(CNN)President Joe Biden spoke directly to working- and middle-class Americans who “feel left behind and forgotten” in a rapidly changing economy in his first address to a joint session of Congress, promising that his ambitious economic and infrastructure plans amounted to a “blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
Addressing many of the voters who abandoned the Democratic Party to support former President Donald Trump, Biden made the case that his economic plans are squarely aimed at improving their economic fortunes while strengthening America’s position around the globe and positioning America to compete against other world powers like China.
“My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out,” Biden said Wednesday night. “A broad consensus of economists — left, right, center — agree that what I’m proposing will help create millions of jobs and generate historic economic growth.”
The President is proposing dramatic policy changes to address income inequality in the United States, plans that will cost trillions of dollars and vastly expand the reach of government, driving a far more progressive agenda than his 2020 campaign would have suggested.
As he tried to sell that kind of transformational change, he argued that his administration has acted to “restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver” through its economic and logistical response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He quoted the call to action by former President Franklin Roosevelt, another president who used the levers of government to drive sweeping change, “in another era when our democracy was tested.”
“In America, we do our part,” he said. “That’s all I’m asking.”
Massive plans face daunting path to passage
Both Republicans and some Democrats have balked at the size of his massive proposals to both repair the nation’s roads, bridges and railroads and expand broadband, including the $1.8 trillion he would direct toward helping American families with costs.
But Biden cast them as generational investments in the future and emphasized that the vast majority of infrastructure jobs that he is trying to create would not require a college degree.
Focusing on bread-and-butter issues that could appeal to Americans of all political persuasions, he described the jobs that would be created by modernizing roads, bridges and highways and replacing all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines to ensure that “every child can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water.” He noted that the plan would make huge investments in broadband to bring high-speed internet to 35% of rural Americans who still don’t have it.
All of those investments, he said, would strengthen America’s economic power and ensure that more products were made in the US.
“We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” the President said. “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing. No reason,” Biden said.
Biden marked the accomplishments of his first 100 days in a strong position despite the deeply polarized nature of the American electorate after four chaotic and tumultuous years under former President Donald Trump. A new CNN poll released Wednesday showed that 53% of Americans approve of the way Biden is doing his job, and nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe that he is keeping his campaign promises.
Covid and insurrection loom over address
In his remarks, Biden reminded his audience of the crises he inherited — from the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to the failed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, which was fomented by his predecessor. He argued that America is emerging from “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” and “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
After the tumult and pain of the pandemic, he declared that “America is on the move again.”
In these early months of his presidency, Biden has been bolstered by voters’ positive perceptions of his efforts to ease the nation out of the upheaval and economic strife caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Some 66% of Americans approve his handling of the crisis and he highlighted his team’s accomplishment in administering more than 200 million shots in less than 100 days.
It was a historic night, not just for Biden, but because there were two women seated behind him on the dais — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Asked about the significance of the moment during an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday, Pelosi replied, “It’s about time.” Harris echoed that sentiment on her way into the House chamber: “Normal,” she told Capitol reporters when asked how Americans should view the historical milestone.
Biden noted the significance as soon as he took the dais: “Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President,” Biden said, “no President has ever said those words from this podium. No President has ever said those words. And it’s about time.”
‘Go get vaccinated’
Biden spent a great deal of time highlighting his administration’s accomplishments eradicating the pandemic — noting that 90% of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site and everyone 16 years and older can get the shot. He said the progress of the last 100 days was “one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen,” but also warned that it is not the time for people to let their guard down.
“Go get vaccinated, America,” Biden said.
In the Republican response to Biden’s address, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott claimed that the tide was turning on Covid-19 when Biden took office. Though Trump and his team achieved a historic feat in the development of multiple vaccines in record time, Biden administration officials have said they inherited chaotic and insufficient vaccine rollout system that they had to overhaul completely.
“Last year, under Republican leadership, we passed five bipartisan Covid packages,” Scott said. “Congress supported our hospitals, saved our economy, and funded Operation Warp Speed, delivering vaccines in record time.” He argued that Democrats decided to “go it alone” with their $2 trillion Covid relief package, which he criticized in part because it did not include a requirement to reopen schools.
“Covid brought Congress together five times. This administration pushed us apart,” Scott said.
One of Biden’s most difficult tasks in the months ahead will be to persuade those people who did not vote for him to get the vaccine — or to find the right messengers to help convince them. The pace of vaccinations has slowed considerably, with supply outstripping demand, particularly in rural and conservative counties that Trump won in 2020. Scientists say between 70% and 85% of Americans will need to be vaccinated in order for the nation to achieve herd immunity and prevent dangerous coronavirus variants from spreading in the months ahead. But polls have shown persistent resistance and uninterest in getting the vaccine among a high number of Republicans.
About 43% of the population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly 30% is fully vaccinated.
While Biden’s economic and pandemic plans formed the central focus of his speech, he also addressed the many challenges confronting his administration, including the crisis at the southern border with Mexico and the impassioned calls for federal police reform legislation following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a former Minneapolis police officer last May.
Calling gun violence an “epidemic in America,” the President asked for a ban on so-called ghost guns.
He urged Congress to have the “courage” to craft a compromise on police reform by the anniversary of Floyd’s death next month. Trying to bridge the political divide on the issue, he said the vast majority of law enforcement officers serve American communities honorably and want to answer the calls for justice.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said. “Now is our opportunity to make real progress. … We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve; to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”
Scott expressed optimism for compromise on that issue, speaking in personal terms about his own experience as a Black man being stopped for no reason and followed around a store while he was shopping. He criticized Democrats for rejecting the police reform proposals he offered last summer, but added “I’m still working. I’m still hopeful.”
Republicans see the surge in unaccompanied minors across the border as a potentially powerful campaign issue in the 2022 midterm races. Biden addressed the issue head-on Wednesday night, calling on Congress to craft legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He advocated for legal status for the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children, and called on Congress to “end our exhausting war over immigration.”
“For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform and done nothing about it. It’s time to fix it,” he said.