Biden Strikes Bipartisan Tone

The President used his first speech to Congress as an attempt to unite the country.

Befitting a professional politician whose administration had steadily rolled out his plan over a matter of weeks, there were no surprises in the prepared remarks of the speech President Biden delivered to a joint session of Congress last night. The policy proposals were big and bold and sure to be controversial but they were expected. The speech as delivered, though, were a strong attempt to restore bipartisan comity.

As WaPo’s Aaron Blake notes,

Listening to parts of Biden’s speech, you wouldn’t necessarily know Congress is stuck in gridlock. While no Republicans supported Biden’s coronavirus stimulus and the party is balking at the size of his infrastructure package — among many proposals — Biden spoke almost as if Congress had put up a united front.

Biden said that with “the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — we did act together. We passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history.”

He added of the coronavirus vaccine response: “Senior deaths from covid-19 are down 80 percent since January — down 80 percent, because of all of you.”

And: “We will have provided over 220 million covid shots in those [first] 100 days — thanks to all the help of all of you. We’re marshaling — with your help, everyone’s help — we’re marshaling every federal resource.”

It was an interesting rhetorical tactic. Beyond an appeal to Republicans to support various gun restrictions, Biden didn’t dwell much on his opposition. And even when making that appeal, Biden seemed to almost apologize for his tone, ad-libbing from his prepared remarks: “Look, I don’t want to become confrontational.” (Neither of Biden’s references to “all of you” appeared in his prepared remarks, either.)

Aspects of the coronavirus response have sometimes been more bipartisan, but that hasn’t been the case during Biden’s presidency. Biden almost seemed to be pretending it were, perhaps reaching out to Republicans by suggesting he would be more than happy to give them credit if they just played a little ball.

For the most part, these are extremely popular policies, even with Republican voters. But, rather than pointing out that zero Republicans voted for some of these packages to score points, he gave credit where it wasn’t due.

It’s possible, I suppose, that it was a cynical move. After all, reporters know the truth. So do most voters (or, at least, the sort who were going to watch or read about the speech) I’d think. So, maybe he was subtlety trying to shame Republicans in the room. More likely, though, he was inviting them to come on board and return to the days when Representatives and Senators voted for programs on the basis of how they effected their constituents rather than in lockstep party-line votes.

The biggest gesture along these lines, as CNN’s Kate Sullivan notes, was this:

President Joe Biden went off-script during his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday to thank Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for a tribute the Kentucky Republican made to Biden’s late son, Beau, in 2016.

The year after Biden lost his 46-year-old son to brain cancer, McConnell called on the Senate to rename a bill aimed at accelerating cancer research after Beau Biden. Biden, who was vice president at the time, was presiding over the Senate session.”I’ll still never forget when we passed the cancer proposal in the last year I was vice president, almost $9 million going to NIH,” Biden said Wednesday night, referring to the National Institutes of Health. ”You’ll excuse the point of personal privilege – I’ll never forget you standing, Mitch, and saying, naming it after my deceased son. It meant a lot,” Biden said, veering from prepared remarks the White House had previously shared.

In remarks from the Senate floor in 2016, then-Majority Leader McConnell asked that the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act be renamed in honor of Biden’s late son, saying, “I think it’s fitting to dedicate this bill’s critical cancer initiatives in honor of someone who would be proud of the presiding officer today — and that’s his son, Beau.”The President and McConnell have a long-standing relationship, having served alongside each other for decades in the Senate. They also worked together closely in the Obama administration, including to make a series of critical spending and tax agreements.

Before momentarily turning from his prepared remarks, Biden was calling for creating an agency within the National Institutes of Health to focus on preventing, detecting and treating diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer — similar to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which works on developing national security breakthroughs.”So many of us have deceased sons, daughters and relatives who died of cancer. I can think of no more worthy investment. I know of nothing that is more bipartisan,” Biden said.

The President continued: “So let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power. It’s within our power to do it.”

