In his first joint address to Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden called for a massive expansion of government spending and investment in American society, unveiling a $1.8 trillion plan that included the provision of universal pre-school , free community college and elderly care under the American Families Plan.
Mr. Biden’s speech highlighted his administration’s achievements with mass vaccination and the impact of a $1.9 COVID-19 relief package passed earlier this year. The focus of the speech was workers and their families, with Mr Biden also pitching his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan (the American Jobs Plan).
Owing to COVID-19 restrictions, the House Chamber on Capitol Hill was sparsely populated with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Other attendees included Chief Justice John Roberts and General Mike Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As has been practice since the Cold War, there was no ‘designated survivor’, as several members of Mr Biden’s cabinet viewed the speech remotely.
The evening also witnessed another first, with two women sitting behind the President - Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President -- (applause) -- no President has ever said those words from this podium. No President has ever said those words, and it’s about time,” Mr. Biden said to applause.
The President outlined his administration’s foreign policy, especially with regard to China, Russia and Afghanistan. Speaking for over an hour, Mr. Biden said he would defend human rights abroad, and assured allies that America’s return to the world stage was not temporary.
In what appeared to be a clear shift towards the progressive side of the Democratic party, Mr. Biden’s three spending initiatives – the relief package, the Jobs Plan and the Families Plan represent a total of about $6 trillion – the largest expansion in social spending seen in decades. Mr. Biden plans to pay for this with increased taxes – such as on corporations and a near doubling of capital gains taxes on those earning more than $ 1 million each year.
Early on in Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Biden spoke of his administration’s achievement with vaccinations the U.S. having administered 220 million shots rather than the original target of 100 million shots in 100 days. “Today, 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site,” Mr. Biden said.
He described the impact of the COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress with anecdotes of a single mother avoiding eviction and a grandmother being able to take her grandchild to the eye-doctor.
Mr. Biden, called his jobs plan a “once in a generation investment in America itself” and “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” Mr Biden said. “Good guys and women on Wall Street, but Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country, and
“My fellow Americans, trickle-down -- trickle-down economics has never worked and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out,” Mr. Biden said to applause.
He called for gun control and asked Republicans and Democrats to “find a consensus” on police reform, urging them to pass a police reform bill named after George Floyd by the first anniversary of Mr Floyd’s death (May 25). Mr Floyd, who was black, was killed by asphyxiation after a white police officer placed his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for an extended period of time.
On U.S. foreign relations, Mr. Biden said world leaders are telling him, “We see America is back. But for how long?”
He linked America’s competition abroad – such as with China – with investing at home. He talked about his interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr Xi wanting China to lead the world.“He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others -- autocrats -- think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus,” Mr Biden said, adding that he told Mr Xi that America would “maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific” as it did in Europe, “not to start a conflict, but to prevent one.”
The president said he told Chinese counterpart that America would not back away from its commitment to alliances or human rights.
On Russia, Mr Biden said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he did not seek escalation but would respond to Russia’s interference in America, and that he did respond, “directly and proportionately” when the U.S. determined that Russia had interfered in its elections last year and was behind cyberattacks on the country. He also said that Russia and the U.S. would cooperate (citing climate action and arms control ) where necessary.
On the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea he said the U.S. would work “closely” with allies using diplomacy and “stern deternance.”
Mr. Biden, whose deceased son Beau was in the Army, explained his decision to follow through with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan [ a decision made by the Trump administration]. U.S. presence and actions in Afghanistan “ were never meant to be multi-generational undertakings of nation-building,” Mr Biden said.
“And after 20 years of value -- valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring those troops home,” he said.
‘America is not a racist country’: GOP Rebuttal
In his rebuttal speech, Tom Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate said the President said America was not a racist country.
“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” Mr. Scott, who is from South Carolina, said. He suggested the Democrats were using race as a political weapon and that the Voting Rights Act (which mr Biden had just urged Congress to pass) was not about civil rights but about rigging future elections.
Mr. Scott said that the president had promised to bring the country together but “the actions of the President and his party are pulling us further apart.” He referred to Mr Biden’s infrastructure plan as a, “liberal wish-list of Big Government waste,” saying no less than 6% was going towards building roads and bridges.