CNN Business  — 

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

When Vice President Kamala Harris was walking into the House chamber on Wednesday, a reporter asked her about the significance of the day’s historical milestone – having two women, Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting on the rostrum – and Harris responded with one word, “Normal.”

That’s what it should be: Normal. So many aspects of President Biden’s address to Congress were about restoring normality and, at the same time, shifting the average American’s sense of what’s normal. “He is proceeding to set out, as his agenda, perhaps the most progressive agenda since LBJ or even Franklin Roosevelt,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said afterward.

John Harwood observed that Biden grounded his speech “in plain, non-political, non-ideological language invoking the people he wants to help” – veterans, single moms, poor kids, and so forth. Normal, in other words. No “faculty lounge” talk.

HuffPost WH correspondent S.V. Dáte tweeted, “People who only started following politics a few years ago might find this speech … strange … kind of boring … Well, this is a what a normal president sounds like. This is what these speeches were pretty much always like.”

The new normal?

Referring to “Madam Speaker and Madam Vice President,” Biden said “no president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.” Promoting his American Families Plan, he talked about bolstering education and childcare. Speaking about proposals for gun restrictions, he said, “we’re not changing the Constitution, we’re being reasonable.” Addressing young transgender Americans, he said, “I want you to know your president has your back.” And, as ABC’s Byron Pitts noted, “this president mentioned white supremacy and terrorism in the same sentence.”

The intent: To supersede Donald Trump’s abnormal, aberrant presidency with an aggressively normal approach. And it seems the opposition is still trying to figure out how to respond. As Brian Williams said on MSNBC, “No one yelled ‘you lie,’ the Speaker didn’t rip up the speech on live television. So, by the standards of about the last 20 years, it was a successful evening where the speeches are concerned.” The GOP rebuttal by Senator Tim Scott was complimented and critiqued, but the responses never stand out…

The commander in chief stance

Everything about Biden’s address communicated that “I’m in charge,” which might have caused some cognitive dissonance with the Fox base. Numerous Fox hosts have aired suspicions about Biden’s health and asserted that others are actually running the country. Sean Hannity did it again after the speech with a graphic that asked, conspiratorially, “WHO’S IN CHARGE?” Per Oliver Darcy, Hannity called the president “very weak, very frail, cognitively struggling” – yet somehow capable, Hannity said, of delivering a “big bore socialist speech” with a “multi-trillion dollar, far-left, socialist, statist, authoritarian wish list.” Pick a lane, Sean!

“Whatever the merits of Biden’s agenda as president,” Harwood tweeted, “he keeps demonstrating that the ‘he’s senile’ schtick is as empty as ‘he’s confiscating your hamburgers…’”

Midnight headlines

The NYT homepage’s banner headline at the end of the night: “Biden Makes Case to Vastly Expand Government’s Role.” WaPo: “Biden pitches ambitious investment and tax plans as he recasts role of government.” “BIG GOVERNMENT AGENDA.” AP: “Biden’s declaration: America’s democracy ‘is rising anew.’

Top notes and quotes

– First, a Biden quote: “We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and that we can deliver for our people.”

– Second, a pop-up graphic that appeared on Fox in the hour before the speech: “AWAITING BIDEN ADMIN PROPAGANDA ON CAP HILL.”

– In an echo of his inauguration speech, Biden spoke of “choosing hope over fear, truth over lies and light over darkness.”

– TPM’s Josh Marshall: “I’ve been watching State of the Union addresses for forty-plus years and I have never seen one like this.”

– “He’s developing a kind of positive populism,” CNN’s Van Jones said afterward.

– Fox almost immediately aired a complaint that Biden didn’t extend a thank-you to Trump for accelerating the vaccine timeline.

– Then commentator Ben Domenech came on and said Biden’s address was a “tissue of lies,” amounting to “a political blip, immediately forgotten.”

– The two primary attacks from the right were about huge spending and immigration weakness. Also: Over-the-top Covid restrictions.

– The aftermath of 1/6 loomed large. “For a half mile in any direction,” Politico said, “the Capitol was a fortress with police blocking roads and a fence still up around the building sacked by rioters nearly four months ago.”

– CNN’s Kevin Liptak: “Biden mentioned China four times and evoked Xi three times by name – a few ad-libbed. For a domestic policy-focused president (for now), it’s clear what is really weighing on Biden.”

VP enlisted in broadband effort

Biden said the VP will help lead the broadband component of the admin’s infrastructure proposal. He said it creates jobs by connecting every American “with high-speed internet, including 35% of the rural America that still doesn’t have it. It’s going to help our kids and our businesses succeed in the 21st century economy. And I am asking the VP to lead this effort…”

Ad-libs and whispers

The White House shared Biden’s prepared text with the press corps, and reporters noticed lots and lots of ad-libs. The other noticeable feature was his voice: Speaking to a largely empty chamber, Biden almost whispered at times. “It’s a more intimate, fireside chat style,” CNN’s John Avlon commented.

>> Brian Lowry writes: “As Biden spoke about Covid, his almost-whisper was extremely effective in capturing the gravity and seriousness of what has transpired in a sober, if not somewhat somber way. It felt particularly well suited to the scaled-back nature of the event, where the applause lines didn’t (indeed, couldn’t) generate quite the same roars as in the past…”