Again, this could have been cynical. While it wasn’t in the prepared remarks, I can’t imagine it was unplanned. But a reminder that Republicans and Democrats in the room are human beings who are allowed to care about one another as human beings is useful.

We have political parties for a reason. McConnell and company legitimately disagree with Biden and company on the size, scope, and direction of many of the proposals Biden has put on the table. They should oppose them. But, rather than simply stonewalling every initiative, they should be working to achieve shared goals through compromise.

Presumably, every Republican in both Houses would like to see cancer cured. Again, they may disagree on how much to spend on that effort. They may disagree with setting up a DARPA-type initiative rather than partnering directly with the private sector. But, again, simply voting No on every Democratic initiative gets us nowhere.

I’m not under the illusion that one speech is going to magically return us to an era where the two parties are less polarized. Joe Manchin and Susan Collins aside, there’s simply less middle ground than there was thirty or forty years ago. But ratcheting down the rhetoric is at least a start.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JohnSF says:

    Alarm in US govt!
    Republicans ask:
    “Who is this bipartisan guy Tone? And why did Biden strike him? Will Dem violence never cease?”

  2. MarkedMan says:

    he gave credit where it wasn’t due.

    I think he tried, with some success, to be more subtle to that. He talked about “Democrats, Independents and Republicans” being in favor of these policies. He was justifiably claiming the mantle of bipartisanship because Republican voters favored his policies.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    My, slightly edited, comment from the open thread:
    There was a moment that was the perfect encapsulation of the type of people that make up the modern Republican congess. When Biden mentioned that the child poverty rate had been cut in half, the Democrats applauded while Republicans sat stonily in their seats.

  4. Mikey says:

    I didn’t watch much of the speech, but I did catch when he was talking about high-capacity rifle magazines and said “what, are the deer wearing Kevlar vests?”

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: Bipartisan Tone? Isn’t he the son of Franchot Tone?

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The best part of that speech? It was not full of boastful lies, and complete fabrications.
    It seems Biden has realized he is going to have to go around Republicans in Congress and appeal to Republican voters. And all the overnight polling shows that is working.
    And while Liz Cheney fist-bumps Biden, McCarthy is out there still claiming Biden wants to take away your hamburgers.

    Look – for 40 years this country has largely been operating by Republican rules. And it has been pretty much a complete failure. It’s way past time to come together and move the country forward in a way that benefits everyone. Hopefully Biden can begin that process.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Oh, I thought it was an obvious reference to Tone-Loc, Biden being every so tuned in to the early Rap scene…

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t know if it will work, but Biden’s approach is very smart. He’s going Christian – turning the other cheek, refusing to rise to the bait. It’s very hard to hate a man who keeps holding out his hand, and without rage and hate, what does the GOP have left?

    Biden is gently easing a wedge in between Washington Republicans and actual human voters who, even while ranting and hating and fantasizing, still want things like child care, college, hope. . . This is a critical point. Will Republican voters sober up and rejoin the United States and civilization? Don’t know. But Biden’s approach feels smart and mature and it may just work.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Biden and his administration have been incredibly disciplined in not taking Republican bait. They keep their eye on the prize and pay no mind to who wins this minutes twitter contest. They know they can’t have any effect on the Trumpers, so they are aiming at the Trumper adjacent, their friends and families who are maybe a bit more skeptical that Biden wants to take away hamburgers or is a crazy socialist. And the Republicans, digging deep into their back bench and finding exactly one Black Rep and one Black Senator, trots one of them out to give a speech that obviously and embarrassingly completely ret-conned Biden’s speech. Big mistake. He should have know you can’t do an effective retcon of something that just happened five minutes ago.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    He’s going Christian – turning the other cheek

    I don’t think that’s quite it. Rather, Biden is playing his game – dramatically turning the American ship to head into safer waters. The Republicans are playing their game – winning the twitter insult contest of the minute. Biden is simply not participating in their game and staying focused on his. It’s like a tradesman who comes in to do a job and finds someone from another craft who wants to pick a fight about mindless stuff, so he just doesn’t respond and goes about getting the job done.

