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Joe Biden’s first speech to Congress will be unlike any other


US President Joe Biden will deliver a prime time address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday – the eve of his first 100 days mark.

But will US lawmakers all listen to the president – even for one night?

Recent history is not assuring. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie!” at President Barack Obama when he was giving a joint speech to Congress in 2009. Eleven years later, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech as she stood behind him on the House rostrum.

Partisan tensions have only deepened on Capitol Hill since Pelosi’s defiant act last year, which came days before the Senate acquitted Trump in his first impeachment trial. Since then, the US Capitol has been through the January 6 insurrection, a second impeachment of Trump and another acquittal.

Trust between the parties, and between members themselves, has cratered as Biden prepares to address the House and the Senate for the first time in his presidency.

While Trump often added a reality TV star’s drama to his congressional addresses, Biden – who has spent most of his adult life in government service – has the chance to play the elder statesman. Lawmakers in both parties say Wednesday’s address to Congress presents an opportunity for him to push past some of the antics and anger, for a few hours at least.

“I think the tension is high, but the one person who can cool the temperature in the room is Joe Biden,” especially if he reaches across the aisle, said former congressman Tom Rooney of Florida, a Republican who retired two years ago and has expressed frustration about the decline of congressional decorum and civility.

Biden’s first speech to Congress – called an “address to a joint session of Congress” instead of a “State of the Union”, as is customary in a president’s first year – will already be unlike any other, as attendance will be limited due to Covid-19 safety protocols.

With the House out of session for the week, many, if not most, House Republicans were expected to skip the event, increasing the chances that Biden will be speaking to a mostly friendly audience of Democrats. The Senate is in session, but some Republicans from that chamber were expected to skip as well.

Other traditions have also been jettisoned for the address. Lawmakers can’t bring guests, removing one source of drama and speculation. Nor will there be guests of the first lady in the gallery, depriving Biden of the ability to humanise his policy proposals and manufacture feel-good moments.

The address will provide Biden an opportunity to update the American public on his progress toward fulfilling his promises and make the case for the US$2.3 trillion infrastructure package he unveiled earlier this month.

In the days after the speech, Biden will be hitting the road as he looks to build support in key swing states for his proposals.

The “Getting America Back on Track Tour” will see Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, their spouses and cabinet members visit approximately a dozen states, according to a White House official.

Biden was expected to travel Thursday to Atlanta, where he’s expected to hold a car rally to celebrate his 100th day in office. The following day, he’ll visit Philadelphia to tout his legislative proposals. Georgia and Pennsylvania marked key electoral victories for Biden in November after they had voted for former Trump in 2016.

“Certainly, they’ll be talking about the Jobs Plan, as well as the American Families Plan that the president will lay out in detail at his joint address,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last Friday.

In addition to touting the new proposals, Biden will discuss US progress on coronavirus vaccinations, as well as the distribution of stimulus cheques funded in emergency legislation approved by Congress last month.

Security will be tight around the Capitol region for the event. National Guard troops, in place since the January 6 riot, are still in the area.