On April 28, 2021, the eve of his hundredth day in office, President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress. He outlined what his administration and Congress has accomplished so far this year, and what he hopes they will accomplish in the coming months.
“Tonight, I come to talk about crisis — and opportunity,” Biden said at the opening of his address. “About rebuilding our nation and revitalizing our democracy and winning the future for America.”
As with every other major event over the last year, the address was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Members of Congress in attendance were restricted to a fraction of their total number: 200. They were spaced evenly throughout the chamber audience, with seats in between cordoned off by pieces of paper. The remaining 338 members watched a livestream with the rest of the nation.
Rachel Paine Caufield is a political science professor at Drake University. She said that this type of address used to be more common from a U.S. president in their first term.
“For example, after 9/11, George W. Bush spoke before a joint session,” Paine Caufield said. “At particularly key moments in the history of the United States, presidents will ask for time and they will speak before a joint session of Congress. We didn’t see it commonly under the Trump administration, we didn’t really see it a whole lot under the Obama administration. So, it seems as though it hasn’t happened in a very long time, but it’s actually fairly common.”
It wasn’t just the content of the seats that COVID-19 impacted; it was also the content of Biden’s speech. It’s not normal for presidents to have a massive piece of legislation like the American Rescue plan to talk about in their first speech of their first term.
“It’s unique to the pandemic. Most presidents, as they come into office, they have a couple big agenda items that they feel confident they can push through Congress,” Paine Caufield said. “The speech to the joint session often comes in the midst of fighting for that first piece of legislation…but it’s rare that a president, 100 days in, has passed such an incredibly sweeping piece of legislation. And that [it happened this time] is undoubtedly because Joe Biden uniquely came into office in the middle of a global pandemic.”
After spending the first half of his address commemorating the legislation his administration had already seen passed through Congress, the American Rescue plan, Biden spent the second half outlining his future legislative agenda. Mainly, the American Jobs plan and the American Families plan.
Biden said the American Jobs plan will create jobs for everything from upgrading physical transportation infrastructure to building more energy efficient buildings and homes. It’s all part of his plan to mitigate climate change through, well, jobs.
“For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis. Jobs. Jobs,” Biden said. “For me, when I think about climate change, I think jobs.”
The American Families plan addresses what Biden referred to as four of the biggest challenges facing American families today. This includes providing access to a good education, to quality and affordable childcare and to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. It also proposes extending the Child Tax Credit passed earlier this year, which gives families between $3,000 and $3,600 per child, through the end of 2025.
Overall, Biden’s address was about massive progressive legislation he wants Congress to pass. The likelihood of that happening isn’t very high, given the slim majority the Democratic Party has in Congress. Most of his proposals are wildly unpopular with Republican legislators, which was made clear as early as 15 minutes after his address when Sen. Tim Scott (R, SC) delivered the Republican Party’s rebuttal speech.
That national political divide is also reflected in the Drake community’s response. Drake University’s partisan political student organizations, Drake Democrats and Drake College Republicans, had vastly different responses to Biden’s address.
Matt Deike, executive director of Drake College Republicans, was displeased with nearly every proposal Biden spoke about.
“As someone that got into politics because of concerns of wasteful government spending and the national debt, tonight’s major proposals outlined in the Biden address concerned me,” Deike said in a written interview. “[In] this speech he promised the American people further crushing debt and higher taxes. So far in the first 100 days, the government has wasted billions of dollars by tax hikes and a debt burden for years to come.”
On the other hand, Kody Craddick, chair of Drake Democrats, said this speech made him proud to be a Democrat.
“I think Biden was very bold and straightforward with a lot of the more controversial issues,” Craddick said. “Talking about transgender rights and gun control and immigration, he took those issues head on. It showed to everyone who was there and a lot of people at home that we as Democrats are not afraid to speak up about what we believe in.”