President Joe Biden will use his first joint address to Congress to declare the nation is “turning peril into possibility, crisis into opportunity,” urging a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education that would fundamentally transform roles the government plays in American life.
Biden is marking his first 100 days in office as the nation emerges from a confluence of crises, making his case Wednesday night before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators because of coronavirus restrictions. The speech is taking place in a U.S. Capitol still surrounded by fencing after insurrectionists in January protesting his election stormed to the doors of the House chamber where he will speak.
In the nationally televised ritual of a president standing before Congress, Biden will lay out a sweeping proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas target frailties that were uncovered by the pandemic, and he will make the case that economic growth would best come from taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor.
“I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden was set to say, according to excerpts released by the White House ahead of the speech. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
For Biden, whose moment has been nearly a half century in the making, his speech will also provide an update on progress in combating the COVID-19 crisis he was elected to tame, showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States. He will also champion his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.
Seizing an opportunity born of calamity, Biden has embraced momentous action over incremental change. But he will be forced to thread the needle between Republicans who cry government overreach and some Democrats who fear he won’t go big enough.
The Democratic president’s strategy is to sidestep the polarization and make his appeal directly to voters. His prime-time speech will underscore a trio of central campaign promises: to manage the deadly pandemic, to turn down the tension in Washington in the aftermath of the insurrection and to restore faith in government as an effective force for good.
“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works and can deliver for the people,” Biden was to say, according to the excerpts. “In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver.”
No American politician has more familiarity with the presidential address to Congress than Biden. He spent three decades in the audience as a senator and eight years as vice president seated behind President Barack Obama during the annual address.
But this year’s scene at the front of the House chamber will have a historic look: For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, will be seated behind the chief executive. And she will be seated next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Biden chose to delay this speech, typically given in the afterglow of a presidential inaugural. In doing so, he gave himself the chance to not simply speak of the pain of the COVID-19 crisis but also to talk about progress.
The setting will be unlike for any of his predecessors, with members of Congress spread out and many Republicans citing “scheduling conflicts” to stay away.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, “President Biden ran as a moderate, but I’m hard pressed to think of anything at all that he’s done so far that would indicate some degree of moderation.”
Yet the desire for swift action is born from political necessity. Biden understands that the time for passing his agenda could be perilously short given that presidents’ parties historically lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, less than two years away. The Democrats’ margins are already razor-thin.
He will speak against a backdrop of the weakening but still lethal pandemic, staggering unemployment and a roiling debate about police violence against Blacks. Biden will also use his address to touch on the broader national reckoning over race in America, and to call on Congress to act on prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the nation’s immigration system.
The speech will offer one of Biden’s biggest audiences in office, even as television ratings for other annual events — like the Academy Awards on Sunday — have fallen off during the pandemic. President Donald Trump had 37.2 million viewers for his final State of the Union address last year, and 47.7 million for his first address to Congress in 2017. President Barack Obama drew 52.4 million viewers for his first address in 2009.
In his first three months in office, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill — passed without a single GOP vote — and has shepherded direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid will soon arrive for state and local governments, enough money that overall U.S. growth this year could eclipse 6% — a level not seen since 1984. Administration officials are betting that it will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost to the pandemic by next year.
Biden’s speech is about how to sustain those gains once the debt-financed boost fades. Federal Reserve estimates suggest the economy will slip to more modest 1.8% growth after at least two years of robust gains, potentially leaving the Biden era with some happy memories but few enduring legacies.
New in his Wednesday speech is a “families” plan that could cement his legacy with $1.8 trillion worth of spending over 10 years.
A significant amount would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 aid. There would be $200 billion for free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Another $225 billion would pay for subsidized child care and invest in child care workers.
A national paid family and medical leave program would be started at a cost of $225 billion. Another $200 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
For $109 billion in federal money, people could attend community college tuition-free for two years. There would be $85 billion for Pell Grants to help more people afford higher education. Historically Black and tribal institutions would be eligible to receive $46 billion.
Funding all of this would be a series of tax increases on the wealthy that would raise about $1.5 trillion over a decade.
Biden wants to boost IRS enforcement and require disclosures by financial institutions, specifically targeting the rich. The White House estimates that would bring in $700 billion over 10 years. He would raise the top tax rate on the most affluent families from 37% to 39.6%. People earning in excess of $1 million a year would see their rate on capital gains — the profits from a sale of a stock or home — nearly double from 20% to 39.6%, which would mean the wealthiest Americans could no longer pay at a lower rate than many families who identify as middle class.
Republican lawmakers in Congress so far have balked at the price tag of both the “families” plan and infrastructure package, complicating the chances of passage in a deeply divided Washington.
The president has drawn a firm line that no household earning less than $400,000 a year will pay more in taxes, a line that would both broaden the definition of the middle class and clearly delineate just how extreme inequality has become.