By Kenneth Tiven
In his first policy speech to Congress, a confident and compassionate President Joseph Biden told the nation on Wednesday night that America was on the move again.
However, an in-person audience limited in size by pandemic social distancing requirements was a reminder that even massive vaccination success in 100 days has only slowed the pandemic.
His soothing tone hardly masked the assertive intent to change how American government works for all the people, not just the rich and powerful. The studied silence of the Republican politicians in the House chamber made clear just how much they despise Biden and his plans.
The only thing that drew a positive Republican response was a promise to keep a strong military presence in the Pacific Ocean sphere, a euphemism for China. There was zero Republican response when he described efforts already done and more to come to deal with childhood hunger in America.
In these joint sessions, the Congressmen and Senators are seated by political parties, the Republicans to the speaker’s left, the Democrats to his right, a reversal of the political realities of the American political scene in 2021.
This was Biden’s first major speech to the nation, predictability mirroring many of his campaign promises. It was not one of those “Mission Accomplished” speeches because the nation must deal with the worst pandemic in a century, economic, health and infrastructure needs and “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
His remarks about the insurrection by Trump supporters at the Capitol in early January was saved for last. “We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy,” he said but never mentioned Trump by name.
The White House has pledged to help other countries, including money for Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative. And the Biden administration plans to share as many as 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine; yet reluctance to do more quickly stems from the possible need to give booster shots in six months on top of the nearly 225 million shots already given. Biden did not get into this in his speech. There is growing pressure from public health experts demanding the US do more. American media has reported daily on the crisis in India.
He name-checked Russian President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on multiple issues, but said, “We won’t ignore what our own intelligence agencies have determined — the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today: white supremacy terrorism.”
Biden pointed out that the Senate had passed anti-hate legislation after attacks on Asian Americans and said he’d sign it as soon as the House passes it as required.
He reminded the gathering about the need for police reforms and said he would sign the George Floyd Act that deals with police tactics. While waiting, however, the administration has begun to act through Justice Department investigations into troubled police departments. It can issue grants to local police to incentivize diversifying their ranks. Biden campaigned on both strategies.
He took a shot at the gun violence problems in America: “In the 1990s, we passed universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that hold 100 rounds that can be fired in seconds. We beat the NRA. Mass shootings and gun violence declined. But in the early 2000s, that law expired and we’ve seen the daily bloodshed since.”
The volatility of American politics came up twice. On climate control and relationship with allies, Biden reminded that he took the US back onto the Paris climate agreement immediately after becoming president and that his 40 world leaders virtual summit last week reinforced that America is back on global issues. Yet, he remarked, all leaders want to know for how long given the sharp cleavage of voters every four years.
The speech lasted about 65 minutes and contained 6,000 words. It was delivered smoothly and frequently interrupted by applause from fellow Democrats, as is the tradition at the joint session speeches.