Joe Biden's First Big Speech

[ Posted Wednesday, April 28th, 2021 – 21:22 UTC ]

President Joe Biden has achieved one rather monumental task since he took office, at least to me: in his first 99 days as president, Biden has successfully made the presidency boring again. This sounds like a joke, but it isn't. The previous president was the one to make the presidency itself a joke, in fact -- Biden is just returning us all to the normal state of things. And the public -- even a lot of Republicans -- are relieved at this development. Joe Biden is not an egomaniac nor is he a megalomaniac. The difference is striking. Biden does not crave seeing his face on the news each night, so he has no need to deliberately cause a mini-crisis just to get everyone to pay attention to him during that day's news cycle. Biden also does not communicate like a petulant pre-teen on social media. He's downright boring, and that's an enormous relief to us all.

Part of this transformation has happened because his predecessor got kicked off social media, for fanning the flames of political violence. If this hadn't happened, Biden might have had a tougher time making the presidency boring again. But for whatever reason, Joe Biden made being boring cool again for politicians.

Tonight, Biden gave his first big speech, an address to Congress -- the "don't call it a State Of The Union" State Of The Union speech (the technical term isn't used until after a president has been in office for a year).

President Biden's speech was boring in parts, animated in others, but delivery aside it was a consequential speech that not only celebrated a portion of what the Biden administration has already achieved but also called on Congress to act on a rather large laundry list of agenda items. In other words, pretty standard as these things go.

And my standard disclaimer: as usual when writing these snap reactions, all quotes were hastily jotted down and may not be word-for-word accurate (although they will be close in meaning, at least).


Biden's style and delivery

Biden is not the smoothest public speaker, of course, so his delivery is not up to the oratorical style of, say, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton -- both of whom could play a congressional audience like a fiddle, when they wanted to. Biden's delivery is a lot less dramatic and lot more down-to-earth. He speaks as if he's talking to a family around a kitchen table rather than shooting for oratory grandeur, to put this another way.

And as we all know, Biden has struggled with stuttering his whole life. This led to a few misstatements and fumbles, but then again even presidents without this challenge also flub a few lines here and there, so it wasn't all that noticeable tonight.

Biden's delivery was a lot quieter than usual, partly because of the audience he spoke to. The hall was not packed with people, only a few hundred were actually physically present. This gave Biden the opportunity to whisper, at times, while still being heard by all. It also meant that the applause lines were a lot less noticeable in general, and a lot less intrusive into the actual speech. It also meant the television cameras weren't obsessed with who stood and gave ovations and who sat on their hands with a sour look on their face. This was a welcome change (for me, at least).

Biden did show some emotion at times, at times almost pleading with Congress (Republicans, specifically) to act on any number of issues. But it also came with a warning, what has already become a Bidenism: "Doing nothing is not an option." Biden is clearly telling Senate Republicans that they can either get on board and participate in negotiations or the Democrats will pass important measures on their own.

Overall, probably the worst thing about Biden's delivery was his inability to smoothly segue from one topic to the next. Again, usually there are many interruptions in the speech with wild applause, which gives natural breaks between the paragraphs. Since Biden didn't really have that to work with, he occasionally shifted subjects jarringly or too quickly. But that's really not all that bad (as the worst critique I can make), and assumably next year Biden will be better at it (when those frequent standing ovations return).


Biden's agenda

The speech itself clocked in at just over an hour, which is also pretty standard. But because Biden didn't dwell on each individual item in his laundry list as long or as in-depth as most presidents do, he was able to pack more items into the overall list.

He began by pointing out the historic nature of the two women behind him: "Madam Speaker and Madam Vice President." For the first time, two out of three of the people on screen for the speech were women. One wonders how long it will be before all three are women, in fact.

Biden's speech hit a few big themes. He began by talking about "crisis and opportunity," and later framed a lot of his issues as democracy versus autocracy on the world's stage. His basic point is that autocracies often can act quicker in a crisis or just a quickly-developing situation, and that places like China and Russia think that American democracy is so broken that it simply can't keep up. By doing so, Biden is arguing that partisan obstructionism is really a national security issue, since if we can't keep up, autocracies are poised to eat our lunch.

Biden did pat himself on the back for a partial list of his successes during his first 99 days in office, and declared "America is on the move again," after pointing out the historic number of crises he faced when he took office (a pandemic, a financial emergency, and the "worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War"). He defined what he means by the term "bipartisan" by pointing out how his COVID-19 relief bill (the "American Rescue Plan") was supported by large numbers of the public -- "Democrats, independents, and Republicans." Biden celebrated hitting 220 million vaccination shots -- far more than his original goal of 100 million or his revised goal of 200 million -- and urged: "Go get vaccinated, America!"

He quickly listed all the other good things the A.R.P. contained as well, starting with those $1,400 checks to most families. Biden pointed out 1.3 million new jobs had been created since he took office, "more than any other president on record."

