Making History: More Than Optics

I’ve never been a fan of State of the Union-speech optics. The relatively tight, TV podium shot of the president, who deserves undivided attention as he speaks to the nation and beyond, still shares the screen–and audience focus–with the two people behind him, the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. They try to rein in their attention-attracting expressions and gestures, but we know they’re there, especially when it comes to applause lines and standing ovations. Even when they are of the same party, it can be a distraction. When they are not, it’s a disservice.

That context didn’t apply last Wednesday when President Joe Biden made his first address to a joint session of Congress. Sure, he is the anti-Trump avatar. And he needed this forum to underscore the case for going FDR-big to counter the biggest collective challenges—from pandemic, racial injustice and climate change to myriad iterations of infrastructure upgrades, global security and economic competitiveness–in America’s history. His Administration is making what amounts to a $6 trillion, once-in-a-generation investment in America. It’s also sending a cut-to-the-chase message that “autocracy will not win the future; democracy will.” And, sure, the socially—and ideologically—distanced Republicans were still partisan and still expressing, masks notwithstanding, their discord over an expensive “liberal wish list.”

But that VP and House Speaker behind Biden, Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi, respectively, were more than (next-in-succession) political props. They were monumentally important, historic figures. Before the president reiterated his priorities and oratorically reminded viewers that empathy, candor, optimism and inclusiveness were, indeed, back in fashion, he called everyone’s attention to the history they were witnessing.

Madam Vice President, Madam Speaker,” said Biden. “No president has ever said those words from this podium. … And it’s about time.” After four embarrassing, chaotic Trump years amid a pandemic, it was about time that America had something to celebrate besides a Trumpless Oval Office. You go, Madams.

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