WASHINGTON — For eight years, Joe Biden was a fixture at President Barack Obama’s addresses inside the House chamber, a near-constant part of the tableau. He winked. He pointed. He gripped the House speaker’s arm. He smiled, and he clapped with gusto.
For 36 years before that, he often sat in the audience with his Senate colleagues. He twice gave a portion of the Democratic response to President Ronald Reagan.
As one of the nation’s longest-serving politicians he has witnessed more speeches to a joint session of Congress than just about anyone.
Next week, he will give one.
He will have a historic backdrop: Two women, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris, for the first time will be in the immediate frame of the president — something Biden is planning to note at the beginning of his speech.
In a different historic marker, both will be wearing masks as part of the coronavirus protocols in the chamber.
Biden has been working on the speech for weeks, preparing remarks to reflect on the first 99 days of his presidency, and outlining a range of new initiatives he will pursue. He is expected to press the need for expanding access to health care and outline additional economic relief for American families. He also will renew his call for police reform, coming in the wake of the conviction of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd.
The address marks the conclusion of the first chapter of Biden’s presidency, one that he has sought to enter with a burst of activity meant to reshape the country’s politics and its place in the world. It will also be yet another vivid collision between the rituals of democracy and the pandemic that continues to grip much of American life.
Members and senators won’t be allowed to bring guests. Biden is expected to have few, if any, guests aside from first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff. Those in the chamber will be spread out, with some members on the House floor and others seated in the gallery.
No Cabinet members are expected to attend, and just one Supreme Court justice, Chief Justice John Roberts, is expected. Gen. Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will represent the military.
There will likely be only 200 people total in the chamber, according to a person involved in the planning. That’s a fraction of the 1,600 people normally in attendance for the president’s address to Congress.
The event has been designated as a National Special Security Event, which mobilizes the nation’s top law enforcement and security agencies. That is typical for joint addresses, but there are extra layers of security this year following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. The perimeter of the Capitol is still fenced off, and some National Guard troops remain there.
Biden’s advisers have long believed that he would be judged, more than anything else, on his handling of the coronavirus. That guided most of their early decisions around vaccines and school reopenings, mask mandates and stimulus checks. But he is now in the midst of a major push for massive pieces of legislation that would reorient much of the American economy, changing its tax structure, expanding its social safety net, and reorienting many of its environmental policies.
Author and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley compared it to John F. Kennedy’s first joint session speech, in which he called on the country to send a man to the moon within the decade. That call came as a surprise — whereas many of Biden’s policies are already known — but it required a significant amount of convincing, of both the public and congressional Republicans.
“Biden — he doesn’t seem always to be the best salesperson,” Brinkley said, marking the moment as one where Biden transitions from consoler in chief toward a more assertive posture. “But he now has to be talking about the recovery: COVID is on the run. We’re going to win and going to go on and make the economy stronger with … the largest jobs package since World War II.”
For much of his nearly five-decade-long political career, Biden has organized his thoughts, and his life, around speeches. He’s used prepared remarks to express grief or vent emotions, and he often uses them to determine whether his policies are connecting with an audience.
Biden often thrives on speaking extemporaneously and, to the frustration of staff, frequently veers off script. He tells his speechwriters to craft language that is simple, as if they were talking to a relative.
He gets heavily involved in the crafting of speeches, writing out longhand or dictating his thoughts — and heavily editing the text, sometimes up until delivery. His top strategist, Mike Donilon, is always involved in major speeches like the one Biden will deliver on Wednesday, as is his speechwriter, Vinay Reddy.
Most of Biden’s recent speeches have seen their usual pageantry curtailed because of the pandemic. When he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, it was in a mostly empty ballroom. When he won the election, he spoke to a parking lot of honking cars. His inauguration address included elected officials but almost no average citizens on the National Mall.
“It will not look like or feel like, in many ways, what past joint addresses have,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday. White House staff will be watching virtually — rather than in person — and there will not be a traditional presidential box for guests.
