WASHINGTON (AFP) - Addressing lawmakers Wednesday in an eerily unfilled US Capitol, President Joe Biden delivered his first speech to Congress under extraordinary circumstances that highlighted the coronavirus pandemic and January’s deadly riot that shook the citadel of democracy.
Barely 200 mask-wearing lawmakers spread out in the House of Representatives chamber -- the very body where many were acting to certify Biden’s election victory on January 6 when marauders sent members scrambling for their lives.
"As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol -- desecrating our democracy -- remain vivid in our minds," he told the hushed chamber in a primetime speech to mark his first 100 days in office.
But he turned the reaction to the harrowing attack, and America’s response to the coronavirus, as cause for optimism.
"We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy -- of pandemic and pain -- and ‘We the People’ did not flinch," he said.
Evidence of the unrest remains on Capitol Hill. The metal fencing around Congress still stands, and heavily armed National Guard troops ringed the building Wednesday as a precaution.
The building’s hallways were nearly empty, the tours that normally bring tourists and other guests to the Rotunda halted.
Covid restrictions made Biden’s maiden speech to Congress one like no other. Most of the US Supreme Court’s nine members usually attend such addresses, but this time Chief Justice John Roberts alone represented the bench.
Of the entire Biden cabinet, only Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin were present.
The joint session was historic on multiple fronts: the unprecedented number of empty seats in the chamber, indicative of the nation’s ongoing 14-month battle against the Covid-19 pandemic that requires social distancing and mask-wearing at public gatherings.
And with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated at the dais, two women flanked a US president during his speech to Congress for the first time ever.
"Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President," Biden began warmly as he noted their historic turn. "And it’s about time."
The chamber burst into applause, with First Lady Jill Biden and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff joining in the ovation.
But the two spouses were largely alone in their box in the gallery. Normally filled with lawmakers’ guests, the upper seats were virtually empty, as guests were relegated to watching from home.
Biden, making his case for a dramatic expansion of government social safety net programs like child care and free community college, directly appealed to Republicans in the hopes of winning at least the barest of support necessary to advance his progressive agenda.
He fist-bumped congresswoman Liz Cheney, a member of Republican leadership who has angered many in her caucus for openly denouncing former president Donald Trump, and huddled after his speech with Republican Senator Rob Portman.
Biden used a strikingly personal tone, at times whispering as he did, when he urged corporate America and the nation’s wealthiest to "pay their fair share" of taxes.
The line drew blank stares from most Republicans, and loud applause from Democrats.
Biden is perhaps the American most familiar with these speeches and how they are used to win over the public and earn congressional support.
Elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden attended Richard Nixon’s final State of the Union address, and sat at the dais as vice president for multiple congressional addresses by Barack Obama.