President Joe Biden delivered his first address to a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday night as he pitched his economic plan, took a dig at Wall Street and invoked the Jan. 6th riot to level criticism at former President Donald Trump.
Speaking to a slice of lawmakers that reflected the growing muscle of the progressive wing of his own party, Biden said there were ‘good guys and women on Wall Street – but Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.’
In his one hour and six minute address, Biden set out to redefine the role of government in the lives of every day Americans, touting his vision for a vast social program that includes expanded family leave, child care, health care, and free preschool and college education.
And he laid out his plan to finance it by raising taxes on the wealth.
‘Look, I’m not out to punish anyone. But I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country,’ Biden said.
President Joe Biden delivered his first speech to a joint meeting of Congress. He pitched his jobs plan as ‘a blue-collar blueprint to build America’
Selling his plans to spend $2.3 trillion on infrastructure and another $1.8 trillion for his ‘American Families Plan,’ Biden said the American system of government was at stake.
‘We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,’ he said.
Having beat back progressive primary challengers and pushed major government interventions in the economy through taxes and spending, Biden put a focus on the wealthy and demanded measures to bring more economic equality.
The president said 650 billionaires in the nation saw their net worth increase by a collective $1 trillion during the pandemic and made the point that money didn’t move down the chain.
‘My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out,’ he said.
Biden pitched his plan to raise the top income tax bracket to 39.6 per cent for those making more than $400,000 a year.
‘That’s where it was when George W. Bush became president,’ he said, after bashing the ‘big tax cut of 2017’ enacted under Trump.
‘It was supposed to pay for itself and generate vast economic growth. Instead it added $2 trillion to the deficit,’ he said.
‘We’re going to get rid of the loopholes that allow Americans who make more than $1 million a year pay a lower rate on their capital gains than working Americans pay on their work,’ Biden said.
‘This will only affect three tenths of 1% of all Americans. And the IRS will crack down on millionaires and billionaires who cheat on their taxes,’ he added.
It’s tradition for a president to make a joint address to Congress – as opposed to a more formal State of the Union speech – in his first few months in office to lay out his agenda for his presidency.
But Biden’s speech was different from the start.
The president entered the chamber wearing a black face mask – in yet another demonstration of the coronavirus and its impact on his term.
And when his speech ended, Biden lingered on the House floor to catch up with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, just as he once did with selfie-grabbing voters on the campaign trail.
For the first time, two women sat behind the president on the House rostrum with Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi flanking Biden during his remarks
Only 200 guests were in the chamber, compared to the 1,600 at past speeches, due to the coronavirus pandemic
Speaking just before his 100th day in office in a tenure upended by the coronavirus, Biden pointed to his efforts on the coronavirus vaccine and declared the nation ‘on the move.’
Drawing from some of his emotional and homespun campaign rhetoric, Biden called for ‘choosing hope over fear, truth over lies and light over darkness.’
‘We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never ever stay down,’ Biden said.
‘America is ready for a takeoff,’ Biden said – reeling out metaphors having witnessed multiple presidential speeches to Congress in his four decades in the Senate.
‘Good to be back,’ he said as he began his remarks, seeking to establish a bond with his audience. ‘Good to be almost home – down the hall,’ in reference to his old stomping ground.
Despite the diminished crowd, Biden was applauded for about a minute.
The event had many of the trappings of a typical State of the Union Speech – although the far smaller group of lawmakers were spaced four seats apart. The lawmakers gathered in the same House chamber penetrated during the Capitol riot.
There were historic firsts – such as having the nation’s first female vice president seated next to the first female speaker of the House – although Speaker Nancy Pelosi has presided over plenty of historic speeches, including when she ripped up Donald Trump’s address. Also on display were cliches associated with past State of the Union speeches, including lawmakers glad-handing, and pre-canned rebuttal statements.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is spearheading Biden’s push to try to head off an immigration crisis, was a frequent presence in the camera shot. Her husband, first gentleman Douglas Emhoff, blew kisses to her while wearing a mask.
Acknowledging the historic pair of Harris and Pelosi, who wore masks throughout his speech, Biden said: ‘No president has ever said those words from this podium … and it’s about time. Madam speaker, madam vice president,’ in a line that drew applause.
First lady Dr. Jill Biden attended and was applauded when she entered the gallery, but without having traditional box of guests to spotlight pet causes. She met with some earlier in the day.
From the cabinet, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended.
Calls Capitol riot ‘worst attack on democracy’ since Civil War
Biden called the January 6th MAGA riot ‘the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,’ as he sought to rally the nation, reach out to those whose lives have been upended by dislocation, and rally Americans to stick with measures to battle the coronavirus.
He called it an ‘insurrection,’ and told lawmakers: ‘As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol—desecrating our democracy—remain vivid in our minds.’
