Joe Biden argued that “America is on the move again” in his first address to Congress, where he unveiled a sweeping $1.8tn package for families and education and pitched his “blue-collar blueprint” to re-build America.
Flanked by two women – Vice-President Kamala Harris and House speaker Nancy Pelosi – for the first time in US history, the president gave his speech on the eve of his 100th day in office as the country continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s been “100 days since I took the oath of office – lifted my hand off our family Bible – and inherited a nation in crisis,” Biden said.
“The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the civil war,” he continued, referring to the January 6 assault on the Capitol, when rioters stormed the House chamber where he delivered his address on Wednesday night.
“Now – after just 100 days – I can report to the nation: America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
Due to social distancing measures, only 200 people, mainly politicians, attended rather than the usual 1,600 guests. The supreme court’s chief justice, John Roberts, was the only member of the high court present.
The address centered on selling the administration’s ambitious economic plans, but wove them together with foreign policy and efforts to combat the climate crisis, as well as a wide range of domestic policies from healthcare to police reform, paid family leave to child benefits, gun control to border security.
The tone was optimistic as Biden urged Americans to continue to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and pledged that his administration would enact broad changes that would create jobs, expand the social safety net and modernize the country.
The $1.8tn American Families Plan Biden outlined on Wednesday is the second part of his administration’s ambitious set of domestic reforms spanning infrastructure, education, childcare and much more. The first part, dubbed the the American Jobs Plan, is focused on improving the nation’s infrastructure and boosting the economy.
“Think about it, there is simply no reason that the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” Biden said. “There’s no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in production of electric vehicles and batteries. The American Jobs Plan is going to create millions of good-paying jobs, jobs Americans can raise a family on.”
“The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Biden continued. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said, in this chamber and the other. [There are] good guys and women on Wall Street, but Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class.”
The 78-year-old president hit themes he has focused on throughout his decades in public office. Biden, who has long styled himself as an ally of working class Americans, urged Congress to pass the Pro Act to strengthen protections for unions and said lawmakers should pass legislation to raise the minimum wage.
He also emphasized issues of racial justice, calling on Congress to pass a policing reform bill before the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next month.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress,” he said, adding that he believed the “vast majority of men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably”.
Biden’s plans are effectively the final installment of the major policy proposals the administration can hope to comfortably pass through Congress before lawmakers turn more attention to the 2022 midterm elections and their re-election prospects, which will further stall Congress.
Biden and his team have made a point of saying they want to work with Republicans to craft legislation, but he cautioned that outreach would only last to a point.
“From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option,” Biden said.
Some lines in Biden’s speech won standing applause from both Republicans and Democrats. The Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas could be seen clapping when Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated.
But when he laid out why and how he wanted to pay for his proposals – by closing tax loopholes for the rich and raising other taxes for Americans – the Republican senator Mitt Romney of Utah stayed in his seat silently.
“Unfortunately, the President has a lot of things he’d like to do, but he’s spending like crazy,” Romney said in a statement after the speech.
Biden went on to knock the tax cut Republicans passed when Donald Trump was in office.
“Instead of using the tax savings to raise wages and invest in research and development, it poured billions of dollars into the pockets of CEOs,” he said. “My fellow Americans, trickle down economics has never worked and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”
Biden also announced ways he wanted to improve the Affordable Care Act -commonly called Obamacare – through working with Congress.
“The Affordable Care Act has been a lifeline for millions of Americans –protecting people with pre-existing conditions, protecting women’s health. And the pandemic has demonstrated how badly it is needed,” Biden said. “Let’s lower deductibles for working families on the Affordable Care Act, and let’s lower prescription drug costs.”
On foreign policy, Biden said he had made clear to Vladimir Putin that the United States would respond to any acts of aggression. On Beijing, he warned Americans were “in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century”.
At another point Biden touched on domestic threats, saying: “The most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today is from white supremacist terrorism.”
Biden, an enthusiastic gladhander, lingered after the speech to talk with multiple lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats alike – before he left Capitol Hill. Earlier in the evening he had done a fist bump with Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the House Republican leadership.
In its response to Biden’s address, the progressive wing of the Democratic party praised Biden for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis but urged the president to be bolder in tackling the climate crisis and economic inequality, and to do more to address structural racism.
The Republican senator Tim Scott, who delivered his party’s official response, said Biden “seems like a good man” but that his speech amounted to a “liberal wishlist” paid for with “job-killing tax hikes”.
Scott said Biden wanted bipartisanship in name only. “Our nation is starving for more than empty platitudes,” he said.