CNN Opinion contributors grade President Joe Biden’s first speech before a joint session of Congress. Errol Louis: Biden’s speech was focused, sharp and brilliant Joe Biden took a pitch-perfect victory lap for reaching 200 million Covid vaccine doses administered in less than 100 days in office – more than twice the number he’d originally promised – and going back to his campaign slogan of “choosing hope over fear, truth over lies, light over darkness.” His sales job for the infrastructure plan was politically sharp, focused on items with broad support, like creating clean water systems, building a power grid and new roads and bridges – and aimed directly at independent and working-class votes that strayed from the Democratic Party in recent years. By emphasizing that 90% of the estimated jobs to be created won’t require a college degree and rolling out the benefits of the American Family Plan, Biden was talking to voters who were part of Donald Trump’s base. “These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced,” he said, calling it a “blue collar blueprint to build America” and signaling that he aims to slow and reverse the flow of working-class voters out of the Democratic Party. Substantively strong, politically brilliant. Grade: A- Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. Nicole Hemmer: The President puts spin on era of big government It was a night of powerful visuals: Two women — the first and second in the line of succession — sat behind President Joe Biden, the first time in American history women have held both of those positions. Wide shots of the House chamber showed a thinly populated room because of the ongoing pandemic. And those same wide shots also served as a reminder of the armed standoff that took place there almost four months ago during the insurrection at the Capitol. But it wasn’t just images that defined the night. Biden delivered a powerful argument: the era of big government is back. But big government with a Biden spin — he called the American Jobs Plan “a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” and called on Congress to raise taxes on corporations and top earners, in order to “reward work, not wealth.” It was a far cry from the days when former President Bill Clinton stood in the same chamber contrasting work with welfare. These policy-heavy speeches are never particularly stirring, and Biden does better in more intimate settings. But in laying out a bold, progressive vision in clear terms, he set the tone, and the goalposts, for the next stage of his presidency. Grade: B+ Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” Scott Jennings: Biden showed his progressive flavor During his 2020 campaign, Joe Biden said “the words of a president matter.” I wish he remembered that. Biden has been notably dishonest in his first 100 days, including in tonight’s at times hyperbolic address. Biden did not inherit “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” The unemployment rate was 6.3% in January, and the US had experienced growth for two straight quarters. In six of Barack Obama’s eight years, the average unemployment rate was over 6%, and was about or over 9% in three of them! The truth is that vaccines are reviving the economy—vaccines that Biden inherited from the Trump administration (Biden has made a number of wildly misleading vaccine claims). Biden gave away the progressive game when he said he would “turn crisis into opportunity.” His $1.9 trillion Covid bill spent excessively on liberal social programs, and Biden is doing it again in an infrastructure bill that spends just 5% of its $2.25 trillion on roads, bridges, waterways, ports, and airports. Name your crisis (Covid, climate, etc.) and Biden is prepared to ride it like a Kentucky Derby jockey towards a liberal finish line of exploding debt and higher taxes. I give Biden a D because “the words of a president matter,” and he should be held to his own standard. His remarks on cancer research, which was heartfelt and means a great deal to so many Americans, saved him from an F tonight. Grade: D South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s rebuttal was magnificent. He’s not the GOP flavor of the month for 2024, but he should be. Scott is one of the most compelling and unifying voices in the Republican Party today. Grade: A+ for a speech in a historically tough slot. Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. Frida Ghitis: A striking contrast to the Former Guy It wasn’t just the words. The images were just as powerful. Before President Joe Biden rose to the podium Wednesday night, we saw the striking presence of two women at the pinnacle of political power, preparing to welcome him; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker, and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman vice president in the history of the United States. Then there was the pandemic strangeness of it all, empty seats, few guests, and protective masks obscuring the bottom half of every face. It was a presidential address to Congress like no other for so many reasons. Then came the words. And, once again, the striking contrast to the