‘Lives were put at risk. Lives were lost. Extraordinary courage was summoned. The insurrection was an existential crisis—a test of whether our democracy could survive,’ Biden said.
Gathering breaks barriers on gender with thin audience for coronavirus
Seated inside were many of the power brokers who will determine the fate of his multi-trillion agenda: West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin; longtime Biden friend minority leader Mitch McConnell; and liberal firebrands Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Also there were senators who backed Trump’s effort to overturn election results, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a vocal Biden critic who said in advance of the speech it would be ‘radical’ and ‘boring.’
The dean of the diplomatic corps, from the nation of Palau, was there – but other diplomats stayed home.
As in past years, an official escort committee received applause and a warm welcome as they entered the chamber. Among them were feuding House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and GOP Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney, who backed Trump’s second impeachment.
Biden didn’t mention Trump by name but mentioned what he inherited from his predecessor in the Oval Office.
‘As I stand here tonight, we are just one day shy of the 100th day of my administration. One hundred days since I took the oath of office—lifted my hand off our family Bible—and inherited a nation in crisis,’ he said.
‘The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,’ he continued.
‘No president has ever said those words from this podium. … and it’s about time. Madam speaker, madam vice president,’ Biden said in reference to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff (L) and U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden (R) arrive before a speech by President Joe Biden to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol April 28, 2021
Biden exchanged fist bumps with lawmakers before and after his speech
Biden called the Jan. 6th riot ‘the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War’
Biden stressed the vaccine rollout in his speech and asked Americans to get vaccinated
U.S. military personal stage outside the Capitol as President Joe Biden speaks during a joint session of congress
Military personal stage outside the US Capitol before President Joe Biden’s speech
Security barriers were in place once again for the speech
National Guard forces have been protecting the Capitol since the Jan. 6th riot
But after citing the historic challenges, Biden included plenty of optimism.
‘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,’ he said.
Tells Americans to get vaccinated and touts his coronavirus efforts
Biden spoke with emotion about Americans lined up for food aid amid the pandemic.
‘One of the defining images of this crisis has been cars lined up for miles waiting for a box of food to be put in the trunk,’ he said.
‘Did you ever think you’d see that in America?’ he asked.
He touted the 220 million shots delivered to Americans in his first 100 days.
‘Everyone over the age of 16, everyone – is now eligible and can get vaccinated right away,’ Biden said. ‘So get vaccinated now.’
Push for ‘blue-collar’ jobs plan
Biden’s remarks also included outreach to Americans who may feel ‘left behind’ – outreach to millions who remain unemployed, as well as to potential Donald Trump supporters who have registered complaints about the economic system and job disruptions.
‘Now, I know some of you at home wonder whether these jobs are for you. You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing. Let me speak directly to you,’ Biden will say – pivoting to his multi-trillion proposals.
‘Independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic growth for years to come. These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan don’t require a college degree. 75% don’t require an associate’s degree,’ he will say.
He called his plan ‘a blue-collar blueprint to build America.’
And in outreach to his party’s progressive left, Biden ‘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.’
New role for VP Kamala Harris
During his talk about the jobs plan – Biden’s next big legislative effort, he said he was giving Kamala Harris special responsibility. He mentioned the plan’s focus on replacing old water pipes that may contain lead, as well as upgrading the national broadband network. But it was not entirely clear which part Harris would oversee.
‘The American Jobs Plan creates jobs replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child – can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water. It creates jobs connecting every American with high-speed internet, including 35% of rural Americans who still don’t have it. This will help our kids and businesses succeed in a 21st Century economy. And I am asking the Vice President to help lead this effort,’ said Biden.
‘Because I know it will get done,’ he said, turning to look at her – and trolling critics who have noted she has yet to visit the border while focusing on root causes of migration.
Call for path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants
Biden called on Congress to pass the comprehensive immigration plan he proposed, which includes an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, eliminates restrictions on family-based immigration, expands worker visas, and includes funding for security updates at the border.
‘Let’s end our exhausting war over immigration,’ he said.
He appealed to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle with his pitch.
‘If you believe we need a secure border – pass it,’ he said, addressing GOP concerns.
‘If you believe in a pathway to citizenship – pass it,’ he said, directed to Democrats.
‘If you actually want to solve the problem – I have sent you a bill, now pass it,’ he said.
Republicans have criticized Biden for rolling back Donald Trump’s stricter immigration policies, claiming it has led to a surge of migrants across the border. March saw record numbers of immigrants enter the country and a large number were unaccompanied children. The president will need GOP support to pass any immigration proposal given the narrow Democratic majority in the House and the 10 Republican votes he’ll need to advance any legislation in the Senate.
Given the legislative difficulties, Biden pushed for more targeted measures, one that would guarantee a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, migrants brought to the US as young children by their parents; allow farmworkers already in the country to earn legal status; and ease restrictions on visas for seasonal agricultural workers.
