President Joe Biden delivered the biggest speech of his presidency to date on Wednesday night – an address to a joint session of Congress.
Things looked and sounded a little different, with just 200 people in attendance and everyone but Biden masked due to Covid-19 protocols. I watched the entire thing, which ran just over an hour, and took notes.
My thoughts on the hits – and misses – from the speech are below.
* The Harris-Pelosi elbow bump: My guess is that the one thing that people will remember 10 years from now about this speech isn’t anything Biden said. (And that’s no knock on Biden, because I thought his speech was solid-bordering-on-very-good.) It will be the image of the two women – Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – standing behind Biden on the dais, signifying their status as first and second in the presidential line of succession. The elbow bump the two women gave each other when they arrived at that vaunted spot is a moment you will see replayed again and again – because of what it means for so many. And kudos to Biden for acknowledging the moment right at the start of his speech: “Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words. And it’s about time.”
* Biden’s ad-libbing: Biden is not the world’s greatest speech giver. He can speak too often in the Senate-ese that feels a million miles away from the average person, and makes his fair share of verbal gaffes. (He botched his 2020 campaign slogan “build back better” on Wednesday night, for example.) But whether it was the limited number of people in the chamber or Biden being comfortable since he was back in a place he had spent so many decades of his life, he seemed remarkably at ease right from the jump – ad-libbing a line about how “Mitch [McConnell] and Chuck [Schumer] will understand it’s good to be almost home. Down the hall,” in reference to speaking from the House chamber. Biden’s speech was peppered with ad-libbed moments like that – the most powerful of which was when he thanked McConnell for suggesting that a cancer research funding bill have his late son’s name on it: “And if you excuse the point of personal privilege, I’ll never forget you standing, Mitch, and saying name it after my deceased son,” said Biden. “It meant a lot.”
* “We” vs. “Me”: Every speech Donald Trump gave – including his addresses to Congress – he larded with self-congratulation about things HE had made happen. Biden, quite purposely, struck a starkly different tone – repeatedly talking in terms of the “we.” There was this riff in the beginning of the speech: “We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never, ever, ever, ever stay down. Americans always get up. Today, that’s what we’re doing: America is rising anew.” And this one later on, remind us that our founding document was based in the “we”: “Our Constitution opens with the words, as trite as it sounds, ‘We the People’. 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 that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s ‘We the people.’” That appeal to our common humanity – coming after four years of a president who sought to divide the country for his personal political gain and a year-long battle against a pandemic that has killed almost 575,000 Americans – felt deeply important.
* Chuck Schumer’s suit: Look, the Senate majority leader is not known as a fashion icon. (Sorry Chuck!) But, his choice of an electric blue suit for the speech drew lots and lots of attention on Twitter. And I, for one, celebrate him stepping out on that fashion limb.
* Biden on race: It was almost an hour into the speech before Biden mentioned George Floyd and the ongoing efforts to reform policing in America. That seemed waaaay too late in the speech for such a potent issue – especially given that the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is so fresh in the country’s mind. Not to mention the fact that Black voters were the key to Biden winning the Democratic nomination in 2020 and played a central role in helping him beat Trump. Yes, I know this sort of speech is tough to patch together – more on that below – and that Biden wanted to make sure a) he celebrated his administration’s accomplishment on the number of people vaccinated against Covid-19 and b) sell his infrastructure plan to a skeptical Congress. Even so, it felt like a missed opportunity to make clear to the country just how important the issues of race and policing are to him – and to press Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to address the systemic issues that Floyd’s death shined a light on. Contrast that with Sen. Tim Scott, who spent a good chunk of his Republican response to Biden’s speech talking about race and his own efforts on policing reform.
* The middle: I thought Biden started quite strong; I was genuinely moved by his description of “grandparents hugging their children and grandchildren instead of pressing hands against a window to say goodbye” as a way to illustrate how far we’ve come in the battle against Covid-19. And I thought his close on “We the People,” as I mentioned above, was not only powerfully rhetorically but important to the country at this moment. But the middle of the speech – as Biden tried to sell the infrastructure plan (in detail!) and then rolled through a laundry list of other priorities – guns! climate! immigration! Russia! broadband access! – really dragged. That’s not unique to Biden. These sorts of big speeches are often hamstrung by a desire to get a line or two in about well, every issue under the sun. Regardless, for me the speech lost some momentum during its middle passage.
* Trump: You know that line in the movie “Office Space” where the consultants tell the main character that he’s been missing a lot of work lately, and he responds, “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it”? That’s kind of how I felt watching the Biden speech without the Twitter rants of former President Donald Trump accompanying every word. I wouldn’t say I missed it. (Get it? Miss? Missed it?) While Trump will undoubtedly issue some statement on Thursday bashing Biden for not properly crediting him for the vaccine or calling Biden a socialist, it was nice not to have that in real time on Wednesday. In the words of the one and only S.E. Cupp: “It isn’t said enough. So great not hearing from you know who on Twitter tonight.”