Cairns

It’s so nice to have a president again.

Watching President Joe Biden address a vastly reduced joint session of Congress on Wednesday night was striking both because of the strangeness of the relative emptiness of the room — a situation necessitated by COVID-19 protocols — and by the difference between Biden’s performance and that of the guy who did it the previous four years.

Those last four, especially last year’s, seemed like a bad TV show, a dark game show. 

Compared to those “look at me” antics, Wednesday night’s event was a breath of fresh air.

Biden opened the show by encouraging us to pay attention to someone else, his vice president, Kamala Harris. 

He noted the historic occurrence of two women occupying the seats behind the president for the first time and highlighted its significance.

“Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time,” he said in his opening.

Biden went out of his way to assign credit to others several times during the evening, especially the members of Congress who were his most immediate audience.

The last guy wouldn’t do something like that.

As we begin to emerge from the twin disasters of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that accompanied it, Biden sounded the hopeful tone we need, showing leadership through his rhetoric, an important part of a president’s job.

“Life can knock us down. But in America, we never stay down. In America, we always get up,” he said. “And today, that’s what we’re doing: America is rising anew. Choosing hope over fear. Truth over lies. Light over darkness.”

On the eve of his 100th day in office, the president noted the progress that has been made in getting Americans vaccinated and in passing the American Rescue Plan to prop up the economy and give much-needed financial help to millions of people.

He didn’t claim it as a personal triumph, but as a team win. And he said better days are ahead.

“After 100 Days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America.

“100 days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act. And thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer — and with the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, Independents and Republicans — we did act.”

On policy, Biden laid out an ambitious  program that, sadly, is unlikely to gain much support among the Republicans he has tried so hard to include.

He called for passage of his American Jobs Plan and spoke of many initiatives that would provide opportunity and improve the lives of average Americans. The catch is, they would come at the expense of the wealthy donors and corporate masters to whom those on the other side of the aisle answer. 

Biden invited the loyal opposition to involve themselves in the reforms, but made it clear that there’s only so far he’s willing to come to meet them. That’s leadership.

His whole presence and delivery were very unlike most of his recent predecessors. He was not aloof and professorial like Barack Obama. He wasn’t forceful and theatrical like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. He wasn’t patrician and purely professional like George H.W. Bush. We’ve already talked about the last guy.

He was probably most like George W. Bush. Not in policy, obviously, but in seeming to be a regular guy — a guy who lives a real life and understands that other people do the same.

It would have been impossible to give that speech without noting Jan. 6, when an armed mob stormed the Capitol and attempted to breech the very chamber where the speech was happening. Biden did not shy away from it.

“The insurrection was an existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive. It did,” he said. “But the struggle is far from over. The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent. As old as our Republic. Still vital today.”

Biden and his speech writers summarized the nation’s strength and resiliency well near the closing of the speech.

“I stand here tonight before you in a new and vital hour in the life of our democracy and our nation.” he said. “And I can say with absolute confidence: I have never been more confident or more optimistic about America. We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch.”

Encouraging unity is harder than stoking division. The last guy took the easy path. Biden’s words can inspire, if only we take them to heart.

Robert Cairns is the managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at rcairns@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7217.

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