Bill McCormick, S.J.April 29, 2021
President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress inside the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington April 28, 2021. Also pictured are Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (CNS photo/Melina Mara, Pool via Reuters)

In his first speech to Congress, on April 28,  President Joseph R. Biden Jr. heralded the country’s progress against the Covid-19 pandemic during his first 100 days in office, declaring, “America is on the move again.” Mr. Biden unveiled a bold economic agenda and called for expansive investments in children and families, infrastructure and education, to ensure the United States “wins the future.” 

I emailed several Catholic journalists, theologians and public commentators to get their thoughts on Mr. Biden’s address. As with much else the country’s second Catholic president does, they had plenty to say about it.

A champion of the common good

“I was struck by how deeply resonant with Catholic social teaching his address was,” Kerry Robinson, a partner of the Leadership Roundtable, told America.

Nate Tinner-Williams of the Black Catholic Messenger agreed, saying that “it was pleasant to see certain policies championed that fall under the Catholic vision of the common good.”

“I was struck by how deeply resonant with Catholic social teaching his address was,” Kerry Robinson, a partner of the Leadership Roundtable, told America.

“In President Biden’s address, we witnessed a return to an understanding of government consonant with Catholic social teaching,” echoed Kristin Heyer, a theology professor at Boston College. “The government as ‘we the people’ and as means to promote the common good.”

While noting that the president’s speech ignored critical issues like abortion, Gloria Purvis, the former host of the “Morning Glory” radio show, told America that “there were some policy matters that could signal a shift in the discussion on life issues.”

In particular, she noted that “the president’s focus on policies that could positively impact families—such as paid family leave for all employees, expanded tax credits for every child in a family, affordable child care and home care for aging parents or loved ones with a disability—could be a small step toward creating a culture that views the responsibilities of child care and elder care as a societal good worth supporting and not as burdens to be solved with abortion or assisted suicide.”

But not all Catholics reached by America were impressed by the president’s address. “What was most telling about last night’s address was not so much what was said—but what wasn’t,” said Mary H. FioRito, a Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She pointed to the crisis at the southern border, his administration’s resumption of funding for medical research on the remains of unborn children and Mr. Biden’s reversal on federal funding for abortion as telling omissions in the speech. 

“President Biden has repeatedly said he aspires to ‘heal the nation.’ But healing can only start when there is a genuine attempt to build unity, not push forward on the issues that are most divisive.”

“President Biden has repeatedly said he aspires to ‘heal the nation,’” she said. “But healing can only start when there is a genuine attempt to build unity, not push forward on the issues that are most divisive.”

‘An economy that upholds human dignity’

Many noted a Catholic dimension to Mr. Biden’s focus on the importance of work and the dignity of labor and the human person in the speech.

Sam Rocha, an educational studies professor at the University of British Columbia, said, “On economics, Biden seemed to lift entire passages from Catholic social teaching, especially on poverty, the lie of trickle-down economics, the union as the creator of the middle class, the need to support and empower families, and living wages.”

Susan Reynolds, a theology professor at Emory University, told America that “Biden seemed to be making the case for an economy that upholds human dignity—the case that child care, health care and education are public goods deserving of public investment.”

“On economics, Biden seemed to lift entire passages from Catholic social teaching,” Sam Rocha said.

Marcus Mescher, a theology professor at Xavier University, said that “Biden demonstrated a preferential option for those on the margins with three items of legislation: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Equality Act and the Violence Against Women Act.”

“We still have work to do until every citizen enjoys equal protection under the law,” he said, and these examples will help us move toward justice for all.”

Striking a precarious balance

Mr. Biden’s remarks on race were also generally praised. Ms. Purvis said that “his specific appeal to all of us ‘to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform’ is an invitation I hope we accept.”

Christine Emba of The Washington Post found Mr. Biden’s approach to race typical of his broader governing strategy. “This was a remarkably progressive speech,” she said, “but it didn’t read like one. Biden tossed ‘trickle-down economics,’ called out white supremacy as a terrorist threat, promoted an assault weapons ban and previewed an actually radical plan for investment in American families.

“If pitched by anyone else, these lines would be viewed as a threat. Instead, they’re rendered moderate by the president’s collegial white-maleness. This is his superpower, really: Nothing seems too radical if delivered by the archetypal average Joe.”