Former Guy. Unlike former President Donald Trump, Biden’s speech was focused on the country, on achievements, on aspirations, not on an individual. There was no poison in Biden’s words, no self-aggrandizement, no insults. The praise was for America and for Americans. And yet, when Biden listed the accomplishments of his first 99 days, the list was solid, impressive, proof that the country is in the hands of someone who – regardless of whether you agree with his goals – knows what he’s doing. Biden’s achievements, like reaching 200 million Covid vaccines administered before 100 days in office, expanding access to health care, making progress toward slashing child poverty, are already significant. His goals moving forward — including modernizing America’s infrastructure, tackling climate change, promoting education, technology, and job creation, to name only a few – are enormous. His ambition is extraordinary. His laundry list of initiatives and plans is enough to fill many presidencies. Biden is right when he views this presidency not only as a vehicle for improving the lives of Americans, but for showing the world the superiority of democracy over autocracy. The images and the words were a reminder of how far we’ve come, how awful things were, and how far we still have to go. Grade: B Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Tara Setmayer: The right dose of hope President Joe Biden is at his best when he speaks directly to the American people, in plain language, from his heart. That’s exactly what he did tonight. From the outset, he never made the moment about him. When Biden uttered the words “Madam Vice President and Madam Speaker,” he proudly acknowledged that history had been made and it was long overdue. Representation matters. It’s refreshing to have a President who is not only competent but traffics in optimism, humility and resolve. These are qualities desperately needs at a time when Americans are clawing their way back from immense loss, despair and economic hardship brought on by a global pandemic and exacerbated by the incompetence and intransigence of the last administration. Biden ticked off his accomplishments on the vaccine rollout and Covid relief, laid out his policy vision on a wide range of issues and passionately reminded the American people why we cannot ignore the significance of the Capitol attack –an assault on the democracywe must fight to preserve in the 21st century. Our enemies may be betting against us, but Biden made it clear he believes that’s a bad bet. Consistent with his campaign theme of working across the aisle, the President rightfully challenged Republicans to join him in a meaningful bipartisan effort to engage on major policy issues facing American families. Though Biden extended the political olive branch, it remains to be seen if enough Republicans have the political will to accept it. Biden’s speech may not have had the lofty, eloquent prose of notable presidential speeches of the past, but he certainly provided the right dose of hope to the American people, who can now feel the country is heading in the right direction. Grade: A- Tara Setmayer is a former GOP communications director and host of the “Honestly Speaking with Tara” podcast. David Gergen: Can Biden measure up to FDR and LBJ? Only twice before in history has an American president done what Joe Biden did tonight: issue a clarion call for a transformation of the nation’s social safety net. Franklin Roosevelt was the first to envision a strong, impenetrable safety net that would protect citizens from cradle to grave. That was the essence of his first 100 days after his election in 1932. Inspired by Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson chose his first congressional speech as the forum for laying the groundwork for his Great Society programs after his 1964 election. But can Biden be as successful? He certainly gave one of his most effective speeches tonight. For the first 40 minutes of his address, he laid out a menu of delights for the middle class that will surely be popular. His arguments for his plans were well crafted and deftly delivered. But there is one crucial difference between Biden and his predecessors, Roosevelt and Johnson: those two men began the fight with far more political strength in Congress. Roosevelt’s Democrats held 59 of 96 Senate seats and 313 House of 432 House seats when he was first elected. And coming off a landslide election, Johnson commanded 68 Senate seats and 295 House seats. Biden, by contrast, holds congressional power by a thread. It is also a fair question whether the price tag for the President’s plans – about $6 trillion in total – is so towering that public support will wane over time. For now, Biden holds the upper hand with the American people. Whether he can keep it may well determine whether he will join Roosevelt and Johnson in the Democratic pantheon. Grade: A David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership. Raul A. Reyes: A refreshing take on immigration Behold a thoughtful, calming President. Although President Joe Biden’s Wednesday night speech was officially an address to a joint