By JONATHAN LEMIRE and JOSH BOAK
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden said Wednesday night that “America is on its feet again” as he called for an expansion of federal programs to move the economy past the pandemic and widely expand the social safety net on a scale not seen in decades.
In his first speech to Congress, he optimistically highlighted the nation’s emergence from the coronavirus scourge as a time for America to prove that its democracy can still work and maintain its primacy in the world.
Speaking in very personal terms while demanding massive structural changes, the president marked his first 100 days in office by proposing a $ 1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education to help rebuild an economy devastated by the virus and compete with growing global competitors.
His speech represented both a bold vision and a huge gamble. He governs with the weakest majorities in Congress, and even some members of his own party have turned pale at the cost of his proposals.
At the same time, the speech underscored Biden’s core belief in the power of government as a force for good, even at a time when he is so often the object of contempt.
âI can report to the nation: America is on the move again,â he said. âTurning danger into possibility. The crisis as an opportunity. Retreat in strength.
While the Capitol’s ceremonial setting was the same as usual, the visual images were unlike any previous presidential speeches. Members of Congress wore masks and were seated on the sidelines due to pandemic restrictions. Outside, the grounds were still surrounded by fences after insurgents in January to protest Biden’s election rushed to the doors of the House chamber where he delivered his speech.
The nationally televised ritual has upped the ante for its ability to sell its plans to voters in both parties, even as Republican lawmakers are showing resistance. The president follows the speech by hitting the road to move his plans forward, starting with Georgia on Thursday, then Pennsylvania and Virginia in the days to come.
âAmerica is ready to take off. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discover again. Rule the world again. We have shown ourselves to each other and to the world: there is no abandonment in America, âBiden said.
This year’s scene at the front of the House Chamber also had a historic twist: for the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, sat behind the CEO. And she was next to another woman, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
The first standing ovation came when Biden greeted “Madam Vice President”. He added: “No president has ever said these words from this podium, and it is high time.”
The room was so sparsely populated that individual applause could be heard echoing off the walls.
Still, Biden said, âI have never been more confident or more optimistic about America. We watched into an abyss of insurgency and autocracy – pandemic and pain – and âWe the peopleâ didn’t flinch. “
Sometimes the president has made a clear case for democracy itself.
Biden demanded that the government take care of its own as a powerful symbol to the world of an America willing to vigorously follow its ideals and its people. He faced a problem rarely encountered by an American president, namely that in order to compete with autocracies like China, the nation must “prove that democracy always works” after his predecessor’s baseless claims about electoral fraud and the subsequent attack on the United States Capitol.
âCan our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hatred and fears that have separated us? ” He asked. âAmerica’s adversaries – the autocrats of the world – are betting they don’t. They believe that we are too full of anger, division and rage. They look at the footage of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.
Biden has repeatedly hammered home that his plans will put Americans back to work, restoring millions of jobs lost to the virus. He put forward a broad proposal for a 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 the vulnerabilities that have been uncovered by the pandemic, and he argues that economic growth will best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.
Biden’s speech also provided an update on tackling the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccines and relief checks issued to help offset the devastation caused by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He also defended his $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure that will be funded by higher corporate taxes.
His calls were often emotional and personal, about Americans in need of food assistance and rentals. He also addressed members of Congress as a peer as much as as president, targeting Senator Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans, to congratulate him and speaking as one on a professional comeback.
GOP members in the chamber have remained largely silent, refusing even to applaud for seemingly universal goals like reducing child poverty. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott said in the Republicans’ designated response that Biden was more rhetoric than action.
âOur president appears to be a good man,â Scott said. “But our nation is hungry for more than empty platitudes.”
The president spoke against the backdrop of a weakened but still deadly pandemic, staggering unemployment and heated debate over police violence against blacks. He also used his speech to address the broader national race calculation in America, urging legislation to be passed before George Floyd’s death anniversary next month, and to call on Congress to act on the thorny issues of prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the country’s immigration system.
In his first three months in office, Biden signed a $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill – passed without a single GOP vote – and led direct payments of $ 1,400 per person to over 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid will soon flow to state and local governments, enough money for overall growth in the United States this year to eclipse 6% – a level not seen since 1984. administration are betting that this will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost due to the pandemic by next year.
A significant amount proposed on Wednesday only would ensure eligible families receive at least $ 250 per month per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be over $ 400 billion for subsidized child care and free kindergarten for all 3 and 4 year olds.
Another combined $ 425 billion would be used to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for those covered by the Affordable Care Act, as well as a national paid family and medical leave program. Additional spending would go to the Pell Grants, historically black and tribal institutions, and allow people to attend community colleges tuition-free for two years.
Funding all of this would be a series of tax increases on the rich that would bring in about $ 1.5 trillion over a decade. So far, Republican lawmakers in Congress have balked at the price of Biden’s plans, complicating the chances of passing through a deeply divided Washington.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press editor Darlene Superville contributed.