This Wednesday, Joe Biden will give his first address before a joint session of Congress, marking the President’s most important public appearance since taking office. As AMAC Newsline has previously noted, Biden has already waited longer to appear before Congress than any President in generations.
When Biden takes the podium on Wednesday, he will confront the challenge of putting a positive spin on what has been a turbulent start to his presidency. Biden is facing a massive crisis of his own creation at the southern border, a stagnating economic recovery, continued social unrest, and renewed aggression from China, Russia, and Iran in response to perceived U.S. weakness. Americans will expect answers from their president, and the Biden administration thus far hasn’t provided any. President Biden will likely tout the number of Americans that have been vaccinated, but that success is thanks to President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed. President Trump’s vaccine plan has largely succeeded in 2021 in spite of the Biden administration’s bungled rollout and continued mixed messaging on the safety of vaccines.
Despite the magnitude of Wednesday’s speech in the context of Biden’s presidency, relatively few lawmakers will be present. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has capped attendance at around 200, a move that makes little sense given that the House chamber is designed to hold more than 1,000 people, nearly double the 535 members of Congress that would normally be invited. Moreover, nearly every member of the House and Senate has already been vaccinated.
Undoubtedly, Biden will have a tough act to follow after President Trump dramatically raised the bar for the speech during each of his four years in office and earned glowing reviews and high approval ratings from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Under President Trump, the annual address to Congress became must-watch television filled with unifying moments for all Americans. Indeed, Trump turned the event into an annual patriotic ritual with unforgettable scenes that will live on in Americans’ collective memory for decades. One such moment came early on in 2017 when President Trump delivered a stirring tribute to Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in a raid in Yemen, as his widow, Carryn Owens, looked to Heaven with tears in her eyes. Even outspoken Trump critic Van Jones called it “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.”
In 2018, during his first official State of the Union Address, President Trump once again delivered breathtaking television–from recognizing Congressman Steve Scalise who had nearly been killed by a left-wing extremist attack on the Republican baseball team, to highlighting the grieving parents of two Long Island girls murdered by MS-13, to telling the unbelievable harrowing story of a North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho.
Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address was even more packed with emotion and drama, beginning with the recognition of three D-Day heroes and then returning to them at the end of the speech to reveal that some of those same heroes had gone on to liberate the Nazi concentration camps of survivors who were seated right next to them. One of the Holocaust survivors, Judah Samet, was then revealed to have recently survived the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. President Trump noted that it was Judah’s 81st birthday. The entire chamber, Republicans and Democrats alike, spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to the elderly Judah, as a smiling Trump mimed the role of a conductor in the well of the House chamber.
Trump’s ability to perfectly articulate a vision of America that celebrated its history and looked toward a better future translated into record approval from viewers. CBS ran an instant poll following Trump’s address that found 76% of respondents viewed his speech positively. The Drudge Report declared “TRUMP ROCKS HOUSE.” Lance Morrow, writing in the Wall Street Journal, declared the 2019 Address a “masterpiece.”
Yet in 2020, Trump took the form to even greater heights. Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader from Philadelphia, was surprised when the President bestowed her with a school choice scholarship. Ian Lanphier, a young man who wanted to join the Space Force, was revealed to be accompanied by his 100-year old grandfather, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, whom the President had just promoted to Brigadier General. Juan Guaido, the recognized legitimate president of Venezuela, made an unexpected appearance. A dying Rush Limbaugh was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on live television. Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose daughter Kayla Mueller had been murdered by ISIS, were informed for the first time that the mission to kill ISIS founder al-Baghdadi had been named in Kayla’s honor. And finally, in a made-for-TV ending, a military wife and her two children were reunited with their American soldier husband and father who had been deployed in Afghanistan, as he bounded into the chamber to the shock of his family. As Trump uttered the final syllables of the address’s moving conclusion, Nancy Pelosi was so thoroughly defeated that she stood up and literally tore her copy of the speech in half.
CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, no Trump fan, said afterward that the speech was a “master showman at his best.” Obama advisor David Axelrod said it was a “very, very well crafted re-election speech.” The New York Post wrote, “Trump Hits Grand Slam.”
Trump also saw increases in his approval rating following all four of his addresses to Congress. Americans watched, and they liked what they saw. We’ll see if Mr. Biden can meet the high standard set by his predecessor.
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