The most noticeable Biden gaffe of the night came next, as he kind of muffed his "build back better" line, but he quickly moved on to touting the second large bill he already announced, the "American Jobs Plan." He repeatedly used the word "jobs" to show how everything in the bill would provide thousands of good jobs, "90 percent of which will require no college degree." One of Biden's best lines was framing this legislative package as "a blue-collar blueprint to build America." Biden then pushed for the inclusion of the PRO Act, stating "the middle class built this country and Unions built the middle class." Biden called on Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage and the Paycheck Fairness Act as well.

Biden's first big new idea of the night was to call on the National Institutes of Health to set up an advanced research projects agency, much like DARPA (which was instrumental in creating the internet and G.P.S.). Biden then returned to a favorite from his own personal agenda: "Let's end cancer as we know it!"

Biden then made the pivot to the bill he introduced today, the American Families Plan. This would spend $1.8 trillion on family-friendly ideas such as free pre-school and free community college for all. Biden declared that public education funding only 12 years of school is no longer enough, and it must be extended two years in each direction to provide 16 years, instead.

Also included in the new bill would be a guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family medical leave, and an extension of the expanded child tax credit that was instituted in the A.R.P. (where each parent gets $3,000 or $3,600 a year, in monthly checks, depending on the child's age). He also pushed to make the increase in the Obamacare subsidies permanent.

Biden did weave a few agenda items that didn't make the final cut to all three of his big proposals (as he did earlier with the $15 minimum wage, which wound up on the Senate parliamentarian's cutting room floor). Biden called to lower prescription drug prices, Medicare bargaining for drug price reductions, and expanding Medicare to younger people. Again, none made the cut, so these are all more aspirational, at this point. He did wind up this section by echoing Bernie Sanders: "Health care should be a right and not a privilege."

He then talked about how he would pay for most of his proposals -- raising taxes on corporations and those making over $400,000 a year. Republicans think they're going to win this argument by just loudly screaming "he's raising everyone's taxes!" but with Biden so committed to that income cutoff line, it's doubtful whether many working-class Americans are really going to care if someone making a half-million bucks a year has to pay a little more.

Biden's finest moment of the night -- the one line people may remember from this speech years from now -- was when he absolutely refuted Reaganomics. First he denounced the Republican snake oil sales tactic they use to pass all their tax cuts on wealthy people, pointing out that these tax cuts never actually pay for themselves, no matter how many times Republicans promise that they will. Biden's best line, one that directly attacked Reagan, was: "trickle-down economics has never worked!" As I said, if there's one line that historians remember from this speech it will be that one.

Biden really hit his oratory stride at this point, as well. "America is back!" was followed by a call for us to stand with our allies on the world stage again: "There's no wall high enough to keep a virus out!"

Biden then spoke of why working together and proving American democracy can still work is so important -- because China and others are betting it won't. Biden's entire foreign policy segment showed determination to stand up to autocrats and prove that democracy still can work to win against a determined adversary. Biden took credit for "ending the forever war in Afghanistan" right before a rather interesting observation -- that he's the "first president in 40 years" to have a son who served in a war zone (which would make Jimmy Carter the last one, I suppose, but I admit I have not actually looked this up yet).

Biden spoke of terrorism, but then made perhaps his best segue of the night to drive home an excellent point: "white supremacy is terrorism." He then told of speaking to George Floyd's daughter and spoke on how racial relations must improve. He pointed out the one big bipartisan (as it used to be defined) achievement he's already accomplished, a 94-1 Senate vote on a bill to fight violence against Asian-Americans. He then called for Congress to also pass the Equality Act to protect the rights of L.G.B.T.Q. Americans and the Violence Against Women Act. He followed this with a plea for Congress to pass gun safety legislation as well.

Biden's funniest moment was a joke he cracked in the midst of talking about guns -- which was somewhat of a surprise, seeing how serious a subject it is. Biden asked contemptuously: "What do you think, deer wear Kevlar vests?" -- which actually got a big laugh.

Biden ended his laundry list with a call for immigration reform, calling on Republicans to -- at the very least -- give the "dreamers" a path to citizenship ("let's argue about it, let's debate it, but let's act"), and also calling on them to pass the two Democratic voting rights bills as well.

Biden then denounced the insurrection at the Capitol and called it a test of our democracy. After a quick F.D.R. quote, Biden rolled all this back into his main theme -- democracy versus the autocrats. "We the people did not flinch" when the insurrection happened, Biden proudly stated. He finished with another favorite Bidenism of his: "It is never a good bet to bet against America." He then finished with a variation on what has become the standard line, by asking God to bless our troops (rather than "God bless America"), so my bet would be some Republican is going to have some sort of hissy fit about that tomorrow.

All in all, it was a speech jam-packed with legislative proposals, either ones that his own White House has put out or existing bills awaiting action in Congress (mostly in the Senate). Content-wise, the speech was a little of something for everyone (every Democrat, at the very least) to hope for and cheer for.


The Republican response

Senator Tim Scott gave the Republican response. This was largely a mix of just abject whining about how Joe Biden somehow couldn't magically make all the Republicans in Congress want to try to get anything done. Seriously, I took notes, but that's pretty much the entire message he had -- see, it's the Democrats who are being all divisive, and Republicans just want to sing "Kumbaya" and hold hands.

