Biden’s Speech to Congress: Progressive Goals, Centrist Rhetoric

April 29, 2021

By Robert Yeakel, NGA Director of Government Relations

Last night, President Biden gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress. At almost the 100-day mark of his administration, Biden’s address highlighted not only the accomplishments of his first months in office, but also signaled the agenda that lay ahead.  

From getting Americans back to work to making sure that our economic recovery leaves no one behind, Biden delivered a speech that very few of his Democratic predecessors could have managed. The president made his case for big government all the while framing the issues in ways with which a broad swath of the country may be inclined to agree. 

The president opened his address by focusing on the issue at hand: the pandemic and getting America vaccinated. Touting the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act in March, the president pivoted quickly to his plans for his next legislative proposal, infrastructure and jobs. In fact, Biden used the word “jobs” more than 40 times throughout his speech, impressing upon Congress and the viewing public that his goals were to use government investment and spending to not just stimulate the economy but to grow and build industries that would allow America to out-compete the likes of China and the world. 

The bulk of the address had this goal in mind: selling the public on the White House’s two recent proposals, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. During a time when Democrats hold both chambers of Congress by the slimmest of majorities, the idea of more than $4 trillion in new spending would normally be fantastical.  

But Biden’s speech last night illustrated a sweet spot that his administration has seemed to home in on over its first 100 days. It is a marriage of Biden’s commonsense rhetoric and centrist persona with a legislative and policy agenda that is more in line with Bernie Sanders than it is with Bill Clinton. 

This juxtaposition was on full display last night. Whether it was raising taxes and the minimum wage, or supporting unions and fighting climate change, the president couched progressive proposals in language that seemed to appeal directly to the middle of the road. President Biden’s speech was a perfect example of his administration’s “moderate radicalism,” as CNN has coined it. By removing the bombast and bravado, Biden is quietly trying to bring back an era of big government without anyone noticing.