BOSTON (CBS) – Even if President Joe Biden’s address to Congress suffers from ratings erosion as the Oscars and other awards shows have, it’s still likely it drew close to 20 million viewers. That’s a fraction of a typical Super Bowl audience, but for a president, it’s an unusually big crowd.
And you wonder – for the significant slice of those who don’t have time to watch C-Span or cable news and sat down Wednesday night with genuine curiosity about their still relatively-new president, what did they see, and how did it match up with the image peddled by his critics?
Theatrically speaking, Biden is no Obama, or even a Trump. His delivery is heartfelt but not especially urgent or eloquent. The language is simple, the rhetoric straightforward. The effect isn’t especially compelling or dramatic, more Henry Fonda than Charlton Heston, stylistically as well as ideologically.
Lucky thing, because it would have looked awkward had Biden tried to really raise the roof before this thinly-populated, socially distanced, heavily masked crowd. The scene matched the strictly-business demeanor of the speaker. Good luck finding visual moments to go viral. Outside of the occasional cutaway of Senate Minority Mitch McConnell sitting stone-faced in the front row, declining even to applaud Biden’s reference to cutting child poverty in half, there weren’t many.
And what about content?
If you had “jobs” in your living room drinking game, you were hammered twenty minutes in. “Middle-class” got a workout too. And if you closed your eyes and squinted hard at times it could almost have been Biden’s predecessor up there, reciting a populist mantra: “Buy American… buy American… American tax dollars are going to be used to buy American products made in America and create American jobs.”
The same could be said of Biden’s exhortations to compete more aggressively with China. Cue today’s spasm of right-wing echo chamber outrage over the president “stealing” his predecessor’s lines.
As for the hard-right’s portrayal of Biden as a Trojan Horse for “radical socialism” – a spin that must surely still amuse Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who famously trashed Biden as a hopeless corporate tool back in the days when they fought over bankruptcy law reform – the casual viewer must have gone to bed baffled.
“I’m not out to punish anyone,” Biden said when listing his proposed tax hikes on the rich. “But I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country. They’re already paying enough.” Your move, Republicans.
But for all the mainstream populism of the presidential address, there was plenty of homage to Warren and the party’s economic left. Remember her famous “you didn’t build that” speech about how the wealthy owed the rest of us some payback?
Here’s Biden’s version: “…public investment in infrastructure has transformed America. The transcontinental railroad, the interstate highways, united two oceans and brought a new age of progress to the United States of America. Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity. Scientific growth took us to the moon and now we are on Mars, discovering vaccines, gave us the internet and so much more. These are investments we made together as one country. Investments that only the government was in a position to make.”
He did it again later, echoing Warren’s campaign stump speech: “Look at the big tax cut in 2017. It was supposed to pay for itself and generate vast economic growth. Instead it added $2 trillion to the deficit. It was a huge windfall for corporate America and those at the very top. Instead of using the tax savings to raise wages and invest in research and development – it poured billions of dollars into the pockets of CEOs.”
Being president in an era of stark political partisanship and division is a high-wire act, and Biden has had a front row seat for some spectacular falls over the years. Now he’s the one balancing a restless left and a recalcitrant right as he tries to toe the center.
This speech might have helped him buy more time to make it all work. And for now the polls suggest he’s still benefiting from comparison with the primal scream that preceded him.
Poor Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who gave the GOP response, was reduced to complaining about “empty platitudes” from Biden, within days of the anniversary of President Trump’s infamous musings about “disinfectant” that might “knock out” the virus “by injection inside or almost a cleaning.”
But Biden is the man on the tightrope, He’s working without a net. And the political winds aren’t exactly abating.