From sleepy Ted Cruz to fist-pumping Liz Warren, Biden’s first address to Congress provided a different kind of entertainment

Expectations were low for Biden’s first address to Congress — not in terms of substance, but in terms of entertainment value. In Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, delivered a month before the nation shut down for the Covid-19 pandemic, he refused to shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand, led a chorus of boos for the Obama administration, and revealed to a bewildered woman and her confused children that he’d brought her husband home from deployment as a SUPER SPECIAL STATE OF THE UNION SURPRISE. Every moment of the hour and a half that he spoke was nail-biting: what was going to happen next? Would a chorus of flag-draped Miss Universe contestants perform a song about banning abortion? Would he create a new seat on the Supreme Court and gift it to the NRA?

No such anxieties pervaded Biden’s speech on Wednesday. Joe’s never been one for theatrics. Instead, most of the energy was brought by the supporting characters.

As Kamala Harris entered the room, she was asked by a reporter how she felt about the significance of two women — herself and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — sitting behind the president tonight. It’s “normal,” she responded. Did she mean that it was now normal to have two women in enviable positions of power, or did she mean that it was normal for two women to flank one man who gets to be the main event? Either way, it was nice to see her and Pelosi bump elbows in front of that iconic flag.

Oddly, the mood was downright relaxed. Someone filmed Biden walking in on their phone. Someone else’s ringtone went off accidentally halfway through. The president fist-bumped some of the guests present as he walked in, and made an opening joke about how it was good to be at a meeting that’s so close to home, “just down the hall”. He made a nod to that Pelosi-Harris setup, saying it was “about time” a president was able to say the words “Madame Vice President” and “Madame Speaker” in the same sentence. He brought in a cheer for the First Lady and the Second Gentleman.

Then, well, it was business as usual. Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1972 and in this speech, it showed. He and his speechwriter had mined for every all-American platitude possible from throughout the decades: “We’re working again, dreaming again, discovering again,” “We have to develop and dominate the technologies of the future,” we have to “compete with the rest of the world to win the 21st century,” “My fellow Americans, we have to show that we’re back and we’re back to stay,” and, in a strange riff on “There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’,” “There’s no quit in America”.

It was classic, Stars and Stripes-waving, eagle-loving, cliché-ridden stuff: the speech fodder that makes us all feel safe, as patriotic as hugging the flag but marginally less ridiculous. And although most of us will have heard all of it before, there is something special about hearing it delivered by a man who believes it right down to his bones. Joe Biden waited a long time to say these things, sat in the White House alongside someone else for two terms, ran for president three times. So when he uses the tongue-twister “blue-collar blueprint to build back America”, you can’t help but take it with a large dollop of affection.

Pelosi and Harris jumped up and down to provide standing ovations: one for cutting child poverty in half, another for 200,000 vaccines, another for pledging to “end cancer as we know it”. Bernie Sanders shuffled in his seat when Biden talked about negotiating on medication prices for Medicare, committing to delivering one tiny part of Sanders’ wide-ranging Medicare-for-All plan. Elizabeth Warren fist-pumped when the 46th president committed to providing “quality affordable childcare for all”. Lauren Boebert shook her head when he talked about gun control. Chuck Schumer stretched out in the front like a penny-pinching dad who’s just been upgraded to an exit row. Ted Cruz kept himself folded away and at one point looked like he was dozing off, possibly in need of another vacation in Cancun (“Ted Cruz is taking a siesta at tonight’s Biden speech, asleep on the job as usual,” tweeted Julian Castro).

Ted Cruz caught falling asleep during Biden joint session address

There was no ripping-up of speeches at the end, no grand exit; just a mask slipped over his face and a short chitchat with the nearest senators. And though his speech had a calm feel, it did include some careful admonishments aimed at his Republican friends across the aisle: collaborate with me or risk our whole country being overtaken by China; I won’t let go of the $15 minimum wage dream, even if it didn’t get into the Covid relief bill; millionaires and billionaires will be taxed more and publicly shamed for not paying their fair share if they use tax havens (Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell kept their hands firmly in their laps as their Democratic counterparts clapped at that). A plan to “reward work, not wealth” will be hard for the GOP to argue against, especially since, as the president said himself, his new tax plan will only affect “three tenths of 1 percent of all Americans”.

If Trump’s State of the Union was a TV special, Biden’s first address to Congress was a return to the usual schedule. It had those human moments we’ve come to expect from Biden: the story of how a mother with an immunocompromised child cried tears of joy after getting the vaccine; the mention of a nurse in Arizona who referred to every shot as “a dose of hope”. It also included a lot of talk about working with Republican colleagues, some of which was surprisingly hard-edged. In other words, it wasn’t just a return to normalcy. It promised something new for the future. And it irritated just enough members of the opposite party to reassure Democratic voters he still works for them.