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Breaking Down President Biden's Prime-Time Address

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Let's talk more about what we heard and what it means for the future with two voices - one liberal, one conservative. Scott Jennings is a Republican strategist and former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Mo Elleithee is the executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and the former communications director for the DNC. Good morning.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

MO ELLEITHEE: Morning.

DETROW: So the speech last night had another recurring theme, unity. The president was almost pleading with the country at times. Let's listen to one moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And national unity isn't just how politics and politicians vote in Washington, what the loudest voices say on cable or online. Unity is what we do together as fellow Americans.

DETROW: Mo, let's start with you. What did you make of the overall speech and this specific argument from Biden?

ELLEITHEE: Overall, I thought it was the speech we all needed to hear on the one-year anniversary of the shutdown. And this has been quite the week for this administration in the war against COVID with the signing of the relief package, the partnership between the pharmaceutical companies and the good news about the expedited timeline to get shots in arms. It's been a very good week. And so I thought he did a good job of reflecting on what the last year has been like for all of us and sort of helping to connect us all through this lived experience, this common lived experience we've had for the past year. I thought it was a very powerful and well-done speech.

DETROW: Scott, I want to ask you about something else that the president said last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We need to remember, the government isn't some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it's us, all of us.

DETROW: This new law is a massive expansion of government spending of the social safety net. It's pretty popular. We had a poll earlier this week showing 62% approve of the president's overall approach to COVID. Looking back at the past year, have Republicans lost the argument at the moment for small government?

JENNINGS: Well, I would say America has lost the argument for small government. I mean, for much of the last year, you had both parties aligned with massive government expansion and massive government spending. Now, Republicans, of course, didn't vote for this particular package. They wanted something smaller. And if you look at - inside the bill, you can see why - because a great deal of it didn't go to COVID relief or vaccine distribution or anything else that resembled anything that seems vital.

But yeah, at this moment in time, I think, based on the election results and this spending bill, our national politics has moved somewhat to the left. And if you - you mentioned a poll. If you call someone up and say, would you like me to send you a check? - of course they're going to say yes. But no one ever asked - the follow-up question is, are you prepared for the taxes to come to pay for all this? The bill will come due some day, but we've put that aside for now and have decided to spend infinite amounts of money.

DETROW: And getting back to that partisanship point, Scott, just following up with you, the president seems to be trying to separate Republicans in Congress in Washington with the rest of the country when it comes to how you define unity, whether he's acting in broad interests or partisan interests. Do you think that's working?

JENNINGS: Well, I think his job approval appears to be right side up, which is a different condition than what Donald Trump has. I mean, the best part of Biden's speech last night was the empathy piece. He ran on it. He's following through on it - the shared experience that binds us together, pain and hope. I mean, that is exactly what you would expect to hear from a president. It worked during the campaign, and I think it's what's driving, to some degree, his job approval now because it's what we would expect from a president. And of course, it's exactly where Trump was a failure. Biden appears to give a rip about human beings, and Trump never could get that part right.

DETROW: Mo, this - setting aside that kind of low bar, but this new law is more than twice as large as the 2009 stimulus. You know, we've talked about the expanded health care subsidies and the monthly payments on the way to many families with children. Why do you think President Biden is able to enact and sell these kinds of big, progressive measures that the Obama administration struggled to sell even when they had huge majorities in Congress? Is it the moment? Is it the president? Is it what's happened over the past decade?

ELLEITHEE: Yeah, I think it's a little bit of all of the above. I mean, we are exhausted as a people, right? This past year has been so challenging and difficult for so many people that they're desperate for relief, and they're desperate to see light at the end of the tunnel and move forward. And I couldn't agree with Scott more about Joe Biden's sort of authentic empathy and how well that conveys when he's standing at that podium. This week, those two factors came together. People got the relief that they've been looking for, that they desperately need. And you have an empathetic president selling it. And that powerful combination, I think, really meets this moment in a way that maybe it wouldn't in another moment if we weren't all so exhausted after the past year.

DETROW: Yeah. Question for both of you here - on one hand, COVID cases are dropping fast; vaccinations are going up; the economy looks like it is getting better in a lot of key ways. On the other hand, Washington remains in this partisan trench warfare, and the president needs to win some Republican votes to get the rest of his agenda through. Scott, let's start with you. Do things get easier or harder for President Biden going forward?

JENNINGS: Well, I think it depends on the packages that he puts forward. I mean, the reason no Republican voted for this relief bill was because it was too big and spent a bunch of money on stuff that had nothing to do with COVID or relief. So as he moves forward the rest of his agenda - say, infrastructure - is it going to be a bill that Republicans believe is germane to the subject matter? And is it going to spend an amount of money that's appropriate, or is it going to continue to spend trillions upon trillions? And how are we going to pay for it? So I really think it depends on the approach. Or are we just going to keep printing money and doing things such as bailing out the city of San Francisco to the tune of 600 million? That's what conservatives didn't like about this and like about Biden's approach on this bill.

DETROW: And Mo, you've got about 20 seconds or so to weigh in - easier or harder going forward?

ELLEITHEE: I think it's a little bit harder now. And I think it's just because of how polarized our politics have become inside the Beltway. People aren't as polarized around the country as they are here in Washington. There are people trying to - Republicans trying to reclaim - or claim the Trump mantle, to be the heir to Trumpism. And they're just never going to make it easy for him, so I think it's going to be a bit challenging.

DETROW: All right. Mo Elleithee and Scott Jennings, thanks. Nice talking to both of you.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

ELLEITHEE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "VALLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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