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Five takeaways from Biden's address to Congress

President BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE 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.

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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 SandersBernie SandersGOP is consumed by Trump conspiracy theories Manchin on collision course with Warren, Sanders Sanders on Cheney drama: GOP is an 'anti-democratic cult' MORE (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.”

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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 PelosiNancy PelosiDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Gaetz, Greene tout push to oust Cheney: 'Maybe we're the leaders' Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE (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

Donald Who?

Biden made almost no direct references to former President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE during his address.

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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.

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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 PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden 'confident' meeting with Putin will take place soon Blinken: US stands with Ukraine in face of Russian aggression Russia keeping 80K troops at border amid NATO exercise, US officials say MORE’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 ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE (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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts Pollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Tim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls MORE (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. 

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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.