Joe Biden used his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night to deliver a sense of optimism to America after a brutal 15 months marked by the pandemic, the ensuing recession, racial protests and a divisive election capped by the January attack on the US Capitol. But he also promoted his ambitious agenda in the face of Republican opposition and slim Democratic majorities.
Here are five key takeaways.
Biden is ready to pick a fight on taxes and spending
The US president is desperate to push through his next two multitrillion dollar spending packages, and he is not shying away from the tax increases on large companies and the wealthy to pay for them. The speech contained a lengthy segment urging profitable businesses and the well-off to shoulder higher levies, saying it was time for them to pay their “fair share”.
As he defended a push for “buy American” manufacturing provisions, he signalled displaced blue-collar workers would be a primary focus for his administration. “Some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you,” he said. “You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing.”
He sees light at the end of the Covid tunnel
In poll after poll, Biden’s scores his highest marks for his handling of the pandemic, and that confidence shone through in his speech. He focused on America’s vaccination rollout, saying it had brought smiles to children’s faces as they went back to school, tears of joy for educators, and long-awaited hugs for grandparents across the nation. Biden still warned that America should not let its guard down, but his tone was far less sombre than in the past. “Our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen.”
China and Russia are his biggest foreign policy priorities
At one point in the speech, Biden went off-script to talk about Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. “He’s deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.” The remark highlighted the preoccupation with Chinese power and influence that is consuming his administration at least as much as Donald Trump’s. While western Europe barely featured in the speech, Biden made a point of highlighting his administration’s willingness to promote human rights. Russia was his other big concern. “I made very clear to President [Vladimir] Putin that while we don’t seek escalation, their actions have consequences,” he said.
His calls for bipartisanship are ringing hollow
Biden, a veteran of the Senate, campaigned on a pledge to rekindle bipartisanship and work across the political aisle. On Wednesday, he implored Republican lawmakers to work with Democrats to pass his proposals on everything from infrastructure reform to tighter gun laws. But his overtures fell on deaf ears, with many Republicans disillusioned after Democrats pressed ahead with the $1.9tn economic relief bill earlier this year without a single GOP vote.
When asked what he thought of the speech, Mitt Romney, the Utah senator considered among the most moderate Republicans, responded: “Well, $6tn and counting. I’m sure Bernie was happy.” He added: “In terms of meeting in the middle, that hasn’t been something the administration has shown yet.”
Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on issues of racial justice
Debates over racial justice and equality have long divided Americans, and the killing of George Floyd last year and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed have seeped into politics. Biden and the Democrats are pushing for ambitious federal policing reforms. “We have a real chance to root out [the] systemic racism that plagues American life,” Biden said.
The GOP’s official response to Biden’s speech was delivered by Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, who has received praise from Democratic colleagues over his role in bipartisan police reform negotiations.
But Scott drew criticism from Democrats when he said, “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country” and accused liberals of seeking to divide the country by teaching children that the “colour of their skin defines them”.
Scott defended voter ID laws and changes to elections in Georgia that Biden called “worse than Jim Crow”, and instead accused Democrats of pushing through a “Washington power grab” with efforts to beef up federal election laws.