session of Congress, in reality it was his chance to pitch his agenda directly to the American people. And he did so with a measured tone befitting these challenging times. Biden laid out plans that may well reshape the federal government. Taxing corporations to pay for infrastructure upgrades and taxing the very wealthy to pay for expanded social programs? This is true populism. His proposals will likely resonate with Latinos, 74% of whom approve of his job performance, according to an April Pew Center survey. It was refreshing to hear a president speak about immigration in common-sense terms. “Let’s end our exhausting war on immigration,” he said. “Immigrants have done so much for this country during the pandemic, as they have throughout our history.” Biden expressed his confidence in Vice President Kamala Harris as she works with Central American governments to address the root causes of migration. And, as an example of bipartisan leadership, he invited those lawmakers who did not agree with his immigration proposals to at least pass legislation to help those young migrants brought here illegally as children stay in the United States – an idea with broad public support. The President kept his hyperbole to a minimum and focused on the positive. In substance, style and tone, Biden’s speech was successful. Grade: A- In his rebuttal, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina attempted to defend the indefensible by praising the GOP’s assault on voting rights in Georgia. “America is not a racist nation,” he said, which was incredibly tone-deaf. He had to reach back to pre-pandemic times to cite positive economic statistics of Biden’s predecessor. Sorry, Senator, painting Biden as divisive is a hard sell. In the end, Scott came across as inauthentic and deeply misguided. Grade: D Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. SE Cupp: Biden’s faith in a united country earns him high marks It was no surprise to hear President Joe Biden talk about bipartisanship more than once in his first Presidential address to Congress, in the very place that saw a violent insurrection – a literal attempt to break us apart – just four months ago. Unlike other presidential candidates over the years, from both parties, Biden’s focus on unity wasn’t just a campaign gimmick or cheap talking point. In fact, it was something many in his own party took some umbrage with. Why would he want to reach across the aisle to a party that had shown so little interest in doing the same over the past four years? And could he unite a country that might prefer more tribalism? Even now, as Republicans have defended the attack on the Capitol, an attack designed to prevent him from taking office, and as they plot to impede his agenda and make him a one-term president, Biden is unwilling to give up on the idea that bipartisanship is possible. Politics is both prose and poetry. And while many moderates and conservatives like me will disagree with his policies, his commitment to unifying the country is a big reason why we gave him our vote. Grade: B+ SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator. Van Jones: Biden recognizes a once-in-a-century opportunity President Joe Biden’s first speech to Congress on Wednesday night was a big deal. When Biden was elected, a lot of people – particularly progressives – underestimated him. After Wednesday night, it became clear Biden isn’t holding anything back. He recognizes this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to reset the American system, and he’s not going to let this chance go to waste. The President is developing a positive kind of populism. He’s trying to give us something we can come together for, and he’s framing it in a way that’s accessible for any American with a heartbeat. When Biden talked about vaccines, he didn’t just talk about vaccines – he talked about how, because of the vaccine, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teachers and kids can go back to school. He talked about how – because of the rescue checks – a single mother and her son dodged eviction. His argument about making America competitive is also powerful. Right now, China is building cities, while we struggle to build bridges. We need to upgrade our operating system, and Biden has a plan to get the job done. The President was selling big policy, but he delivered it in a way that felt personal. His grandfatherly, whispery voice made it feel like he was letting us all in on a secret plan. The fact that it wasn’t a big, raucous crowd allowed the intimacy to really land. I’m on board. Let’s get to work. Grade: A Van Jones is a CNN host and founder of Dream Corps. Julian Zelizer: He achieves the almost impossible The most unremarkable elements of President Joe Biden’s address to Congress were paradoxically also among the most remarkable. After four years of political chaos, it was easy to forget how utterly normal an evening could be. And yet standing in front of a sparsely populated pop House chamber – a result of Covid restrictions – the President’s speech seemed like many others that we have heard before, combining an invocation for the nation to