Stand and deliver — President Biden’s maiden address to Congress
On Wednesday Joe Biden will deliver the 98th in-person address to Congress from a United States president — on the 98th day of his administration. For the last several decades, most new presidents have delivered an address to Congress within 40 days of entering office. A once-in-a-generation pandemic has obviously played some role in this delay, but that hasn’t stopped wild speculation about the pushed back late April date of the speech.
This is not the first time a major presidential address to Congress occurred later than initially planned. President Reagan’s 1986 State of the Union was postponed a week because of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. “Go forward, America, and reach for the stars” became a signature line from the speech that year. President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union occurred later than initially scheduled because of a government shutdown that impacted Capitol building operations.
April addresses aren’t unprecedented either, as President Reagan had one in 1981, following a failed assassination attempt. President Kennedy challenged the country to send a man to the moon within a decade during an address to Congress in May of 1961. The only difference is that both Reagan and Kennedy had previously given addresses to Congress, while President Biden hasn’t yet for various reasons.
The April 28 date for President Biden’s speech has contributed to further political controversy and is a proxy war on how coronavirus should be handled. Several Republican House members recently sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) requesting the address occur at a time when the full body is in session and that all lawmakers be invited. While some committee hearings are this week, many members of Congress are performing constituency services in their home districts and remain far away from the Capitol.
Addresses to Congress enable presidents to tout their policy accomplishments, and President Biden surely won’t demure from this presidential tradition. He recently announced that all combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, and recent polling shows the American public strongly agrees with this decision. The administration’s goal of 100 million vaccinations within the first 100 days has already been doubled, and over 40 percent of the country has received at least one dose. President Biden has signed a series of executive orders, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization. Despite dire warnings from President Trump, the stock market has seen excellent returns during the Biden presidency.
The content of President Biden’s speech will encompass both domestic and international challenges facing the country. George W. Bush coined the phrase “axis of evil” in his 2002 address, and nearly 20 years later Iran and North Korea continue to be thorns in the side of the United States. President Biden has returned to a more traditional embrace of international alliances, while also planning for a summit with Vladimir Putin this summer. A discussion of domestic policy will dominate the speech, as the economy and coronavirus will take center stage.
President Biden has concrete future plans for additional infrastructure and childcare spending, which he will pay for by increasing taxes on the wealthy and large corporations. A proposal to beef up Internal Revenue Service authority and resources could be mentioned. Given the recent guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd murder trial, President Biden will look to elevate the issue of police reform. He has already called for the passing of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which is currently pending in Congress. Expanded subsidies and enrollment periods for the Affordable Care Act will also likely be discussed, given the president’s personal involvement with this during the Obama administration.
A smaller and non-traditional audience for President Biden’s address could likely play to his strengths. Leaders in Congress who will get to attend are generally part of the political establishment and are generally on their best behavior. During President Obama’s 2009 health care address, South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” during the event. The next year Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito audibly mouthed the words “not true” while President Obama was talking about the Citizens United decision.
There will be no drama over which Biden cabinet member will be the “designated survivor”, and only about 20 members of the media will be credentialed in the House chamber. All of these special circumstances in the name of public health will be just fine for President Biden and are consistent with his overall demeanor and style. All the makings of a top-notch address are in play, and it’s up to the president to fulfill his end of the bargain and deliver a memorable performance.
Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of “Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States: Addresses to a Joint Session of Congress” and “The State of the Union Is … Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.
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