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Biden Takes The Stage In His Dream Role, But The Pandemic Still Sets The Scene

In non-pandemic times, a president addressing a joint session of Congress can expect an audience of roughly 1,600 people. For President Biden on Wednesday, the audience was closer to 200.
Melina Mara
In non-pandemic times, a president addressing a joint session of Congress can expect an audience of roughly 1,600 people. For President Biden on Wednesday, the audience was closer to 200.

As many times as Joe Biden must have imagined the moment, he never could have imagined it looking like this.

After two failed bids for the White House and a third that began with a series of stumbles, there he finally was on Wednesday, mounting the podium to address a joint session of Congress for the first time as president of the United States.

Yet what he saw before him could not have been as he dreamed.

Before Wednesday night, Biden had been on hand to witness seven new presidents make their first address to Congress since he was first elected to the Senate nearly 50 years ago.

But instead of reveling in his own moment of ritual glory, he had to manage as best he could under COVID-19 restrictions. Forget the famously packed-in crowd of 535 members of Congress along with the Cabinet, Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a thousand other dignitaries and guests. For Biden, the chamber was all but deserted.

Here instead stood a smattering of members in masks, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and a few Cabinet members. First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff looked a bit forlorn, several seats apart in a balcony row.

For those watching around the country, at least two bitter thoughts may have occurred. First, this was probably not as many people as had been there, milling about in the chamber, on Jan. 6 after rioters invaded the Capitol. And second, if 2021 is supposed to be all about getting back to normal, this was a demonstration of how far we still have to go.

Biden has seen the version of a president making his first appearance at a joint session of Congress under normal circumstances many times. He was around for Gerald Ford's first appearance in 1974, for Jimmy Carter's in 1977, Ronald Reagan's in 1981, George H.W. Bush's in 1989, Bill Clinton's in 1993 and George W. Bush's in 2001. In 2009 he had a rear view of Barack Obama's first such address, sitting behind him as vice president and president of the Senate.

Last night, that ceremonial honor was bestowed on a woman for the first time. Vice President Harris sat beside Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., herself the first woman to hold the top House job — first from 2007 through 2010 and again since 2019.

Biden was also in attendance for about 30 State of the Union addresses — which are joint-session speeches given annually by presidents after their first year in office.

Biden was not present for any of former President Donald Trump's speeches to Congress, having been out of government during those four years. But it was hard to miss the contrast Wednesday between Biden's relatively low-key, in-the-room style and Trump's tendency to eye the cameras and swing for the fences.

For some, Trump's addresses to Congress were among his more presidential moments, at least in a conventional sense of the office. Of course, not everyone agreed with what he said: Pelosi made a show of tearing his 2020 speech in half before he had even left the chamber.

But all may agree it was strange to remember that last time Trump delivered a State of the Union. It was early in 2020, when the Senate had yet to conclude the first of his two impeachment trials and most of the U.S. was still paying little if any attention to COVID-19.

Biden did not mention his predecessor's name Wednesday. And even Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who delivered his party's response, mentioned Trump's name only once, in passing, when discussing the development of vaccines.

And yet the shadow was not gone. The mask-and-spacing regimen was a reminder that the coronavirus has dominated life since that last Trump State of the Union, which was also a reminder of the role that COVID-19 played in driving Trump from office.

Moreover, the agenda Biden spent more than an hour detailing was a reminder that along with a Democratic president and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the House, last winter's elections produced the slimmest possible Democratic majority in the Senate — a 50-50 split in which ties can be broken by Vice President Harris.

Even the most minimal degree of Senate control has been enough to permit Biden to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package (the American Rescue Plan) and push for a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal (the American Jobs Plan) and a multitrillion-dollar spending plan geared toward children and families (the American Families Plan).

And that is not to mention voting rights reform, immigration reform and an overhaul of policing laws, all of which would require Democrats to win enough Republican support to defeat a filibuster or muster the votes to defang filibustersin general. Neither seems plausible at the moment, but the fact that the Senate is even doing battle on this ground is significant.

Six months ago it seemed impossible such issues could see the light of day in a Senate run by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell sat alone and silent through Biden's address Wednesday night, a wax statue wearing a face mask.

This remarkable chain of events and proposals has been compared to Lyndon B. Johnson's cornucopia of legislation in 1965. Congress that year passed 50 notable new laws, including the Voting Rights Act, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid and a landmark revision of immigration law.

Biden will not see anything like that kind of scorecard, in part because he does not start with the same election momentum. Johnson in 1964 carried 44 states with more than 60% of the popular vote. For a time in 1965, there were 68 Democrats in the Senate and roughly 300 in the House.

Still, there is something in the sheer scope of the Biden administration's ambition that is thrilling to progressives, many of whom doubted Biden had it in him.

That has led to comparisons not only to LBJ, but to the even more iconic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, FDR's initial flurry of new laws restored faith in a revamped banking system and initiated programs that would put millions back to work.

To at least some observers, the transformative reach of FDR's first months invited comparison to Napoleon's 100-day march to Paris that galvanized France at a crucial moment in his career.

By doing so much in just his first 100 days, FDR created an impossible standard for future presidents to meet. Nonetheless, new presidents have had to at least answer questions about their performance within that time frame. More than a few have downplayed the idea, or simply rejected it as a media meme or a pundit's myth.

But Biden and his team decided to embrace it. It made no sense to have a joint session of Congress or a big ceremonial event indoors when coronavirus cases were still near their peak, especially right after the Jan. 6 riot. So if it was not advisable to make a first address in the first 40 days or so, as most recent new presidents have done, why not push it out a bit and have some real accomplishments already in hand to talk about?

The success of the vaccine rollout — raising the rate to 3 million doses per day and protecting more than half of adults in the country with at least one dose — provided just the kind of lead vehicle needed for the speech to launch and gain altitude.

Biden and company must now hope it will do the same for the administration itself.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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