For all of the hype surrounding an evening when a US president delivers remarks to a joint session of Congress, only a few lines from a few of those speeches are remembered in history.
But it’s the circumstances in which President Biden delivered his first-ever formal address to Congress on Wednesday night that will likely be remembered: Viewers will recall just how weird it all was with coronavirus rules changing the look of the speech on television, and how the typically raucous event was muted.
Consider this: where in the past one Cabinet member had to be held back as a “designated survivor” in case everyone died inside the Capitol, there were enough Cabinet members watching from home that the exercise wasn’t even necessary.
However, coming a day before the 100-day mark of his presidency, Biden did use the pomp of the presidency and of the moment to try to build momentum for what seems to be a very ambitious — yet stalled, at least in the halls of Congress — Biden agenda.
In case you missed it, here are five takeaways from Biden’s prime time speech.
1. Yes, it was just weird
No presidential speech to Congress has been given in this format. Everyone in the room wore masks. All had to have a COVID test or show they have been vaccinated. No guests were allowed in the room. In all, only 200 people were there, down from the usual 1,600 in the audience.
“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is very different — a reminder of the extraordinary times we are in,” Biden said, acknowledging it all.
2. Another way the night was historic visually
For the first time in history, the president was flanked on both sides of the camera shot by a female vice president and a female House speaker. The Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi images lit up Twitter as a meme of sorts. And as these things go (no graphics or videos are shown during these speeches) it was the visual of the night.
Biden began his speech pointing this out: “Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time,” he said.
3. It’s the coronavirus, stupid
Before there was any discussion about an infrastructure plan or tax rates or paid family leave, the big story of the moment remains the status of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s timing seems to be quite lucky. He took over as president just as vaccinations began to be ramped up and the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the virus are all down.
How much credit Biden deserves is open for debate, but he used the speech to give his side of the argument and look like he is in charge. He also got to give what was largely the most optimistic and genuinely hopeful speech by a sitting president since the pandemic began. Indeed, the focus wasn’t on fighting the virus, but the recovery, especially as it relates to the economy.
“The economy created more than 1.3 million new jobs in 100 days,” said Biden. “More new jobs in the first 100 days than any president on record.”
4. Biden was elected as a moderate, but his agenda is big
Biden was far from the most progressive choice Democrats had when they made him their nominee. In the end, many Democrats went with him because he was seen as moderate and experienced enough that he was the most electable.
But as president, Biden has so far been the most progressive president in at least a generation. The bulk of his speech was spent talking about three different big spending bills (COVID relief, infrastructure, and the American Families Plan). Combined, those plans have a price tag of $6 trillion. For context, the entire federal budget for 2020 (including the military and entitlements like Social Security and Medicare) was $4.79 trillion.
5. Biden used China as a foil
No other foreign country got name-checked in the speech more than China. The point wasn’t to address a trade deal or something like terrorism, but to show that the United States is in competition to lead the world with the planet’s most populous nation.
He used China as the foil to push for his administration’s idea of new green jobs by saying, “There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.” He also used the specter of global competition to suggest that the United States needs to invest more in education and in research and development.
“China and other countries are closing in fast,” Biden said on that point.
Biden also riffed off script on China, calling this moment an “inflection point” in the history of competition between the two nations. He also pointed, as he often does, to conversations he has had with Chinese President Xi about the nature of democracy.