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A President’s joint address to Congress is typically a hectic evening on Capitol Hill. Every member of Congress jams in the second-floor House chamber. Their family members, constituents and, yes, sometimes donors cram into the chamber’s third-floor balcony seats that make Broadway theaters seem gracious in their spacing. Lawmakers get to the chamber early to position themselves along the central aisle so they can have a few seconds of face-time with the President — and get in the camera shots that go to millions of TVs live. As one veteran Republican operative joked last night, “It’s weird watching a State of the Union address and not seeing the whole ‘Sheila Jackson Lee got her seat at 7:24 AM’ thing.” Even in an era of change, some things are constant.
But with seven of every eight seats in the chamber sitting empty last night, the press balcony practicing social distancing and masks still de rigueur, President Joe Biden’s first turn pitching from that joint session was one for the history books. We all knew it would be nuisance and not a novelty. In seats that were off-limits, bands of tape advised no-sitting to remind guests to stay in the spot carrying their name card. Even among Biden’s partisan loyalists, it was some of the thinnest applause I’ve heard in 20 years of covering the annual speech in person and from afar, dating back to sitting in the gallery for the first one of these George W. Bush gave in a pre-9/11 United States.
With fewer members physically present to absorb the sound, every noise registered on the mics. Watching at home on television, every mumble — or in the case of Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, the unfurling of a silver blanket meant to troll Democrats about the children laying under them in refugee camps along the U.S.-Mexican border — was audible. No one struggled to discern any outburst like Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s 2009 scream at Obama during such a session: “You lie!” An errant cell phone last night became a Twitter whodunnit. (Side note: We are all pretty sure we know.)
Where Biden’s predecessors of both parties treated the evening as a performance to be judged by how often people rose from their chairs, interrupted with applause and for how long, last night had none of that. His speechwriter Vinay Reddy and longtime strategist Mike Donilon didn’t leave breadcrumbs for raucous Pavlovian responses. And Biden, for his part, seemed indifferent to his audience’s reactions. He seemed to take the sparse clapping in stride and the smaller audience as an invitation to, at some points, stray from the prepared text.
If anything, the lack of unscheduled interruptions helped Biden in ways most Americans may not have recognized. A stutterer since childhood, Biden doesn’t do well with interruption or surprises. When he starts a sentence, either he drives through to the end or he gets tongue-tied. That struggle has been a feature of his speeches on the Senate floor and on the world stage. The fear of stumbling at the Iowa State Fair in 1987 mid-White House run probably led him to plagiarism more than any intent to steal the words he had used plenty of times before with attribution.
Spontaneity is not Biden’s friend. Indeed, you could see times when both Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught themselves starting to clap before remembering not to mess with their friend’s cadences. They’d get out of the chair only to wait for Biden’s teleprompters to pause. They didn’t want to knock him off his pace. A year ago, Pelosi marked the end of what might have been Trump’s final turn in that chamber with derision and a ripped-in-two copy of the speech. Last night, she bumped elbows with the President of her party only after he had driven to the end of his final sentence and parked the cart.
As Biden stood at the rostrum last night, it was a reality imagined since at least the 1960s. Biden had a chance to flex. And he did. I’ll leave it to my colleagues to highlight his ideas on policies and politics that flowed from this hour-long speech that will be remembered as much for its novel staging as its high-spending ambition. But nothing can deny this truth: this is not how Biden ever imagined climbing the steps to perhaps the most iconic podium in American politics. Once summoned, he didn’t exactly mimic his predecessors.
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