Joe Biden declared that America was “ready for take-off” on Wednesday night in his first speech to a joint session of Congress as he pointed to a nascent revival under way in the US 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.”
Biden delivered his remarks at the US Capitol in Washington without the usual packed audience of lawmakers and senior government officials because the number of attendees was limited due to coronavirus precautions.
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.
The president touted the economic recovery in the US and made a pitch for Congress to pass the rest of 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.
“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 stages of his economic programme with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which have triggered a backlash from Wall Street and corporate America, opposition from Republicans and even some wariness among fellow Democrats.
Biden used the speech to reiterate his intention to raise revenue from big business and high-income households to fund trillions of dollars of government spending.
“It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 per cent of Americans to pay their fair share. Just pay their fair share,” he 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.”
“Wall Street didn’t build this country,” the president said, and signalled that he wanted to usher in a new economic orthodoxy. “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 the country down and sent 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 battle against the virus.
“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 of several personal anecdotes he delivered in hushed tones 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 hinted at in his speech. “Go get vaccinated, America,” he said.
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?’”
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 share US-made doses with other countries.
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 waive their intellectual property rights.
Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, delivered his party’s response to Biden’s speech. He picked apart Biden and the Democrats on everything from the 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, also took issue with the Biden administration’s focus on racial justice. “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” he said.
Republicans are hoping to chip away at Biden and the Democrats between now and next year’s midterm elections, when they hope to regain both chambers of Congress, which Democrats control by the slimmest of margins.
“Biden has to make hay while the sun shines . . . time is not on his side,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“This speech was thrilling to Democrats — the vast majority of Democrats including previously sceptical supporters of Bernie Sanders. Biden started out as a blue-collar, labour-oriented Democrat. He’s still exactly that.”