Biden’s Address to US Congress

Biden’s Address to US Congress

America is Rising anew

On April 28, President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of US Congress. “America is on the move again,” President Biden said, acknowledging that he took office in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and what he called the “worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” In his speech, Biden made it clear that he aimed to be more than a blip in the history books whose greatest achievement was the unseating of his predecessor and outlined proposals to expand family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people. His ambitious plans, if passed, could make him a transformational figure in US history.
He called his $2 trillion infrastructure plan a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself,” noting that it was the largest jobs plan since World War II, and said that while he welcomed Republican ideas, “doing nothing is not an option.”
“The American Jobs Plan will be the biggest increase in non-defense research and development on record,” he said.
Here are some key takeaways from his speech:
1. Biden wants to move fast
After four decades of seeking the nation’s highest office, including and after two failed presidential bids, Joe Biden entered the White House amidst a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis that prevented him from doing any of the parts of the job that might typically be considered among its perks.
If anything, Biden’s speech reflected a distinct impatience, now that he is in office, to wait long to see his agenda passed. He made no apologies for passing a $1.9 trillion stimulus package without Republican support in the first weeks of his presidency, as he insisted that it was urgently needed. And he urged lawmakers to rapidly take up the next bills, declaring it a matter of imminent national consequence.
“America is moving – moving forward. And we can’t stop now … We are in a great inflection point in history. We have to do more than just build back. We have to build back better,” Biden said.
“I’d like to meet with those who have ideas that are different. We welcome ideas,” he said later, addressing his willingness to work with Republicans. “But the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. I just want to be clear: from my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
Biden and his advisers recognize his window for accomplishing major things is narrow. In fact, he called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death. Biden called on Congress to come together, pointing to the ongoing discussions between Democrats and Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the GOP pick to respond to Biden’s address.
The pandemic has heightened Americans’ desire for government aid. And like most presidents he is enjoying a post-inauguration polling honeymoon.
But largely because of the vaccination effort Biden has overseen, the pandemic is waning. And any number of summertime troubles – a continued surge of migrants, unrest around policing, high gas prices – could see his popularity wane. And that is before the congressional election cycle begins in earnest, when Republicans will likely be even less willing to cooperate. Historical patterns aren’t kind to first-term presidents at their first midterms.
Biden, who has been waiting decades to make the speech he delivered to the House, made clear he could not wait while the moment slipped past.
Big government is better government
If there was one argument animating Biden’s speech – and his entire presidency to date – is that more government, when working right, can improve Americans’ lives. It is a simple proposition that bucks a decades-long trend in both parties toward a smaller, less interventionist Washington.
“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people,” Biden said in his speech, referencing items he said proved government’s worth: the vaccination campaign and job creation initiatives.
It is a distant cry from President Bill Clinton’s declaration in his 1996 State of the Union that “the era of big government is over.” Speaking from the same podium 25 years later, Biden seemed to argue the exact opposite: that now is the time for big government to return – and with it the chance to prove that it is still working.
Referencing scientific investments like developing the Covid-19 vaccine, Biden said: “These are the investments we make together, as one country, and that only government is in a position to make.”
The theme is not new for Biden. But never before has it been more clearly distilled than when he laid out his legislative accomplishments so far, and the plans he still hopes to pass. In total, Biden is pressing for almost $6 trillion in new spending – including the $1.8 trillion plan he proposed shoring up education, child care and paid family leave – a massive bet on government’s ability to solve the most intractable problems.
Biden has on his side a generational health crisis and its incumbent economic meltdown that have altered Americans’ views of what their government can do for them. But he has also benefited from shifting views on longer-term issues like climate change and criminal justice reform, which will require government intervention to produce the types of results more Americans are asking for.
Polls, including a CNN survey conducted by SSRS, show a majority of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance at this stage in his presidency. But they also show some appetite for Biden’s expansive view of government. An NBC News poll found 55% of Americans said government “should do more to solve problems” compared to 41% who said it is doing too much.
Covid is impossible to ignore
There was little question the coronavirus pandemic would occupy a major part of Biden’s speech. It is the single greatest challenge he faces and the issue he and his advisers believe will make or break his presidency.
But even had Biden said nothing about the pandemic, the scenery in the House provided a constant reminder of the ongoing crisis. Gone was the familiar packed-in crowd of lawmakers. There were no guests to point to in the first lady’s box. And the two women sitting behind Biden were both wearing masks.
The contrast with past years felt strange. The many empty seats caused the usual din of applause to feel more like the polite clapping at small theater, with individual lawmakers’ murmurs and clapping able to be heard during the traditional entrances before the speech.
Biden’s message was one of distinct optimism about the trajectory of the pandemic, hoping to provide a high-profile boost in the national spirit after a year of lockdowns and tragedy.
“Our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen,” he said.
But his remarks also laid bare the lingering concerns within the administration about Americans who aren’t rushing to get vaccinated. In a worst case scenario, Biden administration’s health officials fear the country won’t be able to achieve widespread immunity if enough people decide not to get a shot.
Whether Biden’s entreaties during his speech make any difference remain to be seen. He has been encouraging eligible populations to get vaccinated for months. And even he has acknowledged the still-hesitant groups are not likely to listen to him.
“Go get vaccinated,” he pleaded from the podium. “They are available now.”
Symbolism on display
Addresses to Congress are about more than just the address. What is usually the most-watched televised speech of the year is also laden with visual symbols, no more so than this year. If the most glaring symbol was the pandemic-altered room, the most historic was the tableau behind Biden: for the first time, two women were seated in the spots reserved for the Vice President and House Speaker.
“Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium – no president has ever said those words – and it is about time,” Biden said at the start of his address.
Later, Biden gave Harris a new assignment: overseeing his proposed expansion of broadband internet.
Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi, both Californians from the Bay Area, are not strangers to one another. And there was little question the historic weight of the moment was not lost on either of them.
“To have two women behind him as he speaks is cause for a lot of excitement,” Pelosi said ahead of the address. “I have been getting calls from – globally – about that they can’t wait to see.”
The sparsely-filled House chamber also served to illustrate the fresh memory of the January 6 riot, where would-be insurrectionists sought to prevent Biden from becoming president. Fallout from the moment still lingers as enhanced security surrounds the Capitol.
In his speech, Biden made reference to the event.
“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,” Biden said. “The insurrection was an existential crisis – a test of whether our democracy could survive. It did.”
A case to the world
Biden’s primary focus in his early days – and his primary audience for this address – is Americans.
But he has made no secret that his efforts at home are also meant to signal to the world – and specifically to China – that perceptions of the United States’ decline are mistaken.
In Biden’s address, China was the consistent subtext – and at moments it was not so subtle – of his speech. He named President Xi Jinping three times; speaking off-script about his Chinese counterpart, Biden said, “He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”
Biden has framed his entire agenda as a battle between democracy and autocracy. And he believes passing major pieces of legislation are signals to the world that democracy will win out. “The autocrats will not win the future,” Biden said as he concluded his speech. “America will.”
He referenced his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, competition with China, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and relations with Russia.
But even if national security was not at the heart of the speech, Biden would likely argue it was there in more existential form. “In my conversations with world leaders, and I’ve spoken to over 38, 40 of them now, I have made it known – I have made it known that America is back,” he said. “And you know what they say? The comment I hear most of all from them is they say, ‘We see America’s back, but for how long? But for how long?’ ”
“My fellow Americans,” Biden went on, “we have to show not just that we are back but that we are back to stay.”

The writer is a member of staff.

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