IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What to watch for in Biden's first address to Congress

The president will deliver the prime-time address on his 99th day in office before a socially distanced chamber very different from the scene that greeted his predecessors.
Image: President Joe Biden will address a joint congressional session for the first time on Wednesday night.
Joe Biden will address a joint session of Congress as president for the first time Wednesday night.Shahrzad Elghanayan / NBC News

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden marks his 99th day in office by giving his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he will lay out his goals for his next 100 days and beyond in front of a socially distanced chamber that will look starkly different from the one that greeted his predecessors.

And few know the night's usual scene better than Biden. After six full Senate terms and two as vice president, it's possible that no president has addressed Congress with more experience as a member of the audience: It has been 47 years since he sat in the House chamber for his first State of the Union address, listening to President Richard Nixon tell lawmakers, "One year of Watergate is enough."

Biden is expected to stick with the message he has been hammering away at for more than a year, focusing on vaccinations, infrastructure and child care — topics that have polled well with both Republicans and Democrats.

White House officials previewing the speech said it will be focused on speaking directly to the American people at home with a straightforward style, including a "sober assessment of what we've been through" during the coronavirus pandemic and "a clear-eyed view of the challenges we still face."

Here's some of what to expect when Biden takes the podium Wednesday:

A key theme: Government that works

An official said Biden's address will be something of a "victory lap" for his administration's handling of the pandemic and the vaccination campaign and for the immediate impact people have enjoyed from the American Rescue Plan, including those $1,400 checks. He will also use the speech to continue to push people to get vaccinated.

A key goal as Biden assumed office was to boost confidence that the federal government can tackle big challenges. During the transition, Biden described the task of getting vaccines manufactured, distributed and injected as the biggest peacetime logistical challenge in U.S. history. The 100-day benchmark he set, raised and achieved for vaccinations may have been criticized as not overly ambitious, but Americans' perception of government is at such a low point that he and his team felt it was important to demonstrate that it could do what it set out to.

Trying to build confidence in government is key as Biden moves on to another top legislative priority: his American Jobs and American Families plans, which together encompass the "Build Back Better" agenda he campaigned on last year. As Biden put it during the transition, it's the second step of a "two-step plan to build a bridge to the other side of the crises we face and to a better, stronger, more secure America."

Biden will cast those plans as "bold" but "practical," an official said. He will acknowledge that the priorities he is laying out — for manufacturing, infrastructure, caregiving and health care — won't come without noteworthy price tags. But he will also argue that the country can't afford to avoid those "investments" in its future, especially faced with global competition from autocratic countries such as China.

The plan is about "building for generations," as an aide put it.

Biden is expected to endorse an extension of the child tax credit for five years as part of his American Families Plan. Top House Democrats are pushing to make it permanent.

A major focus on racial justice

Even as most of the White House discussion this week has been about Biden's economic agenda, White House officials said viewers should expect racial justice, and specifically police reform, to be front and center.

Biden's first 100 days have been dominated by his administration's response to the coronavirus, which was also the primary focus of his campaign last year. But closely behind that was what he has said is a national reckoning over racial justice, and officials said he will discuss the moment that animated so much of that movement less than a year ago: the murder of George Floyd.

The connection Biden made with the Floyd family will be the centerpiece of that part of his speech, with Biden invoking the words of Floyd's daughter when he met her last summer: "Daddy changed the world." And he plans to make what an official said would be an "effusive push" for the legislation that bears Floyd's name, hoping to add momentum to bipartisan negotiations to push the House-passed bill through the Senate.

With the lead Republican negotiator, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, delivering the GOP's response to Biden, the focus on policing will be the most significant in a presidential address to Congress in more than a generation — since President Bill Clinton pushed for the crime bill Biden had authored in his 1994 address.

Unconventional optics

As with most aspects of American life over the last year, the address will look much different from any that has come before, without members crammed together shoulder to shoulder jockeying for a handshake from the commander-in-chief.

"It won't look or feel or sound like it has in the past," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

Only about 200 people will allowed in the chamber, compared to 1,600 during past addresses, with members socially distanced. Attendees will be required to wear masks, said a person familiar with the plans, including Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will be seated behind Biden on the dais.

Fewer high-level government officials will also be in attendance. Instead of all nine Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice John Roberts will be the only justice in the chamber. The only Cabinet members present will be Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Monday night that he expected 30 senators from each party to attend, for a total of 60.

Pelosi doled out tickets to a strictly limited guest list, including key caucus and committee chairs, and most members of Congress will be absent. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., told reporters that just 25 House Republicans would be present and that many of them would be freshmen. "There are not many of us that are going to be able to go, because they're limiting it pretty dramatically," he said.

Also missing will be the traditional guests sitting with the first lady, usually everyday Americans whose stories recent presidents have generally used to honor extraordinary accomplishments and humanize policy objectives. But a person familiar with Biden's plans said he will still refer to their stories.

One presidential tradition that has survived the pandemic: a post-address barnstorming swing, which the White House is billing as the "Getting America Back on Track" tour. The first stop will be a state pivotal to Biden's success so far: Georgia.

An 'accessible' address

Since Biden returned from a weekend in Delaware, his focus has been on rehearsing Wednesday's address even as some final edits continued. The White House's director of speechwriting, Vinay Reddy, and senior counselor Mike Donilon were the chief architects of the speech. But the full speechwriting staff — Reddy and three others — have been at work on it for weeks. Other top West Wing aides, including deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed and chief of staff Ron Klain, have also weighed in.

Biden "recognizes, as somebody who served in the Senate for 36 years, that this is an opportunity — one of the highest-profile opportunities — even the president has each year to speak directly to the American people, and that's exactly what he intends to do," Psaki said.

Psaki told reporters Tuesday that Biden was also consulting with family and lawmakers, adding that Harris would "have a touch" on the speech.

Biden, aides said, will be "hyper-focused on speaking to the American people at home." Speechwriters who have worked for him in the past have noted how often he would ask them to call friends or relatives outside Washington and read particular lines to them — challenging the staffers that if the people they reach don't understand the meaning, the passages need to be rewritten so they do. So they say that in his first congressional address as president, he will make it a priority to use "straightforward, accessible" language. (In other words: Don't expect any Hill-speak or legislative jargon.)

The speechwriting — like so much of West Wing life in these first 100 days — has been complicated somewhat by Covid-19. Some members of the writing team are still working at least part-time from home, a reality with advantages and disadvantages given the intense process for an address like this.

A milestone for women

For the first time, two women will be sitting behind the president on the dais: Harris and Pelosi, which Biden is expected to note, a White House official said. Harris will also be the first person of color to be seated in the prominent position.

It was just 14 years ago that Pelosi became the first woman to sit behind a president for an address to Congress, a milestone President George W. Bush highlighted at the start of his speech.