Joe Biden declared that America was “ready for take-off” in his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night as he pointed to a nascent revival under way in the country following a devastating pandemic and economic crisis.
“We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: there is no quit in America,” he said. “One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act.”
Biden started delivering his remarks at the US Capitol a little after 9pm in Washington without the usual packed audience of lawmakers and senior government officials because the number of attendees was limited due to coronavirus precautions.
But the setting was familiar to the 78-year-old, who served as a senator from Delaware for decades and vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama. Before he delivered his address, Biden noted that he was the first president to give the speech flanked by two women — Kamala Harris, vice-president, and Nancy Pelosi, House speaker. “It’s about time,” he said.
Biden touted the economic recovery in the US and made a pitch for Congress to pass his sprawling spending agenda. After enacting a $1.9tn fiscal stimulus plan in March, Biden has turned his focus to winning support for a $2.3tn infrastructure spending bill he called a “blueprint for blue-collar America” and a $1.8tn expansion of the social safety net he unveiled on Wednesday. “We can’t stop now. We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”
The US president wants to pay for the next legs of his economic programme with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which have triggered a backlash on Wall Street and corporate America, opposition from Republicans and some wariness among his fellow Democrats.
But Biden doubled down on the need to raise revenue from big business and high-income households.
“It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 per cent of Americans to pay their fair share. Just pay their fair share,” Biden said. “Look, I’m not out to punish anyone. But I will not add to the tax burden of the middle class of this country.”
Biden added that “Wall Street didn’t build this country” and stressed that he was bringing a different economic philosophy to America. “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle-out.”
Biden’s speech came on the eve of his 100th day in office and more than a year after the spread of the novel coronavirus locked down the country and left the economy in a tailspin. He cited the rapid vaccination rollout as evidence that he had delivered on a campaign pledge to restore competence and empathy in the virus battle.
He said: “At a mass vaccination centre in Glendale, Arizona, I asked a nurse what it’s like. She said ‘every shot feels like a dose of hope’.” It was one among several personal anecdotes about ordinary Americans that peppered his speech.
The steep upward curve of vaccinations is in danger of flattening as health officials encounter more hesitant Americans, a problem Biden sought to address. “Go get vaccinated, America,” he urged.
On foreign policy, Biden admitted world leaders had questioned America’s staying power in their conversations with him: “The comment I hear most often is: ‘we see that America is back — but for how long?’” But the US president largely kept to traditional themes of American power projection overseas.
“We have, without hyperbole, the greatest fighting force in the history of the world,” he said. He added that he had told China’s president Xi Jinping the US would maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as it did with Nato in Europe “not to start a conflict — but to prevent one”.
Biden promised that America would supply Covid-19 vaccines to the rest of the world, but only once every American had access to one. “We will become an arsenal for vaccines for other countries, just as America is an arsenal for democracy for the world . . . [But] every American will have access before that.”
The president has been under pressure to do more to promote supply to the rest of the world, but his administration has been torn over whether to donate US-made doses to other places.
Earlier this week, the White House said the US would share up to 60m doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has not yet been approved in the country. But experts are calling on the administration to do more, by sharing manufacturing expertise and forcing US companies to share their intellectual property.
Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, delivered the GOP’s official response to Biden’s speech. In televised remarks, Scott picked apart Biden and the Democrats on everything from economic stimulus to the president’s infrastructure proposals, accusing the majority party of refusing to work across the aisle.
“Democrats want a partisan wish list,” Scott said. “They won’t even build bridges . . . to build bridges.”
Scott, the only black Republican senator in the 100-member chamber, also took issue with the Biden administration’s racial justice agenda, saying at one point: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”
Republicans are hoping to chip away at Biden and the Democrats between now and next year’s midterm elections, when they are aiming to regain control of the House and the Senate. Democrats hold both chambers by the slimmest of margins.