“The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent,” President Joe Biden told the socially distanced members of Congress assembled in the House chamber for his first address to a joint session Wednesday night.
Even beyond the focus on an aggressive spending and tax policy agenda that runs the gamut from immigration and infrastructure to guns and voting rights to clean energy and defeating cancer, the president's speech was about democratic institutions themselves.
“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America's adversaries, the autocrats of the world, are betting we can’t,” Biden said. “They believe we are too full of anger and rage.”
The president met before the speech with Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen Gibson and House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker, according to the White House.
Neither Gibson nor Walker were in their roles on Jan. 6, when a violent insurrection overwhelmed the Capitol during the most recent joint session prior to Wednesday night. Members in the galleries could be overheard reflecting on the horrifying experiences of that event, including crawling under banisters to flee for safety.
Biden cited the violent assault on the counting of Electoral College votes in the context of America's standing in the world.
The president said autocrats abroad, “look at the images of the mob that assaulted the Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.”
“They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong,” he said. “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”
When Biden mentioned the violent insurrection that infiltrated the very House chamber where he spoke, lawmakers largely sat still, some in seats near where they ducked for safety on Jan. 6.
Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, who led rioters away from the Senate chamber that day in January, stood guarding a door to the galleries on the third floor.
His eyes seemed to be fixed on the president, as he leaned his left shoulder on the entryway he guarded. He swayed back and forth, rolling and stretching his ankles as Biden continued.
Another Capitol Police officer stood across the chamber, arms spread wide, with one hand on each wall of the recessed doors he guarded.
Heavy Capitol Police and National Guard presence was felt all day ahead of and during the speech. At least one plainclothes USCP officer stood guard at each of the doorways into the chamber on both levels, totaling more than 30 personnel on door duty alone.
The entire House side of the Capitol was restricted to only those lawmakers, media, staff and guests who were security screened and health cleared to be in attendance.
The chamber was far more quiet than Biden undoubtedly remembers it from eight years as vice president and decades before that as a senator from Delaware, a consequence of the pandemic restrictions that led House and Senate leaders to pick only a percentage of their members to attend, along with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and the secretaries of State and Defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin III, respectively.
Still, the spectacle of a presidential address to a joint session endured, despite the circumstances.
“We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch,” Biden said. “At the very moment our adversaries were certain we would pull apart and fail, we came together.”
A good number of the limited number of attendees were newcomers: freshman members of both the House and Senate.
Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were seated together, tucked in the back corner balcony with three empty seats taped off between them. They stood together and chatted before the speech began, heads bowed in conversation.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., seated one section over, made his way to the Georgians who clinched the Senate for Democrats, with welcoming enthusiasm. The two Georgia Democrats were getting plenty of congratulations for turning the Georgia Senate seats blue.
The pair, like others of the newest members in Congress, soaked in their first presidential joint session experience. As the chamber went silent ahead of Biden’s entrance, they stood together, seemingly frozen in anticipation, before bursting into hearty applause as the president made his way into the chamber.
Biden often spoke directly to the audience in the room, as well as to the television cameras, making direct appeals to members of Congress to advance his legislative agenda, both for the sweeping $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal announced in recent weeks and the $1.8 trillion family aid package formally unveiled Wednesday.
But beyond that, there were clear statements of priorities on issues like immigration, where Biden said, “if Congress won’t pass my plan — let’s at least pass what we agree on,” leading off with protections for the people who came to America as children known as Dreamers, those on Temporary Protected Status and a path to citizenship for those in the agriculture sector.
The president leaned in to his lifetime spent in the halls of Congress, at one point veering off script to thank Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for his role in naming the cancer research “moonshot” for Biden’s late son Beau.
It was with respect to cancer and medical research that the president again set perhaps the most aggressive goal, telling Congress he wants to see the National Institutes of Health have a separate arm, “to develop breakthroughs — to prevent, detect, and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer.”
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott provided the official Republican response to Biden’s speech. While acknowledging what he called the president’s “good words,” Scott, who is Black, seemed to push back on Biden’s call that white supremacy was an existential threat.
"America is not a racist country," he said. "Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue like one side wants." Scott also re-upped familiar GOP talking points that Biden’s proposals were a “liberal wish list” but did not offer many specifics to counter the president’s agenda.
The president, meanwhile, closed in a way that was fitting for someone so familiar with the members of Congress.
After concluding with “may God protect our troops,” as scripted, Biden added one last ad-lib: “thank you for your patience.”
Caroline Brehman contributed to this report.