Coronavirus restrictions may curb President Joe Biden‘s ability to use his address to a joint session of Congress to lean on lawmakers to approve trillions of dollars in federal government spending.
Only 200-odd people will be in the House of Representatives chamber on Wednesday to hear Biden’s first presidential report in person. Many Republicans have opted not to attend the event, scheduled during a congressional recess, and guests are not invited.
The COVID-19 restrictions mean Biden will deliver his address to an even smaller audience as its viewership has dwindled year after year. They also make it more difficult for him to orchestrate traditional special guest moments as he seeks to build momentum behind his $2.25 trillion infrastructure package and coming “American Families Plan.”
Biden’s address coincides with a crucial point of his presidency — 100 days into his term. That artificial marker falls on Thursday. But even White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the limitations the pandemic is imposing on his remarks.
“They’re used to seeing, which is always an important part of the speech, a first lady’s box that’s full of incredible people who are inspiring, who have inspiring stories and the president references in his speech,” she said on Monday. “And none of that will be a part of the speech in the same way that people have seen in the past.”
In contrast to last summer’s Democratic convention, the White House has stayed relatively mum regarding the logistics of the address. Meanwhile, the convention received rave reviews for re-imaging the roll call vote and for elevating supporters, including Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old with a stutter.
“We are looking for ways to engage with the American public, whether it’s through viewing parties or ways to communicate about what the president is proposing,” Psaki said two days before remarks.
Biden has been “deeply involved” in drafting the address, according to the White House. Working with speechwriters and policy advisers, he is expected to tout what he will describe as his administration’s achievements in passing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus-focused “American Rescue Plan,” leading the economic recovery, and vaccinating almost 30% of the country’s population.
But Biden will also promote his infrastructure-heavy “American Jobs Plan” while unveiling his “American Families Plan.” The latter is anticipated to propose upward of $1.5 trillion in new spending and tax credits for social welfare programs, such as free prekindergarten and community college, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, and an extension of the more generous child tax benefit rolled out through the “American Rescue Plan.”
“He will also talk about a range of priorities that he has for the upcoming months of his presidency, including putting in place, working with Congress to put in place police reform, including doing more to expand access to affordable healthcare,” Psaki said Monday.
Aaron Kall, University of Michigan’s debate director and co-author of Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States: Addresses to a Joint Session of Congress, said Biden is under pressure to perform after polls published last weekend indicated his popularity is dipping.
“There’s not a big margin in either the House or Senate, so it is definitely going to require some salesmanship in order for this to pass by the summer before we start talking about the midterm elections,” he said of Biden’s latest plans. “And using the bully pulpit like this is becoming harder and harder to do as the politics in the country shift.”
However, Kall contended the smaller audience, normally approximately 1,600 people, may advantage Biden. Attendees were more likely to at least listen to the president’s arguments, he said.
Dana Gresham, chief of staff to former Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and an Obama administration alumnus, rebuffed that idea. For Gresham, viewers watching from home are the target audience.
“The president will want to talk directly to the American public and share his vision and demonstrate a sense of urgency around his legislative platform,” he said.
Gresham added the smaller audience will detract from the pomp and circumstance and subtract from the “emotional intensity” and “theatrics.”
“Anytime the president comes to speak before a joint session of Congress is a big deal and is an opportunity to move the needle,” he said. “The message is the same, regardless of whether there’s a special guest in the gallery or not.”
COVID-19, too, has nixed speculation concerning Biden’s designated survivor since no Cabinet members will be present. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will represent his bench, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will do the same for the military. And Biden will be the first president to be framed by two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The pair will wear masks, while Biden will not for his speech.
An address to a joint session of Congress, called a State of the Union when it is not an inauguration year, has not been organized for as late as April since Ronald Reagan. Congress is typically convened in January or February for the remarks. Biden, himself, suggested he would address lawmakers in mid-February. But the speech was pushed back until the “American Rescue Plan” passed the Senate.
Biden will fly to Georgia on Thursday, the day after his address, for a “Back on Track” drive-in rally.