“This is his superpower, really: Nothing seems too radical if delivered by the archetypal average Joe,” said Christine Emba of The Washington Post.

Ms. Emba’s comments underline the precarious balance Mr. Biden hopes to strike: Catholic but open to secular progressives; a centrist tone but progressive policy; appealing to the middle class but concerned about racial justice; and egalitarian but also open to economic growth.

“Biden’s speech was in some ways almost Trumpish,” Mr. Rocha said. “It was populist and protectionist; it was exceptionalist and imperialist.”

But noting the tensions of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy proposals, Matthew Shadle, a theology professor at Marymount University, said:

Biden’s address previewed what is likely to be a lingering paradox in Biden’s foreign policy: He vowed to restore the United States’ leadership role in the world, rebuilding our alliances and standing up to Russia and China, but at the same time he touted his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, a striking sign of the United States’ declining global hegemony. What will take priority: seeking a more humble role for the U.S. in world affairs or seeking to restore the U.S. role as global superpower?

For Elizabeth Bruenig of The New York Times, Mr. Biden’s speech was a missed opportunity to forcefully address the issues most important to his political party, including racial justice, climate change and voting rights.

Democrats are in a maximally activist state of mind at the moment, mobilized by the pandemic, police violence and four years of Trump—or so it seems. It’s fascinating, then, to hear the party’s leader—a grandfatherly, cordial old senator from Delaware—limit mention of the party’s animating issues to a few brief remarks at the tail end of a long speech. Sure, that’s what voters expected when they voted for Biden: a guy too moderate and too mild to be cast by Trump as a left-wing radical. But if Dems picked Biden because they felt he’s safely in the center lane, what do they think will happen to the causes Biden mentioned at the very end of his address?

She called “the gulf between the most vocal segment of the party and the president they wound up with is one of the most curious mismatches between base and leader in recent memory.”

His words ‘ring hollow’

President Biden also came in for criticism from many quarters, particularly on immigration, abortion and the cost of his proposals.

Dr. Heyer said she wanted to see “more attention to how his administration can protect refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, rather than relatively vague references to the need for Congress to act and for Vice President Harris to help address root causes.” She says such an approach “would have been more worthy of Francis’ example—and Biden’s own statements about human dignity and rights.”

Dr. Shadle agreed: “So far, immigration reform does not seem like a major priority for the president.”

As for abortion, Stephen White of the Ethics & Public Policy Center sees a disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and his policies when it comes to the dignity of life:

President Biden does empathy very well. That matters a great deal at times like this. But his words of empathy and decency begin to ring hollow when he speaks of defending “God-given dignity” and “basic human rights,” in one moment, while using his office to advance the greatest social injustice in America since slavery—abortion—in the next moment. His commitment to legal abortion cannot but hobble his attempts to unify and heal the nation and is a drag on so many of the good things he might otherwise accomplish.

Speaking of Mr. Biden’s ambitious spending proposals, Andy Smarick of the Manhattan Institute worried about their cost, telling America: “This may have been the most big-government presidential address of my lifetime. President Biden may have campaigned as a moderate, and he does have a moderate temperament, but tonight he advocated for a bold, muscular Uncle Sam. If Biden gets his way, Washington would be involved in more, spend more, and tax more than we’ve seen in ages.

Stephen White: “His commitment to legal abortion cannot but hobble his attempts to unify and heal the nation and is a drag on so many of the good things he might otherwise accomplish.”

“This was not a speech about federalism, localism, civil society, capitalism, or volunteerism,” he said. “This was about how the federal government can and should solve our problems. And that’s a shame.”

Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post offered a more philosophical criticism of Mr. Biden’s claim that “America is an idea, the most unique idea in history. We are created, all of us equal. It is who we are.” He tweeted the night of the address that “The United States is a nation state with certain laws and a specific history, a mix of good and bad. Its existence is the product of historically contingent forces and circumstances.”

Elaborating on this point for America, he said, “I worry that America-as-idea is an invitation to imperial hubris and folly.”

Mr. Biden has only been president for about 100 days, with much to come. Given the president’s propensity to invoke hope, perhaps a challenge for his administration and for the American people will be cultivating the kind of hope that can endure the challenges of present realities.

As Gloria Purvis told America: “We have a good deal of work to do to move this country to a place where everyone can flourish. I hope we can move toward building a culture of life while at the same time being vigilant about the real threats that still exist to building that culture.”

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