WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is hoping to use his upcoming State of the Union address to nudge the pandemic into the nation’s rear-view mirror. But it could turn into yet another disruptive display of national tensions and frustration over trying to move past COVID-19.
Biden’s March 1 address to Congress will play out against what Vice President Kamala Harris has called a “malaise” over the persistence of COVID and growing public impatience to get back to normal after two years of pandemic restrictions. Even Democratic-run state and local governments are lifting restrictions as cases, hospitalizations and deaths decline.
However, the State of the Union setting — Capitol Hill — remains one of the most significantly disrupted workplaces in the country, something of a ground zero for culture wars over the lingering restrictions and security concerns from the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
Proxy voting in the House allows lawmakers to work from home and skip going into the office, and has been extended through March. Tours and office visits are limited. GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.
Seating for Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last April was capped at about 200 — about 20% of usual capacity for a presidential presentation. White House officials say the protocols for Biden’s next one will be determined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi indicated last week that lawmakers are aiming for “fuller participation” than last year, including inviting every member of Congress. She said, “I think the people are ready to pivot in a way that shows to the American people we largely have been vaccinated here.”
But attendance, she added, will be “up to the Capitol physician.”
In an interview on the eve of the 1/6 anniversary last month, Pelosi said she hoped the Capitol, which remained closed in part for security concerns, would reopen soon.
Republicans, meanwhile, have grown increasingly vocal about rolling back restrictions at the Capitol. In the Senate, more than half of GOP lawmakers this week signed a resolution calling on Congress to lift all virus rules and reopen to visitors.
“From stores to venues and most workplaces and schools, the rest of the United States has reopened, and it’s time for the Senate to do the same,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty, author of the resolution.
Though the Capitol and other federal properties set their own rules, the District of Columbia’s indoor mask requirement for most indoor gatherings and businesses is to be lifted on the same day as Biden’s address, The White House, for its part, says it will set rules for the complex based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
There are no indications that Pelosi is prepared to lift the House chamber’s mask guidance, which she maintained last year even when the CDC eased indoor mask-wearing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals before the emergence of the delta variant.
The White House has taken extraordinary precautions to keep Biden from getting the virus, including requiring high-quality masks in his vicinity and limiting his travel and participation in large events.
In addition to members of Congress, the State of the Union audience traditionally includes Cabinet members, military leaders, Supreme Court justices, diplomats and other invited guests. It’s not yet clear if Pelosi has decided whether to send invitations to Washington’s diplomatic corps and other guests who normally fill the galleries for the address.
A speech to a full House chamber would be by far the densest audience of Biden’s presidency to date.
The debate over rules on wearing masks and getting vaccinated has become a major front in the nation’s culture wars, breaking down along regional and political lines. Scenes of mask-less celebrities enjoying the Super Bowl — when schoolchildren in some jurisdictions are required to wear masks even when outside at recess — have drawn criticism for unfairness.
Some Biden allies are fretting that the Capitol scene could add fuel to the fire, or that anti-mask conservative Republicans would use the speech for some stunt or protest.
More broadly, federal officials are racing to finalize new, more flexible national guidance on mask-wearing and other policies before Biden steps up to the rostrum in the House chamber at 9:01 p.m.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things worsen,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Wednesday.
She indicated the revised guidelines, to be coordinated with a broad administration plan for the “next phase” of the virus response, should come around the end of February.
Administration officials expect that new strategy and message to figure prominently in Biden’s speech as pandemic fatigue becomes more pronounced.
The White House sees his speech — in concert with the expected loosening of virus limits — as an opportunity to help stem an erosion of public confidence in his leadership. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last month, just 45% of Americans said they approved of Biden’s handling of COVID-19, down from 57% in December and 66% in July.
There is growing clamor in both parties.
“This is an opportunity for the president to acknowledge the challenge that we faced over the last few years, but also acknowledge that we’re gonna have to learn how to live with COVID, and we know how to do that,” said Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, a California physician.
In an interview, Bera said he hoped Congress would roll back some of its limits, including its mask mandate, and that Biden could speak to an audience that would symbolize the emergency phase of the pandemic was over.
“It is a real bully pulpit and the president could take this opportunity to move the country to a more normal space,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this week criticized the Democrats’ approach, saying they only recently changed their tune because of shifting public opinion.
“The only science that’s changed in the last two weeks is the political science,” he said. “The only data that’s changed in the last two weeks is Democrats’ polling data.”