President Joe Biden declared Wednesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress that the nation is “turning peril into possibility,” celebrating progress against the coronavirus and urging a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform roles the government plays in American life.
Biden used the speech before lawmakers and a broader viewing audience to talk about what he’s accomplished in the opening months of his presidency and to lay out his other domestic and foreign policy priorities.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott accused Democrats of dividing the country and suggested they’re wielding race as “a political weapon,” using the official Republican response to Biden’s maiden speech to Congress to credit the GOP for leading the country out of its pandemic struggles and toward a hopeful future.
Watch a replay of Biden’s speech below.
Biden marked his first 100 days in office as the nation emerges from a confluence of crises, making his case before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators because of pandemic restrictions. The speech took place in a U.S. Capitol still surrounded by fencing after insurrectionists in January protesting his election stormed to the doors of the House chamber where he gave his address.
This year’s scene at the front of the House chamber had a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both clad in pastel.
He laid out a sweeping proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas target frailties that were uncovered by the pandemic, and he argues that that economic growth will best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.
The entire House setting was unlike that for any of Biden’s predecessors, with members of Congress spread out, a sole Supreme Court justice in attendance and many Republicans citing “scheduling conflicts” to stay away. There was no need for a “designated survivor,” with so many Cabinet members not there, and the chamber was so sparsely populated that individual claps could be heard echoing off the walls.
“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden was to say, according to excerpts released by the White House ahead of the speech. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
For Biden, whose moment has been nearly a half century in the making, his speech also provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He also championed his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.
Seizing an opportunity born of calamity, Biden has embraced major action over incremental change. But he will be forced to thread a needle between Republicans who cry government overreach and some Democrats who fear he won’t go big enough.
The Democratic president’s strategy is to sidestep polarization and appeal directly to voters. His prime-time speech underscored a trio of central campaign promises: to manage the deadly pandemic, to turn down the tension in Washington in the aftermath of the insurrection and to restore faith in government as an effective force for good.
Biden also was addressing an issue rarely confronted by an American president, namely that in order to compete with autocracies like China, the nation needs “to prove that democracy still works” after his predecessor’s baseless claims of election fraud and the ensuing attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver,” he said in the excerpts, pointing to actions against the pandemic and resulting economic slide.
Unimpressed, Scott said Biden was claiming too much credit.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Scott said in excerpts released in advance. “The coronavirus is on the run.”
Watch Scott’s full response below, as broadcast on CNN.
No American politician has more familiarity with the presidential address to Congress than Biden. He spent three decades in the audience as a senator and eight years as vice president seated behind President Barack Obama during the annual address.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, “President Biden ran as a moderate, but I’m hard pressed to think of anything at all that he’s done so far that would indicate some degree of moderation.”
Yet the desire for swift action is born from political necessity. Biden understands that the time for passing his agenda could be perilously short given that presidents’ parties historically lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, less than two years away. The Democrats’ margins are already razor-thin.
He spoke against a backdrop of the weakening but still lethal pandemic, staggering unemployment and a roiling debate about police violence against Blacks. Biden also used his address to touch on the broader national reckoning over race in America, and to call on Congress to act on prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the nation’s immigration system.
In his first three months in office, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — passed without a single GOP vote — and has shepherded direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid will soon arrive for state and local governments, enough money that overall U.S. growth this year could eclipse 6% — a level not seen since 1984. Administration officials are betting that it will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost to the pandemic by next year.
New in his Wednesday speech was a “families” plan that could cement Biden’s legacy with $1.8 trillion worth of spending over 10 years.
A significant amount would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be more than $400 billion for subsidized child care and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
Another combined $425 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as well a national paid family and medical leave program. Further spending would be directed toward Pell Grants, historically Black and tribal institutions and allow people to could attend community college tuition-free for two years.
Funding all of this would be a series of tax increases on the wealthy that would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade.
Biden wants to boost IRS enforcement and require disclosures by financial institutions, specifically targeting the rich. The White House estimates that would bring in $700 billion over 10 years. He would raise the top tax rate on the most affluent families from 37% to 39.6%. People earning in excess of $1 million a year would see their rate on capital gains — the profits from a sale of a stock or home — nearly double from 20% to 39.6%, which would mean the wealthiest Americans could no longer pay at a lower rate than many families who identify as middle class.
Republican lawmakers in Congress so far have balked at the price tag of both the “families” plan and infrastructure package, complicating the chances of passage in a deeply divided Washington.
The president has drawn a firm line that no household earning less than $400,000 a year will pay more in taxes, a line that would both broaden the definition of the middle class and clearly delineate just how extreme inequality has become.
The speech had all of the looks of an official State of the Union, but it isn’t. While the State of the Union tradition dates back to Jan. 8, 1790, when President George Washington delivered his first, a more recent tradition is for new presidents not to give one in their first year.
According to the Congressional Research Service, each of the last six presidents opted not to give official State of the Union addresses during their first year, as they had recently given inauguration addresses. While they typically ended up delivering addresses not long after taking office, those speeches took on different titles, such as former President Donald Trump’s “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress” in 2017.
“Nearly 100 days ago, when you took the oath of office, you pledged in a spirit of great hope that ‘Help Is On The Way.’ Now, because of your historic and transformative leadership, Help Is Here!” Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to Biden. “In that spirit, I am writing to invite you to address a Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday, April 28, to share your vision for addressing the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment.”
Attendance was limited to allow for social distancing, meaning there weren’t many visuals of lawmakers and others sitting shoulder to shoulder during the address. Just about 200 of the 535 members of Congress received tickets to attend, and they weren’t allowed to bring guests.
The majority of Biden’s Cabinet members listened from home. Just Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be on hand to represent the executive branch of government. Chief Justice John Roberts will represent the judicial branch, with other Supreme Court justices similarly staying away.
Members of the Biden team have made no secret of their strategy to bypass GOP lawmakers and seek a solid foothold of support from Republican voters. They note that their policies are generally popular, and the result, so far, appears to be less resistance from GOP supporters. An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll in March found that 60% of people approve of Biden’s performance on the economy, including a relatively strong 25% of Republicans. About half of Republicans approve of how Biden has handled the pandemic.