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Progressives will deliver their own response to President Joe Biden's speech to Congress

Traditionally, the opposition party gives a rebuttal to the president's address. But this year, a member of Biden's own party will respond, too.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference on rent and mortgage cancellation in Washington on March 11, 2021.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., at a news conference on rent and mortgage cancellation in Washington on March 11.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Unlike in previous years, a progressive group has decided to deliver a formal response to President Joe Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress next week.

It's traditional for the opposition party to give a response when the president delivers a State of the Union or other address to Congress. But it's much less common for a member of the president's party to deliver a rebuttal.

Next week, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., speaking on behalf of the left-wing Working Families Party, will respond after Biden gives his first address to a joint session of Congress.

Bowman, a freshman lawmaker who defeated a 16-term Democratic incumbent in a primary in a New York City district last year, said the response is intended not to be critical of Biden but rather to credit him as appropriate and cue him for what the left wants to see next.

"It's a balancing act. He's already done a lot that I love. And he's going to say a lot of things that I like, as well," Bowman said in an interview. "But if we relent, it doesn't mean that what's been going on so far is going to continue. It's important for us as progressives to continue to push and continue to organize."

Biden's speech will look different from the usual address to a joint session of Congress because Covid-19 restrictions will keep the House chamber almost entirely empty. (Presidents deliver State of the Union addresses only after their first years in office. In their first years, addresses are simply speeches to a joint session of Congress.)

For decades, the party out of power has given a "response" to the president's speech — the text is generally prewritten — which they typically use to highlight a rising star in the party and make their case to the American people about what the president is getting wrong.

Republicans haven't yet announced who will give their response, which is usually carried live on national TV shortly after the president's remarks.

More recently, with the advent of online video streaming, others have gotten in on the response game, from tea party groups during the Obama administration to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during the Trump administration.

But it's still unusual for someone on the same side of the political spectrum to give a response, because responses are typically critical of the president.

The Working Families Party, which supports progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, started hosting its own response during the Trump administration and decided to continue this year with Biden.

"We desperately want this president to succeed and to make that Rooseveltian transformational change he has promised," said Maurice Mitchell, the party's national director.

Progressives are generally happy with Biden's presidency so far. But Mitchell recalled a — possibly apocryphal, he acknowledged — anecdote about a meeting at which President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a group of activists: "You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it."

"The worst thing we could do in a moment like this, where we feel like we have momentum, is to slow down — to misread the moment and think we can sit back now," Mitchell said. "He laid out this agenda to be big and bold, and we're saying, 'Game on.'"

The choice of Bowman, who is African American, like the three Democrats the Working Families Party chose to respond to Trump — Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and former Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland — reflects a desire of the historically white professional left to better align itself with the racial justice movement, which is likely to be front and center after Derek Chauvin's conviction in the killing of George Floyd.