Biden has watched a number of presidents deliver addresses to Congress over his decades in the Senate and in the Obama White House, but this will be the first time he’s delivering his own address in the chamber since taking office. During his decades of sitting in the chamber watching other presidents give their State of the Union speeches and other major addresses, he could not have imagined the scene that will be before him when he stands on the rostrum Wednesday.
The audience will be thin and the President will wear a face mask before and after delivering his address, according to a person familiar with the plan. Behind him, for the first time, will be two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of whom plan to wear masks.
The White House has conveyed that Biden understands how important the moment will be. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the address that the President recognizes the speech as “one of the highest profile opportunities even the President has each year to speak directly to the American people” and says he’s been “deeply involved” in preparations.
Given that Biden’s speech is the first presidential address to Congress since the coronavirus pandemic began, this year’s events will undoubtedly look and feel different than ones in years past. Here are six things you can expect during Wednesday’s remarks:
An extra-tight guest list
Trump’s final address to Congress was the State of the Union in February 2020 — a month before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.
Invitations have been extended to a limited number of members of Congress and those who are invited cannot bring guests. About 200 people will be allowed into the chamber.
Most of Biden’s Cabinet will be watching from their offices or homes, Psaki said on Tuesday. And since they will not be in attendance, there will be no designated survivor — a Cabinet member who does not attend the speech in case of some sort of catastrophe that wipes out the line of succession.
Chief Justice John Roberts will be the only Supreme Court justice in attendance.
It’s unclear how many lawmakers per party will attend. As tickets are limited, the Democratic caucus is holding a lottery for members who are interested in attending Biden’s speech, multiple senators and aides told CNN.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both are expected to be in the audience.
And first lady Jill Biden won’t have a traditional viewing box at the address, Psaki said on Friday.
It’s been a tradition for first ladies to sit during a State of the Union — or a joint address to Congress for presidents in their first months in office — with guests who symbolize the presidential administration’s policy priorities. And while the first lady will attend the address in person, she will not bring guests to sit in her box, according to the White House.
Most, if not all, of the White House staff will be watching the speech virtually, Psaki said.
Acknowledging the difficulties of the last year
He’ll reference the January 6 riot at the Capitol during his remarks, according to people familiar with his speech preparations. And before he speaks, he’ll meet with Capitol staff who weathered the insurrection attempt.
The coronavirus pandemic will constitute a major portion of Biden’s speech, officials said.
Outlining the American Families Plan
While key elements of the proposal were tweaked, removed or added in just the last several days, the joint session speech has long been viewed as the platform to unveil the proposal and its key elements, several of which Biden’s top advisers consistently point out poll quite well with the public.
In the days following the address, Biden will hit the road to make his first sales pitch for the plan at events around the country. Cabinet members and White House officials will take part in the tour as well.
Touting pandemic victories and pushing for vaccinations
Expect Biden to highlight his administration’s efforts to combat the coronavirus and keep the economy afloat, like the passage of the President’s first legislative priority — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Biden is also expected to push people to get vaccinated as vaccine supply grows to meet demand and emphasize its incentives, like eased masking guidelines and attending certain gatherings.
The administration indicated last week that they expect daily vaccination rates to “moderate and fluctuate” during the next stage of the US vaccination program, now that the most at-risk populations and those most eager to get vaccinated have largely been administered a vaccine.
Pelosi and Harris make history
Biden’s speech will mark the first time two women in Washington leadership will sit behind a sitting US president during a joint address to Congress. The symbolism is something he’ll acknowledge during his speech, according to sources familiar with the plan.
Harris and Pelosi — the first women to hold their positions in federal leadership — are expected to sit behind Biden on the rostrum in masks during the entirety of the speech.
Though silent throughout the President’s remarks, the vice president and the speaker’s body language often serve as guideposts for how parties in the chamber react.
Given that both Pelosi and Harris are Democrats, expect frequent gestures of approval, like applause and standing ovations.
The White House has said policing reform will be a key topic discussed during Biden’s Wednesday evening address.
“As he’s thinking about what his joint session speech looks like next week, he has every intention of using that as an opportunity to elevate this issue and talk about the importance of putting police reform measures in place,” Psaki said last week.
Biden’s comments about policing reform from the chamber will come one week after Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes last year, was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“The President doesn’t believe that he alone can pull the George Floyd (Justice in Policing) Act across the finish line. That is going to be up to Congress,” she said, adding that Biden “believes the bar for convicting officers is too high.”
CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Betsy Klein, Phil Mattingly, Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins, Annie Grayer and Manu Raju contributed to this report.