Like the Academy Awards a few nights earlier, President Joe Biden’s first major speech to Congress and the nation fell somewhat short of compelling viewing, more predictable than surprising, more laundry list than inspiring rhetoric.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t help congressional Democrats who seek to enact the most far-reaching legislative agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
As stagecraft, Biden’s subdued presentation lacked the drama of such past nights as President Ronald Reagan’s return from an assassination attempt exactly 40 years ago to the night or the 2020 claims by President Donald Trump that prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to shred his text.
Almost everything Biden told the 200 mask-wearing, socially distant lawmakers echoed his prior speeches and pre-speech announcements, though in greater detail. He hailed his administration’s success in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and argued his proposals for vastly expanding federal economic and social programs would provide millions of jobs and help the nation compete in the 21st century world.
As a result, the president’s 1-hour, 4-minute speech lived up to the expectations of both his Democratic supporters and his Republican critics. Fellow Democrats repeatedly cheered Biden’s support for the kind of transformative legislative agenda party progressives have long sought. Republican lawmakers mostly sat on their hands, and the official GOP response by Sen. Tim Scott dismissed Biden’s agenda as “ever more taxes, even more spending.”
Indeed, there seemed something of a disconnect as the South Carolina senator followed Biden’s detailed delineation of his proposals by declaring “our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes.” He also contended that progress against the pandemic in Biden’s first 100 days occurred because “this administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” a rather rosy portrayal of the circumstances it inherited.
The only statistical measure of initial public reaction was a CNN poll that showed a favorable response among viewers, but that may have reflected the fact that partisans are more likely than opponents to watch such speeches. In recent years, most such presidential speeches have had little long-term impact on public opinion.
The real question is the extent to which the president’s effort to place his proposals in a broader context of global competition — especially with China — will help to maintain public support that recent polls showed for their broad outline and whether that proves helpful in winning the forthcoming congressional battles.
Despite continuing sharp partisan divisions in Washington, administration strategists feel they have benefited from the fact that polls show broader overall backing for Biden’s efforts in the nation as a whole than in Congress. That support includes overwhelming support from Democrats, a majority from independents, and even some from Republicans. Administration officials credit that broad base with helping to ensure the solid Democratic congressional support that passed his initial legislation to fight the pandemic and speed economic recovery.
Similarly, the polls have shown broad public backing for the kinds of tax increases that Biden hopes will pay for some of his proposals, primarily restoring the cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans that were a cornerstone of Trump’s 2017 tax cut law. But Biden devoted only five minutes of his speech to them, and public support does not always translate into congressional votes when tax increases are involved.
If most of Biden’s speech was directed at solidifying that bipartisan support for a Democratic agenda in the country, he also repeated his desire to reach out to like-minded congressional Republicans at a time when many GOP lawmakers complain he has talked more about bipartisanship than sought it.
In drafting measures to revitalize the nation’s crumbling physical infrastructure — its roads, bridges and sewers — Biden said he wanted “to meet with those who have ideas that are different, that they think are better.” But he cloaked that outreach in a warning against the kind of long, drawn-out negotiations that marked such efforts during the Obama years, declaring that “from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
He also expressed hope that, in areas like police reform, immigration and guns, where partisan divisions have long prevented any action on comprehensive legislation, some agreement might be possible on more modest measures. That might include closing existing loopholes on gun purchases and providing legal status for the so-called Dreamers and farmworkers who have been in this country for decades.
As Biden left the podium of the House of Representatives, he chatted with several House and Senate members from both parties, including a long conversation with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, one of the more moderate Republicans the White House believes may be open to some Biden proposals.
But the overall prospects for Biden’s agenda almost certainly depend on holding the line among his fellow Democrats.
So far, many news stories about the views of individual lawmakers have focused on their objections to the specifics of individual proposals. Given the tiny Democratic majorities in both chambers, these are likely to be the subject of extensive negotiations as the congressional committees begin to draft the legislation translating them into law.
In the end, the president’s prospects for success may depend on maintaining support in the country, and that’s what Wednesday’s speech was designed to buoy.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.