What’s new about Biden’s traditional speech to the US Congress?

The new US president’s first address to a joint session of Congress will be different amid COVID-19 precautions.

Vice President Kamala Harris will be standing behind President Joe Biden as he speaks about jobs and the pandemic to a joint session of Congress [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

President Joe Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, normally a highlight for a new president, will look very different from prior presidential addresses.

“A lot of the pomp and circumstance won’t be there,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

A traditional Washington event, the annual speech is a president’s prime-time opportunity to lay out his agenda to the American public.

Presidential addresses to a joint session of Congress generally only happen once a year. In a president’s first year, it is called just that: an address to a joint session. In the other three years of the president’s term, it’s called the State of the Union address, usually held in January or February.

Biden’s first speech is happening later in the calendar because of the COVID pandemic.

The entrance

The president ordinarily takes a long time getting to the podium, shaking hands, hugging and backslapping members of the Senate, House, Supreme Court, the military’s top generals and other guests as he makes his way down the centre aisle in a packed House of Representatives chamber.

Biden will wear a mask, as he walks to the podium through a socially distanced room with only a couple hundred people. This is an invite-only affair – not all members of Congress will be there and only a few in the Cabinet.

Two women will stand behind Biden

By protocol, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate –  who is also the US vice president – sit behind the US president for the speech.

For the first time in history, both of those jobs are held by women.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris will be prominent in the television coverage of the speech. As vice president, Harris also serves as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

Pelosi ripped Trump speech

Pelosi has been here before. She broke ground as the first woman House speaker at former President George W Bush’s 2007 speech. Famously, Pelosi ripped in half (video) the official copy of former President Donald Trump’s divisive 2020 speech. Expect more emphasis on “unity” this year.

This will be Harris’s first time. She is a close political ally to the present occupant of the White House and can be expected to applaud and nod in agreement with his best lines.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripped up the speech of President Donald Trump after his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in 2020 [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Smaller crowd

Normally, the speech is given in front of about 1,600 people crowded into the House chamber with extra seats brought onto the floor and into the galleries, and people standing. In addition to public officials, the space is usually filled with invited guests of House members, constituents or persons of note on a political matter.

About 250 people are expected to attend Biden’s first speech, so the numerous and sometimes raucous standing ovations and reactions will also be absent.

Special guests

Every year, there are usually special guests sitting alongside the first lady, the president’s wife, who are singled out for special recognition, usually to highlight something the president has achieved or wishes to.

This year, those guests  will watching the speech remotely. According to First Lady Jill Biden’s office, they are:

  • Maria-Isabel Ballivian, executive director, Annandale Christian community for action (ACCA) Child Development Center
  • Javier Quiroz Castro, born in Mexico who was able to stay in the US under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, and is a nurse working on the front lines of the pandemic.
  • Tatiana Washington, a gun violence prevention advocate and organiser
  • Stella Keating, the first transgender teen to testify before the US Senate
  • Theron Rutyna, IT director for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who worked to get internet into US Indigenous lands


Normally the House Chamber is packed with dignitaries from the three branches of the US government for a presidential address to a joint session of Congress [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

The spin

The audience’s reaction to the president’s words is closely watched for gauges of approval or disapproval in the cheering ovations of the president’s supporters or the sitting on hands of his detractors. That will be less obvious this year.

The speech, coming on Biden’s 99th day in office, is Biden’s opportunity to president a coherent agenda to the nation. There will be a lot of “trillions” tossed around.

The White House has already telegraphed that he will make his $1 trillion “American Families” proposal a central theme of the evening.

Designated survivor

There will be no designated survivor or successor. In the past, for security reasons, because so many key leaders in the US government are gathered in one location, a key Cabinet official or other constitutional officer in the line of presidential succession would remain in a secure location away from the Capitol during the speech.

Source: Al Jazeera