It’s not often that a president of the United States gets to turn a moment of heckling into a moment of triumph. But President Joe Biden did just that during his first address to Congress last night, using jeers from Republicans to illustrate his point and drive home his message. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at how Biden turned a potentially difficult moment into a memorable one, and why it matters for the modern presidency.
Biden was already off to a strong start in his address, but the jeers from the Republican side of the gallery helped him come alive. He accused “some of my Republican friends” of wanting to “sunset Social Security and Medicare,” even as he acknowledged that, “I am not saying this a majority” who backs a proposal last year from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
The jeers from the Republicans only served to emphasize Biden’s point and add to the drama of the moment. He responded to the hecklers with a smile and a challenge: “Anybody who doubts it contact my office and I will give you a copy of the proposal.” He even quipped that, “We got unanimity” when the hecklers shouted that Social Security and Medicare should be taken off the books.
Beyond the entertainment value, the boisterousness in the gallery was a reminder of something more consequential. Even in a polarized era, the modern presidency gives its occupants unmatched ability to define and hold the political center. This might be easy to forget, after years in which Donald Trump — practicing a politics of contempt aimed mostly at mobilizing supporters —- seemed indifferent to this reality.
Biden, however, is a different kind of president. He is a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presidencies, and he is using the speech to achieve more traditional aims. He is presenting himself as a common-sense realist, in touch with the everyday concerns of voters—inviting the opposition to choose between joining him to solve problems or risk being portrayed as obstructionists and extremists.
Biden also showed that it is not such a difficult feat — at least not with the presidential platform — to unify different wings of his party, despite some commentary asserting they are irreconcilable. On policing reform, for instance, Biden introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols — killed in a beating by police in Memphis last month — and trumpeted his proposals to reduce police violence. But he steered far clear of the anti-police rhetoric embraced by some on the left, and exploited by Republicans, after the George Floyd murder in 2020.
In the end, Biden’s address to Congress was a reminder of the power of the modern presidency, and of the potential for a president to unify different wings of their party. It was also evidence of how standards of decorum are highly fluid. Biden turned a potentially difficult moment into a memorable one, and it will be interesting to see how his message is received in the coming days.