May 6, 2021

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A president flanked by two Californian women of power speaks in front of an almost empty house

A president flanked by two Californian women of power speaks in front of an almost empty house

Like most Americans, most representatives and senators witnessed President Biden’s first speech to Congress from their living rooms.

And it was unlike any other modern presidential speech to lawmakers seen before.

For long one of the most coveted events in Washington, with 1,600 tickets (including some standing-only seats), the address was instead handed over to address with only 200 people in the room due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing security concerns. to the Capitol.

And for the first time in history, a US president was joined on stage by two women, spokesperson Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and vice president Kamala Harris, another Californian.

“Madam President, Madam Vice President,” Biden said at the beginning of his speech, before being interrupted by applause from the House and a cheer from a female MP.

“No president has ever said those words from this podium, and the time has come,” Biden said.

The State of the Union – or, as a president’s first speech is called, a joint speech to Congress – is a heavily orchestrated event intended as a platform for the incumbent president to present his political views to lawmakers. But with the cameras in the room, it also became his most high-profile appeal to the American people.

The speech took place just before Biden’s 100th day in office and much later than those of most modern presidents. He devoted much of the early parts of his speech to talking about his early successes in passing a massive economic aid law and the economic emergency that has yet to be addressed to help Americans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While tonight’s setting is familiar, this meeting is very different – a reminder of the extraordinary times we’re in,” Biden said. “Throughout our history, presidents have come to this chamber to speak to Congress, the nation and the world. Declare war. To celebrate peace. To announce new plans and possibilities. Tonight I come to talk about crises and opportunities. “

Most years, reps track locations early in the day near the central corridor, where cameras following the president into the chamber will capture their face as the president shakes his hand or pats him on the back. This year no one was allowed to enter the courtroom until hours before the speech, and all had remote seats assigned by the House Speaker’s office, both in the bedroom and in the public galleries above, where guests normally sit. .

Much of the normal glitz surrounding the speech was absent. Most of the Supreme Court, Biden’s Cabinet and the diplomatic corps did not attend. The cheers seemed muffled in the cavernous space as the voices spread beyond normal. Still present was the split screen of the president’s party members leaping from their seats to give standing ovations to the points they liked.

Social distancing meant few places to hide and lawmakers came in aware that their reactions would be in full view. There was little foolish scrolling on cellphones or roll your eyes.

“People can see if you’re frowning or smiling, they can still see if you’re sleeping, unfortunately,” Sen. John Thune (RN.D.) told reporters before the speech. “This will be a very unusual experience for everyone.”

Even the tension that normally marks the hours before the speech was over. Rather than lawmakers organizing guided tours of their guests, the Capitol halls housed only National Guard troops patrolling the grounds along with Capitol police officers walking in single file to their relaxation rooms.

The House is closed this week, with most members at home in their districts or at the Republican political retreat in Florida. The Senate voted earlier in the day. The Statuary Hall, where dozens of cameras are installed so that lawmakers can give their local stations an immediate reaction to the speech, remained empty.

Pelosi said this week that the smaller crowd was due to the pandemic more than security concerns at the Capitol, but the specter of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol remained in the heightened security checks that even members of Congress had to. suffer.

However, some representatives and senators were critical of the small number, with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) Saying “it’s more drama than substance”.

Representatives and senators have had access to vaccines since December, but not all lawmakers have availed themselves of the coup. Dozens of representatives and senators are thought to have not yet been vaccinated, although due to privacy concerns it is not clear exactly who. Staff, including Capitol police officers, and reporters in the chamber also have disparate access to vaccines.

Every attendee, even members of Congress, had to provide proof of vaccination or were tested for coronavirus in the 48 hours leading up to the speech, another sign of the pandemic that most Capitol Hill staff still have working. from home.