  11. drj says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s very hard to hate a white man who keeps holding out his hand, and without rage and hate, what does the GOP have left?

    Obama and Hillary Clinton have taught us that much, I’d say.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Is it a genuine attempt at bipartisanship or a cynical ploy to go around Republican pols to appeal to their voters and show R obstruction for what it is? Why yes, it is. It can be both.

  13. Mu Yixiao says:
  14. Sleeping Dog says:
  15. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Looking around the media landscape this morning…it’s truly awesome, the Republicans have no idea how to counter Biden.
    Blackburn, the cute blonde bimbo from TN, is spouting nonsense about mandatory Community College. McCarthy is still saying Biden is coming for your steaks. Schlapp wants Biden to come and take the lead pipes out of his house.
    Trump had four years and did nothing. Apparently that is the Republican platform. Let’s do nothing!!!

  16. KM says:

    @gVOR08 :
    If it’s stupid and it works, it ain’t stupid. What’s pissing the GOP off is it’s clearly working to a degree.

  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    And all the overnight polling shows that is working.

    A new CBS poll finds that 85% of Americans who watched Biden’s speech approve.

  18. just nutha says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Must be the headline from Fake News CNN.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao: From your link:

    Joe Biden: ‘As you know, the fastest-growing population in the US is Hispanic’
    This is not right. Hispanic Americans actually represent the second fastest growing demographic over the past two decades, after Asian Americans.

    I can live with this type of flagrant dishonesty.

  20. Teve says:

    @Gustopher: Biden’s people can always say he meant in absolute number, not %.

  21. inhumans99 says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    I think the Post is still butt hurt (that is still a saying amongst the cool kids, yes?) that their Hunter Biden stories were not considered the most amazing pieces of investigative journalism ever and if only we had treated these stories with the reverence that they deserved Trump would still be our President and the world would not be going to hell in a handbasket, or something like that.

    Happy Thursday folks, or as a lot of my colleagues at work have taken to calling the day, Friday Eve.

  22. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..I can live with this type of flagrant dishonesty.
    Why? I don’t get it. What’s the point?

    Hispanic Americans actually represent the second fastest growing demographic over the past two decades, after Asian Americans.

    How would stating the honest facts be a bad thing?
    Isn’t President Biden giving his enemies one more thing to grouse about?
    Again, what’s the point?

  23. Andy says:

    But, rather than pointing out that zero Republicans voted for some of these packages to score points, he gave credit where it wasn’t due.

    Biden is in a strong position and he takes his role seriously. Scoring points is usually what losers do when one doesn’t have an actual argument (or it’s what childish jerks on Twitter do). It serves no useful purpose and is counterproductive.

  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @Teve:..@Gustopher: Biden’s people can always say he meant in absolute number, not %.

    Then that’s what should have been in the speech.

    Excuses are like assholes. Everybody has one and they all stink!

  25. JohnSF says:

    I got round to taking a look at the speech.
    I must say, the more I see and hear President Biden, the more impressed I am.

    This is not the agenda of a “place holder”; it could be the opening to most significant Democrat agenda since Johnson.
    Depending on how Congressional politics play out, of course.

    Beyond the domestic policies, which others here are far more qualified than me to comment on, he is clearly aiming at persuading or pressuring China away from it’s current turn to aggressive exploitation of opportunity, to continue Russian adventurism, to rebuild alliance consultation, and a constructive approach to the climate crisis.

    Solid stuff.

  26. Sleeping Dog says:


    (that is still a saying amongst the cool kids, yes?)

    Can’t help you, I was never among the cool kids. I was always among the kids who discovered the cool thing just after the avant garde moved on.

    Murdoch is trying too hard the audience for his properties is dying off and everyone else sees through the facade. Even those who generally agree with him are beginning to wonder if Faux News et. al. have crossed a line.

  27. Teve says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    @Teve:..@Gustopher: Biden’s people can always say he meant in absolute number, not %.