Those proposals passed the House with bipartisan support.
‘If Congress won’t pass my plan – let’s at least pass what we agree on,’ the president said.
Democrats gave him a standing ovation and there was some applause among Republicans, who largely remained seated.
Biden also praised Vice President Kamala Harris, who he put in charge of diplomatic efforts on the Southern border.
‘I have absolute confidence she will get the job done,’ he said.
There was applause in the chamber to his praise of his vice president but it’s unclear if that was from just Democrats or if Republicans joined in.
Republicans have criticized Harris for not yet visiting the Southern border.
Harris does plan to visit Central America in June. Additionally, she held a virtual meeting on Monday with the president of Guatemala and meet virtually with community groups from the country on Tuesday.
Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pose for a selfie photo on the House floor after President Joe Biden’s address
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, left, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talk as they arrive ahead of Biden’s speech
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., checks her phone during Biden’s speech
Call for bipartisanship – within limits
Biden touted his infrastructure plan – which is funded by tax hikes – and acknowledged a group of Republican senators who put out an alternative proposal to his $2.3 trillion effort. Democratic lawmakers blasted it as insufficient but the White House welcomed the plan.
‘Vice President Harris and I meet regularly in the Oval Office with Democrats and Republicans to discuss the American Jobs Plan. And I applaud a group of Republican Senators who just put forward their proposal,’ he said.
‘So, let’s get to work. We welcome ideas. But, the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. Doing nothing is not an option,’ he said – dangling an implied threat to find ways to overcome Republican opposition. That could include using special budget rules to enact his passage on a simple majority vote.
He also called for Republicans to join Democrats on gun control measures.
‘I don’t want to become confrontational but we need more Senate Republicans to join the overwhelming majority of democrat colleagues to close the loopholes required a background check [for]purchases of guns,’ Biden said.
Push for action on George Floyd Act
Biden called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by next month. And he said Americans must act to ‘root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.’
‘By the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,’ the president said.
The act is currently stuck in the Senate with Sen. Tim Scott, tasked with rebutting Biden tonight for the Republican Party, leading negotiations for the GOP. Sen. Cory Booker is negotiating on behalf of the Democrats.
‘I know the Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats,’ Biden said.
But he told his audience, ‘Now is our opportunity to make real progress.’
‘My fellow Americans, we have to come together. To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already,’ Biden encouraged.
He recalled meeting Floyd’s daughter Gianna while campaigning for president last year.
‘As I knelt down to talk to her so we could talk eye—to—eye, she said to me, “Daddy changed the world,”‘ he said. ‘After the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer, we can see how right she was – if we have the courage to act.’
Biden plans organized his speech in broad strokes.
‘We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works—and can deliver for the people. In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver,’ he said in remarks released by the White House.
And pushed his main focus: beating back the virus through vaccine and other means.
‘We’re vaccinating the nation. We’re creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results people can see and feel in their own lives. Opening the doors of opportunity. Guaranteeing fairness and justice.’
‘There’s still more work to do to beat this virus. We can’t let our guard down,’ he said.
Democratic lawmakers crowded around President Biden after his remarks
President Joe Biden fist bumps U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on after Biden concluded his first address to a joint session of Congress
Ending ‘forever wars’ and contending with Russia
Biden defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11th.
‘And American leadership means ending the forever war in Afghanistan,’ he said. ‘We have the greatest fighting force in the history of the world. And I’m the first President in 40 years who knows what it means to have had a child serving in a warzone,’ he said, referencing his late son, Beau Biden.
‘Today we have service members serving in the same war as their parents once did. We have service members in Afghanistan who were not yet born on 9/11. War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi—generational undertaking of nation—building,’ he said.
‘After 20 years of American valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring our troops home,’ he added.
He defended his administration’s decision to slap sanctions on Russia in response to election interference and other actions.
‘With regard to Russia, I made very clear to President Putin that while we don’t seek escalation, their actions have consequences. I responded in a direct and proportionate way to Russia’s interference in our elections and cyber—attacks on our government and businesses – and they did both of those things and I did respond,’ he said.
‘But we can also cooperate when it’s in our mutual interests,’ he added.
He also referenced U.S. competitor China multiple times.
‘We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century. We have to do more than just build back. We have to build back better,’ he said, using his campaign slogan.
‘China and other countries are closing in fast,’ he warned.
He brought up a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping and referenced years of complaints about Chinese trade practices – which helped prompt a trade war under President Trump.
‘That means making sure every nation plays by the same rules in the global economy, including China,’ Biden said. ‘In my discussion with President Xi, I told him that we welcome the competition – and that we are not looking for conflict. But I made absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board.’
Battle for credit over vaccine rollout
Biden took opportunities to salute his own administration’s vaccine rollout, with more than 220 million shots delivered.
