President Joe Biden’s first address to Congress, a capstone of the Democrat’s first 100 days in office, reflected his administration so far: focused on recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, free of drama, outwardly solicitous of the Republican Party and closely linked to his ambitious campaign trail proposals, which have the potential to reshape the American government’s relationship with the economy.
The centerpiece of the speech was the rollout of the $1.9 trillion American Families Plan, which would create the first federal paid leave program along with entitlements for child care and pre-kindergarten education, make community college tuition-free and extend a massive child tax credit that would cut child poverty in half. Biden proposed paying for the plan by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
If all of the proposals Biden mentioned in the speech somehow became law, it would amount to a transformation of the social safety net and a massive expansion of educational opportunities in the country, potentially ending a 40-year period in which the focus of presidents was on shrinking the government rather than using it to help the poor and the middle-class.
“My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” Biden said during his speech. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out.”
But some of the ideas Biden mentioned have already died in the Senate, the body that represents his biggest roadblock to legislative success. He called for a $15 minimum wage, a proposal that a half-dozen Democrats essentially voted against earlier this year.
Other proposals, including a plan to comprehensively overhaul the nation’s immigration system, would almost certainly require the elimination of the Senate’s 60-vote requirement for most legislation ― a step the president has so far declined to endorse.
Biden acknowledged that “end[ing] our exhausting war over immigration” might require a piecemeal approach. “If Congress won’t pass my plan, let’s at least pass what we agree on,” he said.
That piecemeal approach would require a rapprochement with congressional Republicans ― many of whom voted only a few months ago to overturn the results of the presidential election and declined to recognize Biden’s victory. As he did during the campaign, Biden invited GOP consultation on his plans.
He mentioned the Republican Party six times in his speech, and all but one mention emphasized how eager the president was to negotiate. The one exception was a call for GOP senators to back universal background checks for gun purchases.
“I don’t want to become confrontational,” Biden said before issuing his challenge.
In the GOP’s response, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina claimed Biden’s efforts at bipartisanship ― including his work with Republicans on a proposal to fund significant infrastructure investment ― were insincere.
“Democrats want a partisan wishlist. They won’t even build bridges to build bridges,” Scott said.
Still, some of Biden’s plans will face intra-Democratic resistance. Some Senate Democrats, including Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have already voiced concerns about Biden’s proposed capital gains tax rate hike. Sen. Mark Kelly, a moderate from Arizona who is up for reelection in 2022, criticized the speech for lacking details on Biden’s plan to deal with a surge of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“While I share President Biden’s urgency in fixing our broken immigration system, what I didn’t hear tonight was a plan to address the immediate crisis at the border, and I will continue holding this administration accountable,” Kelly said.
Most of what Biden proposed, and much of what he said, came directly from his proposals as a candidate during the 2020 presidential campaign. Some of his lines ― “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country” ― had been features of his stump speech.
Biden opened the speech by recounting his administration’s successes in battling the coronavirus pandemic and distributing vaccines. But his speech also represented a pivot to a more economic focus for the administration. He said the word “jobs” 43 times during the 64-minute speech. He mentioned “COVID,” “coronavirus,” “virus,” “pandemic” and “vaccine” a combined 24 times.
Biden also delivered a big promise on an important but low-profile problem: digging up the millions of lead water pipes serving buildings in cities across the country.
“The American Jobs Plan creates jobs replacing 100% of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines so every American, so every child, can turn on the faucet and be certain to drink clean water,” Biden said, referring to a $45 billion proposal in his jobs plan.
Lead is a deadly neurotoxin, and drinking water from lead pipes can cause damage in developing brains and cause pregnancy losses. But the effect on health outcomes can only be shown through population-level analyses, and digging up the pipes costs a lot of money that utilities and water consumers don’t want to pay. If the federal government ponied up the money, the problem would be solved.
So far in his presidency, Biden’s approach has earned him solid but unspectacular approval ratings in public surveys of a deeply polarized country. Many of his proposals have broad public support, but there is little evidence he’s winning over substantial numbers of voters who cast their ballots for Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Here, the no-drama, low-profile approach the administration prefers may have drawbacks, especially when it comes to winning over voters who may be inclined to tune Biden out. A series of focus groups conducted by GBAO Research for the Navigator Project found some persuadable Republican voters were simply unaware of many of Biden’s actions.
Biden also dedicated significant space in the speech to what he sees as the defining battle of the era, between America’s democratic approach to governance and China’s authoritarian approach.
“Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries ― the autocrats of the world ― are betting it can’t,” Biden said, referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” He added: “They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works.”
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.