    Then that’s what should have been in the speech

    he didn’t specify which meaning to take. 😀

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Hispanic Americans actually represent the second fastest growing demographic over the past two decades, after Asian Americans.

    How would stating the honest facts be a bad thing?
    Isn’t President Biden giving his enemies one more thing to grouse about?
    Again, what’s the point?

    First off, have his enemies been grousing about this? Or just you?

    2nd of all, has it occurred to you that one of his speechwriters made an honest mistake? That they pulled their data from the wrong report? Or just recalled reading something somewhere along the lines?

    Sure they are supposed to check and double check all facts to make sure they are accurate but sometimes mistakes slip thru. It’s not like Biden was telling people to drink bleach or shove light bulbs up their asses or distill fish tank cleaners for the hydroxychloroquine in it, right?

  29. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..Or just you?…It’s not like Biden was telling people to drink bleach or shove light bulbs up their asses or distill fish tank cleaners for the hydroxychloroquine in it, right?

    Clearly it’s just me.
    I would hope that we can hold President Biden to a much higher standard than the fool who preceded him in the White House.

  30. wr says:

    @Mister Bluster: Dude, I’ve got all the respect in the world for you, have enjoyed your posts for years… but you are doubling and tripling and quadrupling down on a statement that was dubious to begin with. Biden made a claim; the BBC contradicted it. Someone pointed out that the claim is most likely true depending on which metric you use — and you are now comparing Biden to Trump because he didn’t stop to consider whether the BBC would use the same metric as him, and thus he’s a liar.

    This is the kind of thing that makes people hate “fact checkers” — the artless, humorless, human-less adherence to what they decide is a fact despite myriad other ways of looking at an issue. Why you are going all in on this I just don’t get.

  31. Mister Bluster says:

    @wr:..have enjoyed your posts for years

    Thank you for the kind words.
    This is the fourth post I have made on this matter in this thread so I now plead guilty to quadrupling down.
    I have not called President Biden a liar and I am not comparing him to Trump.
    Gustopher claimed it was flagrant dishonesty not me.
    I didn’t read many complaints about fact checkers at OTB during the four years before January 20, 2021.

  32. Gustopher says:

    @Mister Bluster: Because it is clearly an honest mistake and has almost no relevance. He got basically everything right, and if this is what the fact checkers have to focus on for balance we are doing great.

    And if Asian-Americans are growing faster than Hispanic-Americans, will we have giant Asian-Americans, or do they stop growing at some point?

    I guess they could be like goldfish, growing to the size of their container.

    Really, the fastest growing population is children.

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    …over the past two decades, after Asian Americans. BBC

    One thought about the choice of range. Was it chosen to make the assertion false? Just asking. Don’t really care.

  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: “Gustopher claimed it was flagrant dishonesty not me.”

    Gustopher was being sarcastic. At least, that’s what I got. Check your snark meter. (And quit trying to defend your statement.)

  35. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I’m heartened by the fact that 85% of viewers approved. I’m depressed because it simply may not matter. Remember, the actual # of viewers was tiny in terms of our overall population. Most people will form their opinion of his speech, behavior, and programs from the media they consume. Where the NY Post style headline (plus Fox, and OANN, and the rest of the garbage) have bigger viewerships than the rest (side whine: why is Fox allowed to continuously complain about the mainstream media AND boast how they are the most watched?!?! They ARE the mainstream these days!).

  36. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I’ve said I had a feeling that Biden was simply before his season the previous times he ran from POTUS. He’s proving by the month that his time is now and he is indeed the right person for the times.

    This also goes to show that the things it takes to be successful in the primaries are not the skills that count to do the actual job of governing. No one is an expert on everything in this country. But a good leader can pick the right experts from the wrong ones and chose the right vision and culture to guide the organization. His final test will be the inevitable moment when he has to choose the best of bad options for a major crisis. The best leaders have a knack for minimizing hard when the org must eat either the proverbial shit sandwich or shit salad.