President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress could define his legacy

The first three months of Joe Biden’s presidency have been unprecedented and historic, so it’s fitting that Wednesday night’s address to a joint session of Congress will be no different. Beginning with President Ronald Reagan in 1981, these speeches for first-term presidents have usually occurred in February. Protocols surrounding COVID-19 and the successful passage of the American Rescue Plan Act have delayed the address until just before Biden’s 100-day mark on Friday.

Given the deadly protests inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, National Guard troops and fencing will again be prominent during this designated national special security event. COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccination will be required for attendees, just as they were for Biden’s inaugural address.

Although an audience of roughly 1,600 usually attends these speeches in the House chamber, only about 200 people will receive invitations from congressional leaders this time — and some will even be forced to sit above the floor in the House gallery because of social distancing rules. Chief Justice John Roberts and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley will represent the Supreme Court and military respectively, but the Biden Cabinet will be noticeably absent.

Empty guest boxes for the Bidens 

History will be made as two women sit behind the president on the House floor dais. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will both be required to wear masks during the entirety of the address, ensuring the pandemic will remain visually front and center.

The exclusive nature of Wednesday’s address will severely restrict the number of guests permitted. Members of Congress are prohibited from bringing anyone, and Biden’s official guest list won’t be unveiled until just before the speech. Reagan became the first president to recognize an invited guest during his address in 1982. He singled out local hero Lenny Skutnik, who had rescued a drowning woman from the icy Potomac River after a plane crash, and the reaction was so positive that all presidents have since followed this tradition. President Donald Trump similarly acknowledged Carryn Owens during his 2017 address. She is the widow of a Navy SEAL killed during a counterterrorism operation in Yemen.

First lady Jill Biden’s guest box will be empty on Wednesday, as will the traditional presidential box for invited guests.

Vice President Joe Biden points at President Barack Obama during Obama's State of the Union address in 2016. (Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

It’s unclear whether these restrictions will hamstring Biden’s important speech. He did fine without the traditional large audience on the National Mall for his inaugural address. Despite the unique conditions and obstacles, he is well positioned this week for another success. 

As vice president, Biden sat right behind President Barack Obama as he delivered 10 addresses to a joint session of Congress. During his 36 years in the Senate, Biden was seated in the House chamber for dozens of these speeches. He was one of several Democratic senators who officially responded to Reagan’s addresses in 1983 and 1984.

Biden’s Democratic National Convention speech, election victory remarks and inaugural address were all well received. He delivered a prime-time address on March 11 to mark the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while he once called himself a gaffe machine, Biden successfully navigated his first formal news conference as president — also later than normal — on March 25. A solid effort Wednesday before a television audience of tens of millions could move the needle on some middling poll numbers and provide some much needed agenda momentum.

Biden’s big recovery opportunity 

While Biden’s timing and the constraints he faces are rare, there are some helpful historical parallels. The 100-day milestone for presidential administrations started with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the early 1930s. FDR began the modern practice of delivering spoken addresses in 1934, and in that speech he told Americans about how his New Deal programs would “build on the ruins of the past” and set the country on the right path moving out of the Great Depression and into the future.

In Biden’s speech Wednesday, he will try to build public support for his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. If he is persuasive enough and Congress passes them, a new FDR-like legacy could be in the cards for the 46th president.

The title of Reagan’s 1981 address was “Program for Economic Recovery,” and President Bill Clinton unveiled his economic plan during a 1993 address that drew an audience of nearly 67 million Americans. President Biden must use this fortuitously timed speech to make the strongest case possible for the second half of his economic agenda to the lawmakers in the chamber and their constituents watching at home. They will determine its legislative fate as well as the president’s ultimate legacy.

Aaron Kall, Director of Debate at the University of Michigan, is editor/co-author of “Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States: Addresses to a Joint Session of Congress.”

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