Long before he ascended to the White House, President Biden was famous for his skills as a “retail politician” — the kind of guy who didn’t always look great on TV, maybe, but who was fantastic in person, or in one-on-one meetings, both in the halls of the Capitol and out on the campaign trail. In those settings, he could really empathize, and make a senator, or a voter, or their child, feel seen and heard.
His speech to Congress on Wednesday night was a little bit like that.
Journalists who followed the address while reading from the prepared text quickly noticed that Biden wasn’t sticking strictly to the script. He didn’t depart wholesale from the written word as his predecessor was so fond of doing. Instead, he added little flourishes — friendly asides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and ad-libbed shout-outs to union workers — that made the speech a little quieter than usual, and also a little more personal. One notable addition: A reference to his late son, Beau, while urging Congress to make a goal of ending cancer “as we know it.”
“So many of us have deceased sons, daughters, relatives that died of cancer,” Biden said, before returning to the teleprompter. “I can think of no more worthy investment.”
Performances like the one he gave on Wednesday will make it difficult for Republicans who so badly want to paint Biden as a radical. Indeed, Biden’s mild manner — conservatives have called it “sleepy” — helps protect him from these charges.
Here are three more observations from the president’s big speech:
Biden is thinking big. If the tone of the speech was quiet and personal, the ideas were big and transformative: proposals to spend billions upon billions of dollars to create jobs, support young families, and expand affordable access to both health care and education. In the first 100 days of his term, Biden and Democrats in Congress have already done much to expand the breadth and scope of the federal government, but so much of that has been done on a one-off basis, necessitated and made possible by the COVID-19 pandemic and floundering economy. After a generation of watching Democratic presidents genuflect toward the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Biden’s willingness to put his credibility on the line for such proposals is still fairly astonishing.
Biden also made clear he isn’t afraid of waging a little bit of class warfare in the service of accomplishing his agenda, proposing to raise taxes on corporations and individuals making more than $400,000 a year, and pointing out that gains from the Republican tax cut of 2017 went mostly to the wealthy without creating benefits for most workers. “When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent and on corporate America, ask them, ‘Whose taxes are you going to raise instead, and whose are you going to cut?'” he said. After a career as a moderate, Biden sure sounded a lot like the Occupy Wall Street movement, if only for a moment.
He isn’t afraid of a little culture war. One of Biden’s great political strengths over the last couple of years has been to avoid weighing in on every little controversy that springs up on Twitter and Facebook. This has let him stay above the fray, while again offering a clear contrast to his very online predecessor, who always seemed to be in the middle of every burgeoning controversy.
But on Wednesday, the president showed he is willing to take up the fight when and where he deems necessary. With Republican state legislatures across the country passing legislation aimed at limiting the rights of transgender youngsters to play sports or get appropriate medical care, Biden took a side. “To all the transgender Americans watching at home — especially the young people who are so brave — I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said. The moment served as a reminder of his own role, a decade ago as vice president, in helping push then-President Obama to come out in public support of gay marriage.
Smaller audiences are better. Technically, Wednesday’s speech was not a State of the Union address — but it served the same form and function. Those speeches can be tiresome, because the president isn’t the only person in the room performing for the television audience: Lawmakers rise in applause dozens of times during a speech to signal their support for mundane proposals, while others sit stiffly to demonstrate their disapproval. Every once in a while, the most memorable moment of a big presidential speech comes from the audience — Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting “you lie!” at Obama, or Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito grimacing in disagreement with the president a year later, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ripping up the text of Donald Trump’s speech in 2020.
With the crowd on Wednesday limited to just 200 people thanks to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, that nonsense was minimal. Biden sped through the applause breaks, and even skipped the portion of the speech where he recognized the guests of First Lady Jill Biden, who recognized some virtual “guests” during a reception earlier in the day. The result: A fairly lengthy speech was made just a bit more bearable.
Was it memorable, though? That will depend on how many of the big ideas in Biden’s speech become reality. The filibuster still exists, and so does McConnell’s penchant for dashing Democratic hopes on the rocks. If Biden and his party can find a way past these obstacles, Wednesday night’s speech will go down in history as the start of something significant.