If Americans remember anything from President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress (a State of the Union in all but official title) Wednesday evening, it will likely be the image of Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated directly behind him. Not because they are both Democrats. (Been there). Not because they wore pandemic-appropriate masks. (Thirteen months into a pandemic, done that). But because never before have two women occupied those two seats of power, a highly visible demonstration of a changing of the guard in Washington. Appearances count. And around the world, people just witnessed a powerful statement about equality, equal opportunity and women in leadership.
[ VP Kamala Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi make history seated behind Biden at speech ]
All Americans can rejoice in this development, but people from Baltimore can, perhaps, rejoice a little more. Not only is Speaker Pelosi a favorite daughter of Charm City, born and raised here, with both her father and brother having served as mayor. But Vice President Harris is something of an adopted daughter, herself having chosen Baltimore to serve as national headquarters of her own presidential campaign last year. There were any number of reasons for this selection, of course, from a need to have an East Coast presence, to its convenience to D.C. and a major airport. But we suspect it also spoke to a theme she articulated in both her presidential and vice presidential bids — the need to ensure equal opportunity for all and help for the disenfranchised by a more activist federal government. And what better place to demonstrate that goal then Baltimore?
The role of a vice president is not an easy one. It comes with little authority aside from breaking tied votes in the U.S. Senate. But Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor who most recently represented the nation’s most populous state in the U.S. Senate, brings a certain good-natured gravitas to the often thankless role. She was back in Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, this time to mark the Biden administration’s 100th day and promote the substance of the president’s address. While not everyone agrees on every element of the administration’s massive spending plans, there is surely widespread support for the highlights — spending more on public infrastructure, getting fair-share tax rates from major corporations, fighting climate change, providing help for working families facing daunting child and elder care needs, and simply getting more vaccine in more arms at places like M&T Bank Stadium.
[ Biden declares ‘America is rising anew’ as he calls for expansion of federal programs on scale not seen in decades ]
As for President Biden’s speech, let’s just say it was lengthy and programmatic. We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest historians won’t be quoting extensively from it in the future. Perhaps because he did not actually say, “the era of big government has returned,” which would have been a clever play on Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union promising the opposite. But, let’s face it, it would also have been political malpractice. Instead, in addition to marking the ascension of women in U.S. politics, the speech will be chiefly remembered, and perhaps even beloved, for what it did not contain — the aggressively partisan, self-aggrandizing, misleading and grandiose rhetoric of the last person to hold the office. Seriously, how many families enjoyed a night of not yelling back at their TV set?
Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s official response also was rather subdued by contemporary standards, calling President Biden “a good man” and offering his own vision of equality — conceding, for example, that he, as a Black man, has gotten wrongly stopped by police and that “We are not adversaries. We are family! We are all in this together.” As President Biden walked through the House chamber, the reception appeared warm. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of a former vice president and occupant of the third highest position in House GOP leadership, even game him a fist bump as he walked in. Other members of her party made it a point to speak to him as he exited.
Does this signal the end of political differences and gender inequality? Of course not on the former, and a woman in the top spot would do more for the latter. But there is something to be said for a quiet, humble, low-key presidential address that both in symbol and substance, points to better days ahead, especially for a city just 40 miles from the White House that was — just eight months ago — described as the “WORST IN NATION” by Donald Trump, back when he was allowed a Twitter account. Sometimes it’s the little signs of respect, in addition to the big plans for the future, that give us hope.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.