But South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, in the official GOP response, noted that Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’ helped fuel vaccine production by dedicating billions to vaccine purchases before the remedies were yet proven.
Scott also thanked Trump, giving him credit for the development of the COVID vaccines.
‘This Administration inherited a tide that had already turned. The coronavirus is on the run!’ Scott said.
‘Thanks to Operation Warp Speed and the Trump Administration, our country is flooded with safe and effective vaccines,’ he continued. ‘Thanks to our bipartisan work last year, job openings are rebounding.’
In a sign of the complicated interplay between Republicans and Trump, Scott’s advanced remarks praising Trump on vaccines were sent out by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office – despite McConnell not speaking to Trump and saying he ‘provoked’ the Jan. 6th riot.
Key takeaways from Biden’s speech
President Joe Biden on Wednesday returned to the U.S. Capitol, his home for more than three decades, and used his first address to Congress to make the case that the era of big government is back.
He said the U.S. is “on the move again” after struggling through a devastating pandemic that killed more than 570,000 Americans, disrupted the economy and shook daily life. And he pitched an expansive – and expensive – vision to rebuild the nation´s roads, bridges, water pipes and other infrastructure, bolster public education and extend a wide swath of other benefits.
Here are some key takeaways from the president´s address:
BIDEN’S FOUR-LETTER WORD: JOBS
Biden uttered the word “jobs” a whopping 43 times.
It´s perhaps no surprise for an administration that has made beating back the pandemic and getting Americans back to work the central guideposts for success.
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 before 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.”
WHO TURNED THE TIDE?
Biden said “America’s house was on fire” when he took office, citing the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, its damaging economic impact and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“Now – after just 100 days – I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said, adding that the U.S. 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 former President Donald Trump for Biden´s good fortune.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” he said in the official GOP response to Biden´s address.
From polling, it´s clear Biden´s view is winning the day – at least so far – with more Americans approving of his job performance than ever did of Trump, with strong marks even from Republicans for handling the pandemic.
MAKING THE CASE FOR BIG GOVERNMENT
In the past, presidents from both parties used similar speeches to talk about the limits of government. Biden went in the opposite direction, offering a resounding embrace of the role Washington can play in improving lives.
The president 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 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 Minority 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 a wise investment in Americans – and doable at a 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.
“I’m not out to punish anyone,” Biden said. “But I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country.”
While achieving bipartisan backing for the proposals is a long shot, Biden seems to be betting he can win support across the electorate.
He even made a thinly veiled pitch 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.”
`REAL´ RACIAL JUSTICE
A week after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in the killing of George Floyd, and as the nation continues to grapple with a disproportionate number of Black men being killed by police, Biden called on Congress to meet the moment.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said, referencing Floyd´s death under Chauvin’s knee. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress.”
Biden, who won the presidency with strong support from Black voters, called on Congress to send him a police reform bill named after Floyd by the anniversary of his death, May 25. But he also went further, saying he aimed to root out systemic racism in housing, education and public health.
“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” said Biden. “Real justice.”
PRESSING GOP ON GUNS, IMMIGRATION AND VOTING RIGHTS
Biden was elected on the promise of delivering action on gun control, immigration reform and voting rights protections, but even he seemed muted about the prospects for action on these priorities.
Biden spoke in emotional terms about gun violence and appealed to Republicans who have expressed support for providing a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
“The country supports it,” Biden said repeatedly. “Congress should act.”
The issues were too important to the Democratic base to leave out. But they face stiff opposition among the GOP in the Senate, where 10 Republicans would have to join with Democrats to overcome a filibuster.
`WE HAVE TO PROVE DEMOCRACY STILL WORKS´
Biden said that while the nation´s democracy survived the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol meant to block the certification of his election, leaders in Washington must do more to boost the resilience of the nation´s system of government.
Biden argued that the nation´s adversaries “look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.”
“We have to prove them wrong,” he said. “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people.”
It was a familiar refrain for Biden, who has sounded an alarm about the nation´s divisions for years, but the urgency spiked after Jan 6.
Still, the appeal for unity appeared unlikely to sway many minds in Congress. Republicans have already lined up in opposition to Biden’s agenda, and the push for a bipartisan commission to probe the insurrection has struggled to gain support.
Biden campaigned on a promise to substantively and stylistically move the country past Trump, and in keeping with that tone, he made no direct mention of the 45th president.
Instead, he spoke only of the “last administration,” blaming Trump and his team for abandoning an effort made by his old boss – Barack Obama – to financially assist the Northern Triangle nations in Central America. Migrants are now fleeing from those countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and arriving at the U.S. border.
In some ways, the absence of talk about Trump, who still falsely claims the election was stolen from him, isn´t surprising. Biden grumbled at a CNN town hall in February that he´s “tired of talking about Trump” and he wants to make the next four years about the American people.
His omission made clear he´s determined to move on.
– Associated Press