But the timing of the speech, coming on the eve of his 100th day in office, was no accident. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, presidents have often used their first 100 days as a symbolic marker for their young presidencies.
The planning for Biden’s first 100 days began almost exactly a year ago when, last April, he tapped his longtime confidant and chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, to begin transition preparations. Kaufman built a team that compiled Biden’s campaign promises — often by scouring his speeches to tally up the commitments he made publicly — and began prioritizing them.
Entering office, Biden leaned into the 100-day time frame. He said he’d ask Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days. He said he’d oversee 100 million vaccine shots within his first 100 days. He wanted a majority of elementary and middle schools open for in-person learning by the end of his first 100 days.
Biden’s speech is coming later than most joint addresses, which are typically delivered in January or February. And he has given a number of speeches already outlining many of his priorities — some expect it to be more of a review of his achievements than an articulation of a wholly new vision.
“I’m looking forward to being a little bored by it,” said Joan Hoff, professor of history at Montana State University and the former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. “It’s only because he’s conducted himself so publicly on all of these issues and already taken some dramatic actions … You can only repeat yourself so much.”
The speech — which is similar to the State of the Union, but in inauguration years is technically a joint address to Congress — can be a television showcase, giving a president one of the largest audiences he can get even as viewership numbers have declined in a fragmented media environment. President Bill Clinton in 1993 had the largest audience recorded, at nearly 67 million, while Obama averaged nearly 40 million viewers over his eight addresses. President Donald Trump averaged about 44 million viewers during his four addresses.
“He certainly recognizes this is an opportunity to speak directly with the American people — one of the highest-profile opportunities that any president has in their first year in office,” Psaki told reporters.
Republicans have criticized Biden for not doing more to reach out to their party and make good on a core promise to unify the country. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has assailed many of Biden’s priorities as out of the mainstream, and he tapped Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., to give the Republican response to Biden’s speech
“Nobody is better at communicating why far-left policies fail working Americans,” McConnell said in announcing Scott, the only Black Republican senator.
While Biden has received frequent criticism from Republicans, he has managed to keep his own fractured party united around many of the items in his agenda.
“To his credit, he has looked around and said incrementalism, small steps, are not going to do it,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a chief rival of Biden’s in the presidential primary, said in a recent interview. “It’s a lot easier to keep the party together when you have serious and good legislation supported by over 70 percent of the American people.”
But in one indication of some of the challenges Biden faces in maintaining party unity, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., is also giving a response to Biden’s Wednesday night speech, on behalf of liberal Democrats.
“It’s a balancing act. He’s already done a lot that I love. And he’s going to say a lot of things that I like, as well,” Bowman, who last year defeated a 16-term incumbent, told NBC News. “But if we relent, it doesn’t mean that what’s been going on so far is going to continue. It’s important for us as progressives to continue to push and continue to organize.”
In addition to the speech next week, the White House is planning to make a concerted effort to claim credit for a range of early accomplishments, with Biden traveling to Georgia on Thursday in the first of several trips organized around pushing toward the next phase of his agenda.
The White House has branded each of its efforts. First was the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package that Congress approved without any Republicans voting for it. He has also proposed the American Jobs Plan, which is another $2 trillion plan aimed at fixing infrastructure and boosting the green energy economy.
Biden this week is planning to flesh out in more detail the American Families Plan. That will include new spending on child care, education, paid family leave and other domestic priorities. The price tag — which could be around $1 trillion along with $500 billion in new tax credits, The Washington Post reported this past week — would be offset by tax increases on high-income Americans and wealthy investors.
The plan is another area where Biden made comparing promises for universal prekindergarten, tuition-free community colleges, and paid family and medical leave.
Biden over the past year has often taken inspiration from Roosevelt, attempting to usher in far-reaching government programs. But he also has a long record of quoting from the New Deal Democrat in a way that he could again turn toward next week.
“As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the recovery from the Great Depression just four words are important,” Biden said, in delivering a response to Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1983. “These four words: It can be done.”