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Biden’s address to Congress: little poetry, but lots of clear prose

The president signaled that if Republicans can get over the block-it-all goal, he’s willing to compromise on how big, how fast, how high and how far.

President Joe Biden addressing a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the dais behind him.
President Joe Biden addressing a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the dais behind him.
Melina Mara/Pool via REUTERS

I found President Joe Biden’s not-quite-State-of the-Union address to a joint session of Congress smart, likable and not terribly newsworthy. I mean that last bit mostly as a compliment.

We know by now what Biden stands for. Tax the rich and borrow huge amounts to enact and increase programs that help poor and working-class Americans, finish off the pandemic, rejoin the multilateral agreements that his predecessor pulled out of, restore American leadership in global affairs from the shambles said predecessor left behind, and declare his view that “white supremacy is terrorism.”

Congressional Republicans, who control neither the House nor Senate, can try to block it all. Biden said fairly clearly that if Republicans can get over the block-it-all goal, he’s willing to compromise on how big, how fast, how high and how far.

Not a lot of poetry (see Obama for that stuff), but a lot of clear prose.

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We know what Biden ran on and what he has said since he won. He is prepared (in ways that did seem surprising over the last few weeks but not last night) to do a lot and spend a lot to help those with problems, to tax corporations and the rich to pay for some of it, and borrow the rest.

The ideas are almost all good. The pay-for part remains to be seen.

Biden doesn’t make me weak in the knees when he talks (the way Barack Obama often did). But, perhaps luckily for Biden, the immediate comparison is to Donald Trump — who, even if he wanted to, could never be that clear, coherent, compassionate, or reasonable.

The president didn’t say much last night that was new. He really seems to want to tee up one problem after another and do what government can do to solve them, or at least make progress in that direction. He seemed to understand that Republicans aren’t prepared to raise taxes on the rich to solve problems for the poor but Biden at least implied that he’s ready, as long as Republicans agree with the goals, to take Republican input seriously into account about the ways and means of making progress toward those goals.

Maybe that’s baloney, although as the reasonable tone of the speech proceeded it seemed sincere enough. The cynical half of my brain (and maybe it’s more than half) assumes that this will not work because Republicans do not agree with the goals.

He ended with a plea for unity across divisions over race, class and party.

The Republican rebuttal, assigned to Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Senate Republican, was awkward and seemed to smack of something between Republican desperation and tokenism as the former Party of Lincoln deals with the fact that African Americans are a large and growing element of the electorate and a group that preferred Biden over Trump in November by about 87-13 percent.