistent with Biden’s desire to turn the volume down after the cacophonous Trump years.
Peace will not reign just yet, however — Trump is scheduled to respond to Biden’s speech in an interview with Fox Business Network on Thursday morning.
The big idea — a test of democracy
Wednesday’s speech proposed plenty of action, but it was only in its later stages that Biden enunciated a big idea to wrap it together.
America has “to prove that democracy works,” he said.
He has made this argument before, particularly in relation to the specter of China. In Biden’s view, countries like China — and, albeit less powerfully, Vladimir Putin’s Russia — are betting that autocracy can win the future by blasting ahead while Western democracies struggle with polarization and dysfunction.
Right now, Americans have more pressing concerns than a grand debate over differing world views, but this passage of Biden’s speech was at least an attempt to articulate a bigger theme.
Biden proves elusive target for GOP
Republicans have struggled to get traction against Biden, and nothing he said Wednesday made their job any easier.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) gave the official GOP response and sought to paint Biden as someone advancing an agenda “pulling us further and further apart.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) described the speech as “boring but radical,” according to NBC News reporters.
The dichotomy in Cruz’s words is difficult to make stick.
It gets back to the same problem that Trump had during last year’s campaign, trying to cast Biden simultaneously as an aging, enfeebled figure and a secret radical.
Biden’s approval ratings suggest that, for now at least, most Americans see plenty to like and not much to dislike in him.
Adverse circumstances could obviously change those views. But Republican attacks, so far, have not.