Buried in the last few minutes of his first address before a joint session of Congress, President Joe Biden on Wednesday night referred to former President Franklin Roosevelt, who “reminded us, in America we do our part. We all do our part. That’s all I’m asking. That we do our part, all of us.”
It was a central theme in the hour-long address—a reminder that we’re all in this together and we all have to work together for democracy to succeed.
It was apparently considered important enough in the White House that two people close to the president felt the need to inform me in advance that it would be one of the main themes of his speech—as if anyone could miss it. And I wasn’t the only reporter spoken to about that particular point, making clear that the administration wants to stress it.
Joe Biden sees the United States in a battle of survival against anti-democratic forces at home and abroad. At home, he referred to the threat of white-supremacist terrorism and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Abroad, he referred to “the autocrats of the world,” who believe that democracy is too weak, too indecisive, and too divisive to be competitive in the twenty-first century. This feeling is a gift bequeathed to us by the former administration with an exclamation point, and it is something Biden desperately wants to change.
Some, like Rep. Eric Swalwell, who himself ran for president in 2020 and at one point asked Biden to turn over the reins of power to a younger generation, was impressed by Biden’s speech. “Joe Biden lowered the political temperature and raised the bar for what we must do to deliver on needs of everyday Americans,” he told me after Biden finished his speech.
GOP reaction was typical and unsurprising. During Biden’s speech Lindsey Graham didn’t applaud a plea to support the right to vote. Mitch McConnell looked asleep or worse. Ted Cruz sat looking numb as Biden proposed lowering prescription drug prices. Kevin McCarthy was motionless as Biden proposed clean water for all Americans. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who delivered the GOP’s response, gave the impression of having a hard time finding fault with the president. Scott called Biden a seemingly decent man who means well, before trying to poke a few holes in Biden’s speech. “The president and his party are pulling us further and further apart,” Scott said—a claim especially laughable coming from the party of Donald Trump.
On policy, the president described his $2.7 infrastructure-plus proposal: “The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America.” He said “there’s no reason why turbine blades can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.” And, in a line that both undercut a standard GOP argument and showed a common-sense deftness that Barack Obama once memorably whiffed, Biden said that Wall Street didn’t build America, “The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class.”
At every turn, Biden subtly destroyed key arguments against his grand plans. And his plans are indeed on par with FDR’s. His proposals include universal pre-school and community college, increased health care coverage, and more. The cost would not be borne by the middle class, Biden said—“I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country. They’re already paying enough.”—but by the richest Americans and by tax-evading corporations and individuals.
The president also put a dagger through trickle-down economics, saying that it has never worked and you have to grow the economy “from the bottom up and middle out.”
And he attacked racism and mentioned the need for criminal-justice reform, invoking the terrible death of George Floyd eleven months ago:
We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of black America. . . . Most men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably. I know them. I know they want to help meet this moment as well. My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already. . . .
We need to work together to find a consensus. Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. . . .
It’s never been a good bet to bet against America. . . . There is nothing—nothing—beyond our capacity. Nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”
So much for Sen. Scott’s claim that Biden is “pulling us further and further apart.”
Chris Wallace from Fox said the speech will be popular with most Americans. Anchors on other networks were equally effusive with their praise. Van Jones on CNN said it may have been Biden’s best speech ever.
As Biden himself noted, it was a historic speech: For the first time both the speaker of the House and the vice president sitting behind the president were women. It also occurred during a pandemic, and the COVID protocols meant fewer people in the House chambers than in previous presidential speeches before a joint session of Congress. It was a calculated speech designed, as Jones put it, as a “friendly populism” that sought to remind everyone about the “idea of America.” It is hard for any member of the GOP to argue with a president saying “We are all created equal. It’s who we are. We cannot walk away from that principle.”
It is harder for the GOP to seem relevant in this country with their divisive rhetoric when Biden holds the moral high ground. It’s even more problematic as the GOP remains devoted to a standard-bearer who continues to call into question the results of the 2020 election.
That is why Biden’s people were making the rounds before his speech tonight—hoping to blunt the accusations of divisiveness by emphasizing the speech’s hopeful message of unity. There was no pithy or memorable line—no “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” that we remember from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. It was just prosaic, old-fashioned liberalism, as Bill Kristol writes.
The question remains, for how long can Biden be effective doing it? Biden knows he has a very limited time frame in which to work. His appeal to FDR—at least according to those I spoke with inside the administration and his Democratic fans outside of the administration—was purposeful. FDR acted with gusto in his famous first 100 days. So did Biden—and Biden wants everyone to remember how he vigorously attacked our nation’s problems as we cruise into the midterm elections.
Pundits have, as is their wont, already begun discussing the next election cycle. Biden and his team want to sell everyone on the idea that we’re all in it together—and appeal to the GOP to work with everyone else in making progress.
He’s taking the high road—while the GOP continues to choke in the swamp they claimed they had cleared.