President Joe Biden, who has already signed one of the costliest measures in U.S. history to help the country rebound from the coronavirus crisis, is pushing for even more aggressive, long-term actions to reshape American life in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
The nationally televised, prime-time speech represents a coda to Biden’s initial 100 days in office, during which he focused on expanding vaccine distribution to slow the infection and death toll from COVID-19, and a pivot toward an increasingly ambitious agenda that, if successful, would make his presidency among the most transformative in generations.
“Tonight, I come to talk about crisis and opportunity,” Biden said.
“America is on the move again,” he added. “Turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity, setback into strength.”
Key takeaways from the night:
Biden’s four-letter word: Jobs
Biden uttered the word “jobs” a whopping 43 times, according to his prepared text.
It’s perhaps no surprise for an administration that has made beating backing the pandemic and getting Americans back to work the central guideposts in the early going of the administration.
Biden noted that the economy has gained some 1.3 million new jobs in the first few months of his administration — more than any in the first 100 days of any presidency. But he quickly pivoted to the need to pass his American Jobs Plan if the country is going to sustain momentum and get back to the historic low levels of unemployment prior to the pandemic.
He also aimed to frame his push for the U.S. to meet its international obligations to slow the impact of climate change as, ultimately, a jobs plan.
“For too long, we have failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis,” Biden said. “Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think about climate change, I think jobs.”
Taking credit for turning the tide
Biden said “America’s house was on fire” when he took office, citing the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, its damaging economic impacts and the insurrection at the Capitol.
“Now — after just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said, adding the nation is now “turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
It’s a tried and true strategy by the president to take credit for the more hopeful moment, as the coronavirus vaccines have provided a path out of the pandemic.
Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear they see things differently, with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., implicitly crediting President Donald Trump for the Biden’s good fortune.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” he said in prepared remarks from the official GOP response to Biden’s address. “The coronavirus is on the run!”
From polling, it’s clear Biden’s view is winning the day — at least thus far — with more Americans approving of his job performance than ever did of Trump, with strong marks even from Republicans for handling the pandemic.
“What we heard from the President tonight was a resounding message of hope, unity, and resilience,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote on Twitter. “The American people elected Democrats to fight for the priorities that matter to American families, and that’s just what we’ll continue doing.”
Making the case for big government
Biden made the full-throated case for an American embrace of big government.
He ticked off details of some of his plan for $1.8 trillion in spending to expand preschool, create a national family and medical leave program, distribute child care subsidies and more.
The “American Families Plan,” a just-released 10-year proposal, would increase taxes on the wealthy to expand educational opportunities, provide paid family leave and offer tax credits to reduce the cost of child care. Low- and middle-income families would be eligible for two years of preschool and two years of community college at no cost.
To pay for the proposals, Biden wants to end the favorable tax rate on capital gains from stocks and other assets for people earning at least $1 million per year and to undo Trump’s reduction in the top income tax rate for wealthy Americans, restoring it to 39.6% from 37%.
The plan comes on top of his proposal for $2.3 trillion in spending to rebuild roads and bridges, expand broadband access and launch other infrastructure projects.
Republicans have shown little interest in Biden’s spending plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Biden’s plans are a “Trojan horse” that will lead to middle-class tax hikes.
But Biden and his aides say all of this new spending is wise investment in Americans — and doable in time of low interest rates. Much of it can be paid through raising taxes on the wealthy and would go a long way toward addressing the frailties of life for the middle class and working poor exposed by the pandemic, Biden argues.
While achieving bipartisan backing in Washington for the proposals is a longshot, Biden seems to betting he can win support across the electorate.
He even made a thinly veiled bid to blue-collar and non-college-educated white men who voted for Trump in November, noting that 90% of the infrastructure jobs that will be created by his spending plans don’t require a college degree and 75% don’t require an associate’s degree. “The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden said. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”
Smaller audience, more security
Pandemic restrictions left the president speaking to a relatively sparse gathering of fewer than half the 535 members of Congress in the House chamber, rather than to the usual packed audience of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, military leaders, diplomats and other guests.
Lawmakers were spaced three or four seats apart, including in the gallery normally reserved for guests. During most years, a handful of members stake out the seats along the center aisle hours in advance to appear on television shaking the president’s hand as he enters. This year, no one was allowed inside until two hours before and each had a seat assigned by the speaker’s office.
Metal fencing and National Guard troops ringed the Capitol, a reminder of the enhanced security that remains in place months after the Jan. 6 siege by Trump supporters. Biden described the riot in his speech as “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” an event that continues to cast a shadow over the building.
Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines
The U.S. has vaccinated a greater percentage of its population than almost any other country. Nearly 43% of Americans have received at least one dose, and 29% are considered fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Go get vaccinated America,” Biden said Wednesday. “Go and get the vaccination. They’re available.”
Biden warned lawmakers that they have to work harder and work together to make the United States competitive in the world and not cede the 21st century to China, calling it an “inflection point in history.”
He said that in conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it’s clear that Xi is “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”
The Chinese don’t believe that democracies can compete because consensus takes too long, he added. “China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future,” Biden warned. “The rest of the world is not waiting for us,” he said. “I just want to be clear: From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
Noting a historic moment
Biden mentioned a historic development at the very opening of his address. After taking the podium, Biden greeted the two women standing behind him with a “Madam Speaker” and “Madam Vice President.”
He then declared, “No president has ever said those words — and it’s about time.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi already knows what it feels like to sit on the rostrum and introduce presidents for their speeches. She has sat there for several addresses by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris are both California Democrats.