The new guy has begun his job.
Biden’s two speeches late last week had no frills, no flourishes, no surprises (as in departures from his published campaign plans), and, most impressively, only one reference to the tumult which may have kept you from noticing their delivery.
The first speech, introducing the big funding bill sought from Congress, was solid. The second, on vaccinations, was a botch. Biden was admirably direct about the steps being taken by his incoming administration. But he did not present them with ready comprehensibility. Nor did he succeed in setting forth the benefits soon to come to the American people. These were procedural talks. Biden was in governance not campaign mode, explaining what he was doing instead of foraging for support.
He began policy speech one with a brisk yet compassionate description of the first person to die in US from COVID19 (that we know about):
On February the 6th in 2020 Patricia Dowd took her last breath at home under the California sun in Santa Clara. She was 57 years old, a beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister. She never knew she had the virus, at the time when most folks never heard about the virus, but just like that she was gone. And almost exactly one year later, nearly 400,000, 400,000 of our fellow Americans have met the same cruel fate.
The opening focus, as a noted evangelical advocacy group likes to say, was on the family.
Biden moved quickly to the pandemic’s costs in lost jobs, and the warped recovery to date emblematic of economic inequality:
Just since this pandemic began, the wealth of the top 1% of the nation has grown roughly $1.5 trillion since end of last year, four times the amount for the entire bottom 50% of American wage-earners.
Problems sketched, on to solutions:
Tonight, I’ll lay out my first step, the American rescue plan that will tackle the pandemic and get direct financial assistance and relief to Americans who need it the most.
Next month, in my first appearance before a joint session of Congress, I will lay out my Build Back Better recovery plan.
Tomorrow I will lay out our vaccination plan to correct course and meet our goal of 100 million shots at the end of my first 100 days as president.
In the second speech Biden acknowledged the grim situation:
Truthfully, we remain in a very dark winter. Infection rates are up 34%. more people are being hospitalized because of COVID than ever before….The honest truth is this, things will get worse before they get better. I told you, I’ll always level with you. And the policy changes that we’re going to be making are going to take time to show up in the COVID statistics.
The heart of the second speech consisted of a five-point plan. The points could fit on a digital placard or screen shot, but I could not find one when I searched online. There is no mnemonic acronym. Here is what I could discern from the speech:
- Work with the states to get the vaccine out.
- Use FEMA to set up 100 distribution sites.
- Use pharmacies.
- Ramp up supply via Defense Production Act.
- Big transparent public education and information campaign.
Biden owed the crucial voters in his electoral coalition a point six:
We commit to making sure communities of color, rural neighborhoods, and those living with disabilities and seniors are not left behind in our vaccination plans.
And his call to action, “mask up” for 100 days, should have been point seven. He said it could save 50,000 lives. The subtopic diverted him into a campaign mode contrast at odds with the purpose and tone of the two speeches:
Quite frankly, it was shocking to see members of the Congress while the Capitol was under siege by a deadly mob of thugs refusing to wear a mask while they were in secure locations. I’m so proud of my [congresswoman] right here in the state of Delaware. Lisa Blunt Rochester, trying to hand out masks when people are lying on the floor, huddled up. And Republican colleagues refusing to put them on. What the hell is the matter with them? It’s time to grow up. Result? At least four members of Congress to date, included a cancer survivor, now have COVID-19 who were in those rooms.
The second speech ended weakly with a call to unity instead of a vision statement of people being able to hug loved ones, reopen businesses, and resume other normal activities.
In speech one when Biden presented programmatic details of his rescue plan he spelled out goals and specified the numbers of people to be helped. He tossed in a few political pre-buttals, too. For example, he called for:
an increase in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour. People tell me that’s going to be hard to pass, Florida just passed it. As divided as that state is, they just passed it.
Biden said nothing specific about costs. Details were released to the public, and he did say that:
I know what I just described does not come cheaply, but failure to do so will cost us dearly.
He referred to proposed outlays as “investments,” which is aspirational but not fantastical. OK. When it came to revenue raising he spoke of closing corporate tax loopholes, which is a standard Democratic panacea akin to the Republican promise to clamp down on government “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The price tag for the rescue, including the vaccination program, is $1.9 trillion, more than the stated amount gained in wealth by the top 1% but not so much more that the two figures could not be paired to good rhetorical effect. The recovery funds will for the most part be borrowed, which opens an ideological argument about macroeconomics at a time of high debt to GDP ratio that Biden smartly reserved for other times and places.
In terms of the Biden we have heard for decades these two speeches were unusually crisp in composition, delivery, and focus. He performed as an oratorical analogue to Congressman Andy Kim, picking up pieces of trash left by the Capitol rioters.
Two days from now Biden’s prose will surely be embroidered with some poetry—including a quote from an Irish poet, I’m wagering—and historical references. His Inaugural Address will mark the third historic Wednesday in a row in this unholy month in American political history, following as it will January 6, The Capitol Assault, and January 13, The Second Impeachment. The incoming president will need to take a stance and set a tone on what he sees as just retribution for what Trump, 147 Republican members of Congress, and the marauders did in disrupting the process of succession, the sine qua non of a democratic republic. In speaking about justice he may also refer to the many pardons said to be landing tomorrow.
Above all, Biden will need to thread all these events and steps into a national narrative that will form a straight and upward line toward his “Build Back Better” State Of The Union Address. He needs as well to set up regular news conferences and briefings. Americans crave updates from an honest, unnarcissistic, non-abusive president. On this character requirement, Biden made a good start last week.