Sun, November 28, 2021


Biden, in speech to Congress, offers sweeping agenda and touts democracy

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Wednesday night used his first speech to a joint session of Congress to argue for a dramatic expansion of government services, making a plea for sweeping plans to provide universal preschool, free community college and expanded health care and new tax breaks for families - much of it funded for by higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

While he also renewed calls for an array of priorities - including immigration changes, gun control and police reform - Biden more broadly portrayed a country that is rapidly emerging from the depths of a global pandemic and has survived events that, in his view, tested American democracy as rarely before.

"We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy - of pandemic and pain - and 'we the people' did not flinch," he said toward the end of a 65-minute speech.

Biden delivered his address in a Capitol that had faced a lethal assault from a mob less than four months ago. He walked through the House chamber's wooden doors just after 9 p.m., passing through the same entryway that had been battered by insurrectionists on Jan. 6 in an attempt to prevent his presidency.

Biden's remarks juxtaposed a more traditional presidential cheerleading for America - a country he declared was "on the move again" - with far more unusual warnings about existential threats to American democracy and references to a country that repeatedly flies flags at half-staff because of mass shootings.

"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."

"Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again," he added. "Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength."

Biden delivered the remarks with a historic backdrop, as two women - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris - sat within the camera's frame for the first time during such an address. The two women greeted each other at the front of the chamber, grabbing hands and then bumping elbows.

Biden went out of his way to highlight the moment. After acknowledging "Madam vice president," he added, "No president has ever said those words from this podium; no president has ever said those words. And it's about time."

In a historic marker of a different sort, only about 200 people were invited to a speech that is normally heard by a crowd of 1,600. Members were spread out, with many in the gallery above the floor, nearly everyone wearing masks.

"While the setting tonight is familiar," Biden said at the start of his speech, "this gathering is a little bit different."

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was the only one representing the Supreme Court. Just two members of Biden's Cabinet - Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin - were in attendance, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented the military. Jill Biden was in attendance, but without the first lady's box that typically includes guests to be mentioned by the president during the speech.

For Biden, a president who has mostly communicated through brief appearances and limited remarks, partly because of the pandemic, the address was the first opportunity to make his case on a grander stage.

New to the office but an old hand in Washington, the president took that opportunity to present himself as a leader who wants to deliver an array of benefits to ordinary Americans, from green jobs to elder care. The message was intended to resonate both with the populist moment and Biden's guy-next-door political identity.

Biden has been a frequent attendee of such addresses over the past half-century, but this was his first time giving the prime-time address himself. Biden's tone was calm, his language simple and his style at times notably casual and devoid of rhetorical flights.

"It's not right," he said of the corporate tax rate. "It's long past time," he said of pay equity for women. "I want to be very blunt about it," he said about climate change.

And as a man who served in the Senate for more than three decades, he displayed a deep familiarity with the elected officials in the room. "It's good to be back!" he said at the start.

The address came at a pivotal moment in his presidency, following three months of intense focus on the coronavirus and as Biden begins pitching ambitious new items on his agenda that face fierce resistance from Republicans.

It fell on the eve of his 100th day in office, a symbolic marker that many presidents have used to gauge early success and that Biden has highlighted more than most. He has used his first 100 days as a timetable for various efforts, from mask-wearing guidelines to vaccination goals to reopening schools.

His remarks touting the viability of democracy were particularly striking and not a message presidents would typically feel the need to deliver. "The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent - as old as our Republic, still vital today," he said.

Biden also spoke forcefully of the need for racial equity, and he made a point of embracing LGBTQ rights. "To all the transgender Americans watching at home - especially the young people who are so brave - I want you to know that your president has your back," Biden said in another striking moment.

Earlier in the day, the administration unveiled a $1.8 trillion proposal that would expand child care, provide universal preschool, cover two years of free community college and expand paid family and medical leave.

Biden, adopting lines that could have been ripped from a Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., campaign speech, chastised the country's biggest corporations for not paying federal income taxes and called on America's wealthiest to "pay their fair share."

Biden's new proposal comes on top of a $2.3 trillion plan announced last month to rehabilitate the country's physical infrastructure - bridges, roads, airports - as well as to improve the water system and expand broadband access, particularly in rural areas. Some of the spending would be offset by raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%.

Biden focused on the first part of the plan Wednesday as a way to rebuild the middle class, saying that 90% of the jobs created would not require a college degree.

"The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America," he said, adding, "Wall Street did not build this country. The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class."

Biden also touted parts of his plan that include an infusion of money for clean energy, saying Democrats have often failed to connect fighting climate change with potential economic benefits.

"There's no reason the blades for wind turbines can't be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing," he added. "No reason. None."

Biden's plans are facing significant opposition in Congress, however.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who was tapped to give the GOP response to Biden's speech, touted the successes of the Trump administration, attempting to counter Biden's effort to take credit for the economy and progress on the fight against covid.

"Our best future won't come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams," he said. "It will come from you - the American people."

Biden has sought to redefine bipartisanship as winning support from GOP voters, and in some cases local officials, rather than Republican lawmakers.

As he gears up for his next big legislative push, Biden has invited the top four congressional leaders - two Democrats, two Republicans - to meet at the White House on May 12.

He framed the challenges the country faces as existential threats to the survival of democracy, invoking the United States' growing competition with autocratic countries, especially China, saying they doubted the ability of American democracy to survive.

"They believe we're too full of anger and division and rage," he said of autocratic leaders. "They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. But they are wrong. You know it. I know it. But we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works."

Biden also returned to many of the vexing problems that have confronted Washington for years.

He urged Congress to overhaul the country's immigration system, pushing for the passage of the immigration bill he sent to the body on his first day as president, while also saying that he was open to compromise. Notably absent, however, was any mention of the current surge of migrants at the border - an omission that received swift criticism from Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

He pressed for police reform, pointing to the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin, the White former police officer found guilty last week of killing George Floyd, a Black man who was in custody. Biden called on lawmakers to pass legislation named for Floyd by the end of next month to mark the first anniversary of his death.

"We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America," he said. "Now is our opportunity to make real progress."

And he pressed lawmakers to take action on gun control in light of a spate of recent mass shootings.

Presidential addresses to Congress have sometimes been the scene of partisan theatrics. A year ago, Pelosi dramatically tore up President Donald Trump's speech when he was done. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's speech on health care, an outburst for which the congressman later apologized.

This speech, for all its unusual atmospherics, was devoid of such drama, making it the latest institution Biden has returned to a more traditional style. At the end, he appeared to thank lawmakers for sitting through it.

"Thank you," he said in closing, "for your patience."

Published : April 30, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Matt Viser, Tyler Pager