Six things to watch during President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress

President Biden's speech will be the first presidential address to Congress since the coronavirus pandemic began
Originally Published: 28 APR 21 12:00 ET
Updated: 28 APR 21 18:15 ET

(CNN) — President Joe Biden is slated to deliver his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday, where he will lay out his next big legislative priority to the American people and celebrate what he sees as his administration’s victories during his first 100 days in office.

Viewers can expect the President to acknowledge what has been lost because of the coronavirus pandemic with his trademark empathy and at the same time — as has often been the case during past addresses — deliver a message of confidence and optimism. The address in the House chamber of the Capitol building will also offer Biden the chance to bolster his agenda and sell his biggest ideas, particularly a massive jobs and infrastructure plan, in front of Congress and the nation.

Biden has watched a number of presidents deliver addresses to Congress over his decades in the Senate and in the Obama White House, but this will be the first time he’s delivering his own address in the chamber since taking office. During his decades of sitting in the chamber watching other presidents give their State of the Union speeches and other major addresses, he could not have imagined the scene that will be before him when he stands on the rostrum Wednesday.

The audience will be thin and the President will wear a face mask before and after delivering his address, according to a person familiar with the plan. Behind him, for the first time, will be two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of whom plan to wear masks.

Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper and other anchors in a briefing on Wednesday that he has felt pressure to succeed right out of the box. The two main issues during the briefing were the health of the country physically, in terms of the Covid pandemic, and economically. Biden told the anchors he is eager to work with Republicans but he needs to have a GOP with which he can negotiate.

“Well, I got to figure out if there’s a party to do deals with,” Biden said. “We need a Republican Party. And we need — we need another party, whatever you call it, that’s unified — not completely splintered and fearful of one another.”

Tapper reported Biden also said he views the challenges ahead of the country as a question of if democracy can succeed in the 21st century, a debate he says he’d had with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“And I’ve been convinced for a long time — I doubt whether most of you would agree with me, but I think we’re going to — they’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden said. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century. Not a joke. Whether autocracy is the answer — they were my discussions and debates I’d have in the many times I met with Xi.”

During Wednesday night’s speech, Biden will address the American Families Plan. He told Tapper and other anchors he is willing to make a bipartisan deal on infrastructure but thinks this is an inflection point in the country and the world and now is time to go big.

Given that Biden’s speech is the first presidential address to Congress since the coronavirus pandemic began, this year’s events will undoubtedly look and feel different than ones in years past. Here are six things you can expect during Wednesday’s remarks:

An extra-tight guest list

Trump’s final address to Congress was the State of the Union in February 2020 — a month before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

During the joint address this year, the chamber will have far fewer audience members than years past because coronavirus restrictions limit capacity. And given the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year and the subsequent incidents around the Capitol fence, security is expected to be tight.

Invitations have been extended to a limited number of members of Congress and those who are invited cannot bring guests. About 200 people will be allowed into the chamber.

Most of Biden’s Cabinet will be watching from their offices or homes, Psaki said on Tuesday. And since they will not be in attendance, there will be no designated survivor — a Cabinet member who does not attend the speech in case of some sort of catastrophe that wipes out the line of succession.

Chief Justice John Roberts will be the only Supreme Court justice in attendance.

It’s unclear how many lawmakers per party will attend. As tickets are limited, the Democratic caucus is holding a lottery for members who are interested in attending Biden’s speech, multiple senators and aides told CNN.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both are expected to be in the audience.

And first lady Jill Biden won’t have a traditional viewing box at the address, Psaki said on Friday.

It’s been a tradition for first ladies to sit during a State of the Union — or a joint address to Congress for presidents in their first months in office — with guests who symbolize the presidential administration’s policy priorities. And while the first lady will attend the address in person, she will not bring guests to sit in her box, according to the White House.

Most, if not all, of the White House staff will be watching the speech virtually, Psaki said.

Acknowledging the difficulties of the last year

Biden plans to discuss two major events that seem almost inescapable in the room where he’s delivering his address — the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

He’ll reference the January 6 riot at the Capitol during his remarks, according to people familiar with his speech preparations. And before he speaks, he’ll meet with Capitol staff who weathered the insurrection attempt.

The coronavirus pandemic will constitute a major portion of Biden’s speech, officials said.

Outlining the American Families Plan

During the address, Biden will lay out key components the final piece of a two-part sweeping, $4 trillion spending proposal, which would invest hundreds of billions into education, child care and paid leave.

The measures being proposed in the American Families Plan include: making community college free, enhancing Pell grants, enhancing funding for recruiting and developing the education workforce, funding paid family and medical leave, funding universal preschool, and extending of free summer meals for children. The plan would also extend or make permanent several existing measures.

The plan would cost $1.8 trillion and the President will seek to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to finance it. His new proposed measures would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade.

While key elements of the proposal were tweaked, removed or added in just the last several days, the joint session speech has long been viewed as the platform to unveil the proposal and its key elements, several of which Biden’s top advisers consistently point out poll quite well with the public.

In the days following the address, Biden will hit the road to make his first sales pitch for the plan at events around the country. Cabinet members and White House officials will take part in the tour as well.

Touting pandemic victories and pushing for vaccinations

Expect Biden to highlight his administration’s efforts to combat the coronavirus and keep the economy afloat, like the passage of the President’s first legislative priority — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The speech has been teed up by a few markers of optimism for the administration. On Tuesday, the President signed an executive order raising the federal minimum wage for government contractors.

The administration also said this week it plans to send coronavirus vaccines abroad and celebrated the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to ease guidelines on mask wearing by vaccinated individuals.

Biden is also expected to push people to get vaccinated as vaccine supply grows to meet demand and emphasize its incentives, like eased masking guidelines and attending certain gatherings.

The administration indicated last week that they expect daily vaccination rates to “moderate and fluctuate” during the next stage of the US vaccination program, now that the most at-risk populations and those most eager to get vaccinated have largely been administered a vaccine.

Pelosi and Harris make history

Biden’s speech will mark the first time two women in Washington leadership will sit behind a sitting US president during a joint address to Congress. The symbolism is something he’ll acknowledge during his speech, according to sources familiar with the plan.

Harris and Pelosi — the first women to hold their positions in federal leadership — are expected to sit behind Biden on the rostrum in masks during the entirety of the speech.

Though silent throughout the President’s remarks, the vice president and the speaker’s body language often serve as guideposts for how parties in the chamber react.

House Speaker John Boehner was sometimes seen grimacing behind then-President Barack Obama during his addresses to Congress. And Pelosi was famously seen ripping up her copy of President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address shortly after he finished speaking.

Given that both Pelosi and Harris are Democrats, expect frequent gestures of approval, like applause and standing ovations.

Policing reform

The White House has said policing reform will be a key topic discussed during Biden’s Wednesday evening address.

“As he’s thinking about what his joint session speech looks like next week, he has every intention of using that as an opportunity to elevate this issue and talk about the importance of putting police reform measures in place,” Psaki said last week.

Biden’s comments about policing reform from the chamber will come one week after Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes last year, was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

“The President doesn’t believe that he alone can pull the George Floyd (Justice in Policing) Act across the finish line. That is going to be up to Congress,” she said, adding that Biden “believes the bar for convicting officers is too high.”

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