On Tuesday night, millions of people tuned in to watch President Joe Biden deliver his State of the Union address to the nation.
But the best part of the night happened right after Biden’s speech was over, when most (but not all) networks weren’t airing his comments anymore and he made his way through the crowd. It was here, where the president could actually talk to all the dignitaries, members of Congress and other people in the room, that he was truly in his element.
After formally addressing the country for about an hour and 10 minutes, Biden spent another 20 minutes cracking jokes with Supreme Court justices, telling stories, taking countless selfies, talking to people’s kids on cell phones, listening to Democratic and Republican lawmakers’ requests for help, and offering comfort to people who needed it.
“Hey, big Jon!” Biden shouted at Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), hand outstretched, barely a minute after he’d stepped down from the dais. Immediately surrounded by about a dozen senators and House members eager to shake his hand, the president took the time to talk to all of them before drifting over to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who solemnly stood nearby with some other high-ranking military leaders.
Motioning to his own shoulders, Biden jokingly called out to a four-star general in uniform, “Aren’t those stars heavy?”
When Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and John Roberts passed by, the president stopped them to apologize for making them listen to his speech.
“Sorry. Sorry you guys had to sit there,” he said, as Kagan looked briefly confused and started laughing. “I apologize.”
It was like watching a pinball bounce around the game board. Biden jumped from one group of people to the next, to the next, to the next, in absolutely no rush to leave and seemingly energized by every minute of being able to engage with real live people. And here he was back in the building he’d spent decades of his life working in ― a second home of sorts. Why ever leave?
“Thoughts and prayers to the staffers trying to move Joe Biden out of one of his favorite places,” former White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Tuesday night, perhaps all too familiar with the president’s habit of being the last guy to leave every party.
Former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said hello to Biden and started to walk away, but Biden grabbed his arm and reeled him back in to listen to a story with former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. It was hard to make it all out, but he appeared to say something about conservative justices and former President Ronald Reagan.
“I’ll tell you, he didn’t miss a step,” Biden said with a smile.
“Oh no no, he had a great sense of humor,” Kennedy laughed.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who had been hovering in the background, stepped in and asked Biden for help with something. The president leaned in close, nodding in agreement.
“You need 54 of those vehicles,” Biden told Green. “We got 15; they won’t fund them!”
After checking in with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the president poked his head into a conversation between Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.). Whatever he said left them all laughing.
He turned around and hugged Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), who was eager to introduce him to “the newest member of my team,” Rep. Gabe Vasquez (D-N.M.).
“I remember,” said the president, greeting the freshman lawmaker.
It was a whirlwind of appeals and stories from here on out, as the president slowly made his way to the exit doors where lawmakers were clustered to try to talk to him. Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.) leaned in close to tell Biden something about ironworkers, “transformational” infrastructure and a $1 billion budget.
“By the way, just don’t tell the guy from West Virginia that,” Biden responded with a laugh, apparently referring to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
“I understand,” Mrvan said, noting that Senate rules require 10 Republicans to vote with Democrats to pass a bill. “There’s 10. There’s 10.”
The president said aloud of Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), “I wanna know where this guy gets his suits!” He hugged Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who thanked him for saying something in his speech she’s been waiting on “for 41 years.” He posed for a selfie with freshman Rep. Brittany Pettersen (D-Colo.), who thanked him for talking about the opioid epidemic.
“I’m gonna run across America with this speech,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) told Biden of his address, clasping his shoulders. “I think if we lean in ... on police reform we can get this done in the first three months.”
“I think so too,” the president said. “I’m praying for that. Because it’s an opportunity.”
Lee took a selfie with Biden but he apparently did not like the way it turned out.
“No no. Hit it again,” he said, messing with her phone. “She’s trying to make me feel good, she erased it.”
“This is a picture of my 5-month-old son,” chimed in Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), thrusting his phone in front of Biden.
“God love you,” the president, lighting up at the image. “Oh, man!”
Gomez later tweeted a photo of Biden on FaceTime with his baby.
Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) got her turn for a selfie and asked Biden to come to her state.
“Are you kiddin’ me?” Biden said with a big smile. “For eight years, every time I sat down with Barack ... he started off every conversation, ‘You know what the temperature is in Hawaii right now? It’s 79.’”
“Hey guys, how you doin’!” the president said, turning to another phone presented to him, this time by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.). Her two sons were streaming in on FaceTime. “Take care of mom and be patient with dad, OK?” Biden told them.
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) said something privately in Biden’s ear.
“It’s true,” he replied. “People get angry. They feel like they’re being used.” When Fletcher offered to help anytime on whatever issue it was that she whispered to him about, Biden paused, turned to a staffer behind him and asked him to get her number.
The president was still navigating the swarm of people when Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) popped in and said she stuck around the House chamber to see him “out of respect.”
“You know it’s the anniversary of John’s death,” she told Biden, referring to her late husband, former longtime Rep. John Dingell.
“It was Beau’s birthday two days ago,” the president said.
“I know,” Dingell said, choking up. “It’s how we always...”
She leaned in and he kissed her cheek.
“But they’re up there watching,” Dingell continued, visibly upset.
“Yep. I have to ― I believe it,” Biden said.
“I do too,” Dingell replied.
It was emotional and exhausting just watching Biden absorb so many people’s stories and asks on so many different topics. And yet, seconds after taking a moment to grieve with Dingell, Biden pepped back up and greeted more people.
“Kentucky! How’s that, boy!” Biden shouted with a hilariously bad drawl upon meeting freshman Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D-Ky.).
The president counseled Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) on how to finish the job on something, telling him, “You can do this. By the way, 85% ... has already passed. We just gotta get it done now. And let people know.”
Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa (Calif.) was the last lawmaker to catch Biden before he left.
“Want to catch up with you again on the California water,” LaMalfa told him. “We let half a million acres go dry in agriculture last year and I don’t know where the food is going to come from.”
Biden quietly listened and said he doesn’t where the food will come from, either. But he told him he’s been out to visit California four times and is trying to help.
The GOP congressman seemed reassured that Biden had heard him.
“I appreciate that,” he said, shaking the president’s hand for a second time before he walked out the door.
Watch below to see PBS’s livestream broadcast of Biden mingling with State of the Union attendees after his address.