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President Biden remarks on the debt ceiling with a rare address from the Oval Office


President Biden did something tonight that he has never done before. He delivered a formal Oval Office address to the nation, capping a week where Congress passed legislation to raise the debt limit. He plans to sign it into law tomorrow.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was critical to reach an agreement, and it's very good news for the American people. No one got everything they wanted, but the American people got what they needed. We averted an economic crisis and economic collapse.

SUMMERS: Historically, speeches from behind the Resolute Desk carry added weight and attention. NPR's Tamara Keith joins us from the White House now to talk about this one. And, Tam, we have been talking about this deal all week, and last night it cleared the final hurdle in the Senate. So what was the president wanting to say about it tonight?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was a victory lap for a president who has long touted his ability to work with Congress and make big bipartisan deals happen. During the negotiations, as we were following very closely, President Biden was pretty quiet during much of that process. But tonight he commanded the airwaves in a way that only a president can, and he was there to seek credit from the American people for averting disaster. And I have to say that although this was not a campaign speech officially, Biden used a lot of familiar political lines. He criticized Republican proposals and talked about his wins in the final bill for his policy priorities. And he also talked about things that he wants to keep working on.

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SUMMERS: We also heard President Biden talk a lot about bipartisanship. He even praised Republicans.


BIDEN: I want to commend Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, we and our teams, we were able to get along and get things done. We were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another and respectful with one another. Both sides operated in good faith. Both sides kept their word.

SUMMERS: Pretty high praise there, Tam - how does that compare to the tone during the debt ceiling drama?

KEITH: Well, at various points, both sides in these talks accused the other one of not negotiating in good faith or at least implied they weren't negotiating in good faith. But all's well that ends well. And ultimately, this bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. And this idea of bipartisanship is something that President Biden ran on in 2020. It is certainly something that he is running on again in 2024. It does at times feel a bit antiquated in this time of partisan polarization, like pining for a time when Elvis was still the king. But Biden actually does have a stack of bipartisan accomplishments to point to. And in this case, it's a bill that represents a compromise - a compromise that many out there see as giving up too much, but he chose in his remarks tonight to spin it as a win.

SUMMERS: OK, so the crisis is averted, as the president said this evening. But the Fitch Ratings agency today said they are not taking the U.S. off of their negative watch list. How concerned is the White House about that?

SUMMERS: Well, President Biden didn't talk about this directly, but the White House did earlier today, saying that this shows that the U.S. can still govern itself and that U.S. Treasurys are still the best investment around. And by way of reminder, in 2011, when S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating, it happened after a debt ceiling deal had already been inked. And S&P's U.S. credit rating has stayed there ever since. Fitch is a separate ratings agency, and they have said that they're concerned about political instability and partisan disagreements which were on display over the past few weeks. The White House is saying this deal is the antidote to that.

SUMMERS: So this was, as we mentioned, Biden's first Oval Office address. Why are they so rare?

KEITH: You know, they haven't always been. But in recent years, TV networks have been reluctant to give up airtime, especially for speeches that could veer into overly political territory. Still, some of the most iconic recent presidential speeches have been delivered from the Oval - think George W. Bush on 9/11 or even former President Trump on March 12, 2020, shutting down air travel as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. And in fact, that was the last Oval Office address until tonight. Now, this speech from President Biden, will it stand the test of time? Will we be talking about it later as iconic? I'm not so sure about that.

SUMMERS: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.