It did not look like a typical presidential address before Congress. Wednesday night’s event, which lacked the packed House chamber due to pandemic guidelines, was missing some of the buzz and drama of past speeches. But there was a far more important difference this year: The return of normal presidential rhetoric and the embrace of traditional democratic values. As an added bonus, Americans saw two powerful women perched behind the president — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Harris. It made for a compelling, historic tableau and a reminder that only one party sends a consistently inclusive message.
President Biden struck an optimistic tone right off the bat: “Now — after just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength,” he declared. Without mentioning his predecessor, he echoed messages from his campaign. The country is choosing “light over darkness” and “hope over fear.” He did not shy away from the Jan. 6 insurrection, calling it the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
He began, as one would expect, with a recounting of how far the nation has come in fighting the covid-19 pandemic and used the opportunity to urge everyone to receive a vaccination. He called the progress made so far "one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen.” He touted his accomplishment in cutting child poverty and recounted the economic recovery to date while insisting the country cannot stay still as China and other world powers advance.
In introducing his jobs plan, he directly addressed working-class Americans who did not vote for him or were skeptical of his political promises. “I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. So many of you, so many of the folks I grew up with, feel left behind, forgotten in an economy that’s so rapidly changing,” he said before noting the number of jobs that would not need a college education. Biden then signaled he intends to reach out beyond the Democratic base to independent and Republican voters, not allowing Republicans in Congress to define the terms of the debate.
In a nod to bipartisanship — and a nudge for Republicans to end their obstruction — he declared: “Investments in jobs and infrastructure like the ones we’re talking about have often had bipartisan support. ... I applaud the group of Republican senators who just put forward their own proposal.” He added, “I welcome those ideas. But the rest of the world is not waiting for us. ... Doing nothing is not an option. Look, we can’t be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st century.”
Biden used the opportunity to describe the wide range of investments — from broadband to electric cars to new water systems — that remain popular with Americans who do not care whether these things are called “infrastructure.” His basic message did not lack for alliteration: “A blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
He then moved to his American Families Plan, which includes child care, free pre-K and community college, paid family leave, investment in historically black colleges, and another extension of the child tax credit. He also vowed to keep Obamacare premiums and to lower drug prices. Anticipating Republicans’ complaints about taxes, he vowed only to raise taxes on the very rich and corporations. He denounced a tax code that allows big corporations to avoid taxes altogether and noted that the 2017 tax cut failed to pay for itself and pump up the economy. “In fact, the pay gap between CEOs and their workers is now among the largest in history. According to one study, CEOs make 320 times what the average worker in their corporation makes.”
This was a bold populist proposal. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out,” he said. “You know, there’s a broad consensus of economists, left, right, and center, and they agree what I’m proposing will help create millions of jobs and generate historic economic growth. These are among the highest-value investments we can make as a nation."
Foreign policy usually gets short shrift in these speeches, but Biden touched on his administration’s re-engagement in the Paris climate accord, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, threats from China, his promises to stand up to unfair trade practices and rogue states seeking nuclear weapons. And he emotionally restated his commitment to human rights: “No responsible American president could remain silent when basic human rights are being so blatantly violated. ... An American president has to represent the essence of what our country stands for. America is an idea, the most unique idea in history. We are created, all of us, equal. It’s who we are. And we cannot walk away from that principle.”
He made a powerful pitch for police reform, citing the murder of George Floyd. He said, “We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans,” and then urged the nation to come together to “root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” He set a goal of reaching a deal on police reform by the first anniversary of Floyd’s death.
He ticked off a whole list of other priorities, including gun safety, voting rights and immigration. And he refused to be cowed by Republicans’ denial and deflection on the Jan. 6 insurrection. “As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol — desecrating our democracy — remain vivid in all our minds,” he said. “Lives were put at risk, many of your lives. Lives were lost. Extraordinary courage was summoned.” This was no mere riot; it was “an existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive." It did, he said, adding that “the struggle is far from over.”
At the close, Biden confronted threats to democracy. He argued that government can be a force for good and that democracy, not authoritarianism, works. He practically pleaded with Americans: “It’s time to remember that we the people are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over. It’s us. ... In another era when our democracy was tested, Franklin Roosevelt reminded us — in America: We do our part. We all do our part. That’s all I’m asking. That we do our part, all of us.” It was the most compelling part of a long, policy-laden speech.
Biden’s speech was noteworthy in a number of respects. He made multiple pitches for bipartisanship. He spoke softly at times, in intimate terms, and eschewing bombast. He displayed his unique knack of making bold provisions seem reasonable and necessary. He was exceptionally optimistic, declaring that there is nothing Americans cannot do if they do it together. No one will have to endure inane punditry that Biden has finally “grown into the presidency.” He is comfortable in his new job — and determined to do big things.