Joe Biden sat behind an eloquent, often eloquent and witty wordsmith for eight years as President Barack Obama addressed Congress, showing the nation why he was selected the first African American student to edit Harvard Law Review. Biden ranked down in his class at the Syracuse College of Law.
Biden delivered very differently at the podium tonight in his first address to a joint session of the United States Congress, of which he was once a member.
His was a speech that nourished and reassured rather than soared.
Its central theme was to redefine government as a force for good and an enabler of ordinary Americans’ dreams, harkening back to the country’s original motto of E Pluribus Unum (Latin for out of many, one or one from many).
A delighted Senator Patty Murray (D‑Washington) tweeted:
“Finally, the conversations that often happen last – if at all – about childcare, paid leave, and helping all our nation’s families are being talked about first.”
In a sparsely filled House chamber – with a pandemic-necessitated audience of two hundred people instead of the usual 1,600 – Biden still managed symbolism.
At the beginning of the speech, turning to Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, he declared: “Madame Speaker! Madame Vice President! No President has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”
The listening audience received a long needed can-do reminder about the country. A divided, contentious America, can pull together. We out-organized and out-produced totalitarian Germany and its Axis collaborators in World War II.
We have now come an astonishing way toward vaccinating a nation.
In Biden’s words: “After I promised one hundred million COVID-19 vaccine shots in one hundred days, we will have provided over two hundred and twenty million COVID-19 shots in one hundred days… Our progress in these past one hundred days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen.”
Senator Tim Scott, R‑South Carolina, said in the Republican response that America’s schoolchildren should have been back in classrooms “months ago.”
It’s a theme you hear often on right wing media. Truth be told, the number of students receiving full-time instruction in America’s schools has risen from thirty-three percent to sixty-five percent in the last one hundred days.
America is “ready for takeoff,” Biden told the nation.
Where does he want to take it? Joe was the establishment Democrat in last year’s presidential primaries. He’s now sounding like Elizabeth Warren or (locally) Nick Hanauer. Witness these words: “Trickle down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom (up) and the middle out.”
Republicans were grumbling, all day on FNC and from the moment Biden left the podium. Long ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it “the American welfare speech” aimed at creating a “dependency state.”
Representative Dan Newhouse, R‑WA-04, churned out the partisan boilerplate: “We cannot continue to mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future to pay for this Administration’s partisan wish list.”
As they used to say in cooking class, that’s a crock.
Biden’s recipe for America entails lifting folks out of a dependency state to better pursue the American dream. Its ingredients: community college without tuition, paid sick leave, universal preschool, a $15-an-hour minimum wage for those doing society’s grunt work, and a permanent child tax credit.
Such uplifting policy directions will “help us rebuild the middle class for the long term and give millions of children a fair chance of success,” Representative Suzan DelBene, D‑WA-01, observed after the speech.
David Hogg, a Parkland, Florida, massacre survivor and leader of March for Our Lives, watched glum, silent Republicans in the House chamber and tweeted: “Imagine not standing or clapping for cutting child poverty in half.”
The speech Wednesday night marked a sea change from the past forty-one years, starting with Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” inaugural speech in 1981. Soon, ketchup was being defined as a vegetable for the school lunch program. Bill Clinton went with the flow, with this famous State of the Union remark: “The era of big government is over.”
Ponder, by contrast, Joe Biden’s words.
“We have to prove that democracy still works – that our government still works and can deliver for the people. In our first one hundred days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our government to deliver.”
Former President Clinton was singing a new, big-is-beautiful tune post-Biden speech, tweeting: “Great speech, great call to action. Let’s do it.”
When Biden was elected, there was talk he would be a “transitional president,” providing relief from the erratic Trump, reintroducing stability and personal decency to the White House. Such forecasts were wildly mistaken.
President Biden is talking of his agenda as a “once in a generation opportunity,” determined to forge ahead on multiple fronts simultaneously.
He talked seriously of bipartisanship on one front – police reform. It posed a challenge that Tim Scott’s reassuring eloquence – “This is not a racist nation” – will not let Republicans off the hook.
Research show a majority of Americans want changes in policing as people continue to be shot to death by law enforcement, day after day and week after week. Will Republicans pander to Fox and try to exploit these recurring tragedies as before, or accede to and help work out reform?
The overwhelming weight of Biden’s speech was on domestic issues, from upgrading our 1960s-era infrastructure to empowering middle income families.
Biden did, however, address the challenge of a rival superpower, China. A clear-eyed challenge replaced the name-calling bluster of Trump. We are in a global competition, said Biden, as to whether democracy can prevail over autocracy.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” said Biden.
China is already about writing that history, expansionist around the word and a technology powerhouse. Having dealt with President Xi Jinping when he was Vice President, Biden warned: “He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”
Joe Biden went on for sixty-four minutes and fifty-eight seconds. The speech did not soar, but it challenged. The U.S. is indeed at a tipping point between renewal and angry internal conflict that is a path to decline. The vaccine success already shows what the country can still do when concentrating its resources.
“What a difference in a year,” tweeted Representative Derek Kilmer, D‑WA-06.
Unlike his predecessor, Joe Biden really wants to make America great again.