live up to this historic moment and an outline of a policy agenda for the next year. To be sure, Biden’s bold vision for government is quite a departure from the philosophy of former President Ronald Reagan, who stated in 1981, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” His plan for expanding government spending on issues like childcare and education breaks from some of the political fears of being outflanked by conservatism that constrained former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama during their time in the White House. And, of course, the presence of two women – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris – sitting behind Biden was a historic breakthrough. But much of the process was the same. Biden’s team released excerpts from the speech before the event. And when the President began his speech, he spoke in a steady and contained voice until the event came to an end. Indeed, Biden was just a president being a president. Although it will be impossible for Biden to cure the multiple problems that have rendered our politics so dysfunctional— polarized media, hyper partisanship, influence of big money in campaigns—thus far he has been remarkably effective, as he promised in the campaign, at simply stabilizing the presidency as an institution. It is easy to discount the importance of this achievement. But after the January 6 insurrection, which Biden called the worst attack on democracy “since the Civil War,” some stability in the Oval Office is essential to moving forward. The parties will disagree over the substance of the message, but, nearly 100 days into his term, Biden has achieved a level of calm that seemed almost impossible just a few months ago. Grade: A Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. Alice Stewart: The President lays out massive tax and spend agenda As always, President Biden’s delivery was the model of empathy and compassion. Talk of “hope over fear, light over darkness” and “no quit in America” can certainly soften even the most hardened of hearts. The problem is that optimistic tone is overshadowed by the expensive policy price tag. The idea of offering a lot of things that most Americans won’t have to pay for will no doubt be popular, yet this big, bold agenda – paid for by wealthy Americans – is a bridge too far. On substance, I agree with the President’s call for protections for Dreamers, being tough on China and criminal justice reform. Yet the American Jobs Plan and American Rescue plan – together multi-trillion dollar plans – is nothing more than a progressive wish list on steroids. The massive tax and spend agenda is big government run amok. Five words stood out: “I will work with Congress.” Well, he hasn’t. President Biden entered the White House on the promise of bipartisanship and unity, that has not happened. It’s time for President Biden to build bridges – literally and figuratively. Grade: A on style, D on substance In the GOP response, Sen. Tim Scott called Biden out for going it alone on major initiatives. Scott made a compelling case for “common sense and common ground.” Grade: A Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, a resident fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President. Paul Begala: Biden’s speech like a fine champagne When President Joe Biden was born, in 1942 , Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. America was just 77 years past our Civil War, and FDR’s Sisyphean task was to pull the country together to overcome Depression and defeat fascism. Now, 76 years after FDR’s death, President Biden seemed to be channeling the president of his birth. Biden set out an ambitious agenda, from combating the pandemic, to creating American jobs, to equal pay for women, pledging to “end cancer as we know it,” and combating climate change. It was a symphony with a myriad of notes, yet it also had a strong theme: Optimism. “America is on the move again,” he said in the speech’s beginning. The first Democratic president to attend a state university since LBJ, Biden spoke with us, not at us. He was specific but not wonky, and never condescending. He stood at the most powerful podium on earth, and remained firmly grounded as Middle Class Joe. “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt,” Winston Churchill said, “was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.” President Biden is a 1942 vintage Champagne, and yet he spoke with an effervescence and an exuberance that was truly intoxicating. Grade: A —– Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) was a strong choice for the GOP response. At a time when the GOP seems to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the white grievance-media-political complex, Scott set a different tone. He spoke poignantly of being the son of a single mom, connecting well with his audience. But while the tone was mode moderate, the content was the same old stuff we have heard from the GOP for generations: Democrats want to tax and spend. The problem with that is Biden’s actual plan taxes only the rich, and spends it on the middle class and the poor. Scott’s argument is getting very little traction against Biden, as polls show a solid majority of Americans support Biden’s agenda. Grade: A on style; D on substance. Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. Jess McIntosh: Biden does not have the luxury of normalcy Joe Biden wants to be a normal president. His campaign was the most explicit call for a “return to normalcy” since President Warren G. Harding coined the phrase after the 1918 flu pandemic. These are not normal times in America. Biden made his first address to a joint session of Congress three months and three weeks after a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol building aimed at stopping the certification of Biden’s election victory in November. On Wednesday Biden spoke from the chamber where members of Congress had donned gas masks and prayed together on that tumultuous January day, cowering from a violent mob. He spoke to an audience that included Republicans who supported the attempt to overturn his own legitimate victory — and to a country rocked by a pandemic, hate crimes, police violence and multiple mass shootings. Biden does not really have the luxury of normalcy. His first address to Congress showed a clear understanding of the magnitude of the moment. He celebrated 220 million Covid vaccine shots in arms, and the fastest pace of economic growth in more than four decades. It’s possible the enormous success of Biden’s first 100 days will result in more lives and livelihoods saved than any previous administration. Within the first minute of his speech, Biden answered whether he would address the seditious elephant in the room: he called the insurrection “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” Later, citing racial injustice, he said “white supremacy is terrorism.” The President said he welcomed conversations with anyone who thought their ideas were better. But in one of his most pointed and surprising moments, he told Republicans that the world was watching and doing nothing was not an option. Biden is an optimist, and we need that right now. But it’s possible he has more of the cynicism this moment requires than he lets on. Grade: A Aaron David Miller: Biden is clearly risk-ready You can do a lot in 100 days – learn how to cook a new dish; take a spin class; train a puppy. What you can’t do is transform the country. And yet listening to President Joe Biden’s speech tonight, that’s exactly what he has set out to do. Timing and tone: A. Biden struck just the right tone between hard realities and hope. Despite tough times, be made clear “America is on the move again.” No less than four critical challenges – race, the economy, pandemic and political polarization – have left the door open to the possibility of real change. And Biden’s initial success during his first 100 days has left him well-positioned to go big. His multi-trillion American Jobs Act and American Families Act promise a degree of social and economic transformation not seen since the 1960s. Historic: A. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson’s gave his “Let Us Continue” speech after John F. Kennedy’s assassination has the country seemed on the verge of such a major inflection point. With two female leaders seated behind him, addressing a Covid restricted chamber with no congressional guests and only one Supreme Court Justice, the speech was unprecedented. Impact: Incomplete. Biden is clearly risk-ready. But a president’s words alone rarely persuade. The key to any success is whether Biden has the votes to keep moderates in his own party on board and perhaps gain some Republican support for a few more targeted packages on infrastructure and immigration. If not, hopes for transformation will remain just that. Grade: A Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Patti Solis Doyle: A speech aimed at working-class Americans This was a very Joe Biden speech. The President looked at home in the chamber, and I enjoyed watching him talk comfortably with Republicans on his way to and from the podium. Congress may be more polarized than ever before, but Joe is a good guy who can work across the aisle. He covered the key elements of his rescue, jobs, and families he is – someone who understands what the country needs. In fact, the best parts of Biden’s speech were the lines meant for the audience at home, particularly working-class Americans families dealing with crumbling roads, rising health insurance premiums, aging grandparents, underfunded schools and college debt. Biden had two tasks tonight: (1) explain how all his proposals fit together and (2) demonstrate how they benefit the working class. As Biden said, he’s pushing a “blue-collar blueprint to build America.” Grade: A- Patti Solis Doyle, a CNN commentator, was an assistant to the President and senior adviser to then-first lady Hillary Clinton, was chief of staff on Clinton’s 2000 and 2006 Senate campaigns, and Clinton’s presidential campaign manager in 2007 and early 2008. She is president of Solis Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm that specializes in serving nonprofits, nongovernmental organizations and corporations. Follow her @pattisolisdoyle.