At times, this led to such ridiculous lines that I half thought he was doing some sort of comedy routine. Such as: "America is not a racist country." And: "Republicans support making it easier to vote." And my favorite, how Donald Trump solved the COVID-19 pandemic and how Joe Biden just had to allow it to smoothly happen. Oh, and how the new Georgia voter-suppression law is actually peachy-keen and nothing to worry about whatsoever.

If I had been drinking liquid during any of these knee-slappers, I would have done a spit-take.

I mean, has Tim Scott ever met Donald Trump? Seriously, you expect us to believe that Republicans are better on racial harmony than Democrats? Seriously?

That's really about all that needs be said about the Republican response speech tonight.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


12 Comments on “Joe Biden's First Big Speech”

  1. [1] 
    Kick wrote:

    Great writeup, CW.

    At times, this led to such ridiculous lines that I half thought he was doing some sort of comedy routine.

    I know, right!?

    Tim Scott stated he was:

    * Pulled over while driving "for no reason"
    * Followed in stores while shopping
    * Called the n-word, "including by liberals"

    Also Tim Scott: "America is not a racist country."

    Really, Tim? You sure you can't think of even a single little reason you got pulled over? Did the officer not supply you with probable cause? It's generally the first thing an officer will inform you, Tim, so did that officer state you were being pulled over "for no reason" or are you just making that up? Followed in stores while shopping, Tim? Why would anybody do that? You sure you can't think of a single reason somebody would do that to you specifically, Tim? Got called a "n-word," Tim? Why would anybody do that to you, Tim? And called that by a liberal, Tim? In America?


    /sarcasm off

    So who's going to help Tiny-Brain Tim to connect the giant honking dots? Or maybe he's really not as stupid as he's acting and is either deeply in denial or just outright lying.

    Republicans chose Tim Scott to deliver their response to Joe Biden's speech, and I cannot fathom why. Oh, wait!

    So to recap: Republicans think voters are stupid.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kick -

    Or maybe they think Tim Scott is stupid?


    I kept saying "Have you met Donald Trump?" all during his speech...


  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Something about Biden’s speech seemed very familiar to me - but I couldn’t quite place it until this morning.....

    Biden’s speech had a lot in common with an FDR “Fireside Chat.” Nothing lofty, just calmly pitching a political product that might make the listener’s life a bit better during a time of of crisis. Some parallels to Reagan as well.

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    As a student of Economics, I'm guessing that it never was true, and still isn't, that tax CUTS always engender enough economic stimulus to "pay for themselves".

    That fact however, does NOT translate to allowing us to justifiably conclude that tax INCREASES do not have negative effects of tax revenue.

    The thing that assures that Economics cannot be an 'exact' science, such as math or physics, is that there is such a plethora of variables to be taken into account.

    Chances are, both of those effects on revenue, positive and negative, depend on the specific details of the nature and the types of tax increase/decreases actually enacted, and damn near nobody is capable of foreseeing the outcomes in advance.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    sorry if i got impatient, had to go to sleep before the column went up, and i didn't realize biden was speaking, much less that he was speaking so late.


  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    this is admittedly off the cuff, but i'd imagine tax rate has an equilibrium point just as supply and demand do. that being the case, i'm quite certain that at this moment an increase in the top brackets will bring us closer to equilibrium than a decrease.


  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    TheStig -

    Good point about FDR, fireside chat...

    Biden's just so darn folksy. That's going to be an enormous political asset for him for the next 4 years...


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    C. R. Stucki -

    Good point, especially about nobody really knowing. Although with the tax rates (corporate or personal) all we have to do is look back farther than the last time they were cut -- should be plenty of data showing businesses an individuals were doing pretty good, back then.

    Or maybe I'm missing something... the capital gains thing might be harder, data might not exist, now that I think about it...


  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    nypoet22 -

    I should have warned everyone that I was doing a snap-reaction column, and that it'd be late...

    Mea culpa.


  10. [10] 
    John M wrote:

    I'm surprised nowhere was it mentioned what has garnered the biggest attention on all the news shows I have seen so far this morning.....

    Biden being the first American President EVER to say to transgender youth that as President "he has your back."

    This is HUGE, but not mentioned as significant by CW or anyone else. Yet it has been one of the BIG headlines in the news all morning, along with the raid and seizure of Rudy's electronic devices.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Biden's finest moment of the night -- the one line people may remember from this speech years from now -- was when he absolutely refuted Reaganomics. First he denounced the Republican snake oil sales tactic they use to pass all their tax cuts on wealthy people, pointing out that these tax cuts never actually pay for themselves, no matter how many times Republicans promise that they will. Biden's best line, one that directly attacked Reagan, was: "trickle-down economics has never worked!" As I said, if there's one line that historians remember from this speech it will be that one.

    This was my favourite part of the speech, too! I half expected to hear that the Republican cult of economic failure has been officially put out of its misery (and ours), finally and permanently, for good!

  12. [12] 
    Kick wrote:

    Chris Weigant

    Or maybe they think Tim Scott is stupid?

    But Tim "seems like a good man. His speech was full of good words."

    Heh... quoting Tim there, of course. Gee that does sound stupid... absolutely no doubt about that.

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