President Biden's address on Wednesday was a night of many firsts for a modern presidential speech to lawmakers, from the barrier-breaking two women behind him to the required face coverings and distanced seating arrangements that have become hallmarks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Public health restrictions meant the in-person audience was small and spaced far apart, and any special guests invited by lawmakers tuned in virtually. And security — already heightened in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection — was tight, with access to the Capitol complex limited starting hours in advance.
On the eve of his 100th day in office, Biden detailed his early accomplishments with a focus on the pandemic, pitched his proposals for overhauling the economy and enhancing infrastructure and declared that "America is ready for a takeoff." (NPR correspondents have annotated his address in full here.)
"Throughout our history, presidents have come to this chamber to speak to Congress, to the nation, and to the world. To declare war, to celebrate peace, to announce new plans and possibilities," he said. "Tonight I come to talk about crisis and opportunity, about rebuilding a nation, revitalizing our democracy, and winning the future for America."
Images from inside the House chamber capture scenes from the atypical address.
The seats were sparsely populated due to the smaller-than-usual crowd. While the event has historically drawn up to 1,600 lawmakers and high-ranking officials, only about 200 people were in attendance on Wednesday.
It's a marked departure from the last such address, when former President Donald Trump delivered his final State of the Union speech to a packed chamber last February — just as the U.S. was recording its very first cases of COVID-19.
Lawmakers sat multiple seats apart to comply with social distancing protocols. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discourages large events and recommends that individuals maintain six feet of distance from people outside of their households.
Fist bumps were the greeting of choice on Wednesday night. Lawmakers welcomed each other — and Biden — with outstretched knuckles as they made their way to their seats.
Members of Congress wore masks as required, some plainer than others. Biden wore a mask as he moved through the chamber, but removed it while delivering his more than hour-long speech.
Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted for an elbow bump as they gathered at the dais to shatter a glass ceiling. Wednesday marks the first time a president has addressed Congress flanked by two women, and Biden opened his remarks by addressing "Madam Speaker" and "Madam Vice President."
And in another milestone of note, there was a second gentleman in the audience. Harris' husband, Douglas Emhoff, is the first person to hold that title.
Many lawmakers watched the speech from afar. One of them was Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who followed the evening's proceedings on TV. He later tweeted that "the most exciting thing between [Biden's] inauguration and his joint address tonight is still Bernie's mittens," harkening back to the three-month-old meme.
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