In historic first, 2 women — VP Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — sit behind president.
U.S. President Joe Biden declared Wednesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress that “America is rising anew” on the verge of overcoming the pandemic. Looking to the future, he urged a $1.8 trillion US investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform roles the government plays in American life, helping to rebuild an economy devastated by the coronavirus while competing with rising global competitors.
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 the doors of the House chamber where he gave his address.
The nationally televised ritual of a president standing before Congress for the first time was one of the most watched moments of Biden’s presidency so far, a chance to sell his plans to voters of both parties, even if Republican lawmakers prove resistant.
“America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America,” Biden said. “One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act.”
This year’s scene 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.
The first ovation came as Biden greeted, “Madam Speaker. Madame Vice-President.” And he acknowledged the moment: “No president has ever said those words from this podium… And it’s about time!”
Speech aimed directly at voters
The scene was familiar yet strange, with members of Congress spread out, a sole U.S. Supreme Court justice in attendance and many Republicans citing “scheduling conflicts” to stay away. Many Cabinet members were not there, and the chamber was so sparsely populated that individual claps could be heard echoing off the walls.
Speaking in highly personal terms while demanding massive structural changes, Biden was upbeat and forceful.
“I have never been more confident or more optimistic about America,” he said. “We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the people’ did not flinch.”
Biden repeatedly hammered home how his plans would put Americans back to work, restoring the millions of jobs lost to the virus. 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.
“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said. “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.
Unimpressed, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said in the Republicans’ designated response that Biden was claiming too much credit in fighting the pandemic and reviving the economy.
“This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Scott said. “The coronavirus is on the run.”
Seizing an opportunity born of calamity, Biden has embraced momentous action over incremental change. But he will be forced to thread the 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 the polarization and make his 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.
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.
Biden chose to delay this speech, typically given in the afterglow of a presidential inaugural. In doing so, he gave himself the chance to not simply speak of the pain of the COVID-19 crisis but also to talk about progress.
Biden spoke against a backdrop of the weakening but still lethal pandemic in the U.S., staggering unemployment and a roiling debate about police violence against Blacks. He said the United States has “to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve.”
He also stressed the need for global engagement and co-operation on everything from the pandemic to climate change. It’s a sharp contrast from President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
Biden said that “the comment I hear most often” in his conversations with world leaders is: “We see that America is back — but for how long?”
Biden says that “we have to show not just that we are back, but that we are here to stay.”
Under Trump, the United States pursued a policy of unilateralism and withdrew from a number of international alliances and diplomatic relationships.
Biden pledged as part of its diplomatic efforts that the U.S. will eventually “become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries — just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.”