President Joe Biden will declare that the U.S. has turned the corner on the pandemic that killed more than half a million Americans and crippled the economy in his first speech to Congress, while outlining a broad plan for federal spending on infrastructure, education and other Democratic priorities.
“America is on the move again,” Biden will say in his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, according to excerpts the White House released. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
Biden will unveil his American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion package of tax credits and domestic priorities including child care, paid family leave, and tuition-free community college that would be funded in part by the largest tax increases on wealthy Americans in decades.
He’ll also tout his previously proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill, casting it as a jobs-maker especially for people without college degrees -- Americans who largely supported his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
“Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan don’t require a college degree,” he will say, according to the excerpts. “75% don’t require an associate’s degree.”
The plan, he’ll say, is “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
And he’ll try to build popular support for police reform, gun control and immigration proposals that have languished on Capitol Hill.
Biden’s address will celebrate a coronavirus vaccine rollout that’s delivered more than 315 million shots and a stimulus program that provided more than 160 million checks to taxpayers.
But aides and allies say Biden views his speech as much about selling a broad vision to the American public as it is a pitch to lawmakers on any particular legislative program. The president, they say, sees the nation’s emergence from the pandemic as a unique opportunity to persuade voters that the country is more united and that government can help ordinary Americans.
Biden will look to frame both his accomplishments and aspirations as an implicit rebuttal of the disarray that critics say defined the federal government during the Trump administration.
“We’re vaccinating the nation,” he will say, according to the excerpts. “We’re creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results people can see and feel in their own lives.”
Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, will deliver the GOP response to Biden’s speech. Scott will credit former President Donald Trump for progress against the pandemic, according to excerpts that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office released, saying: “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned.”
He’ll also hit Biden for the slow pace of U.S. school reopenings -- a potential political vulnerability for Democrats, as teachers’ unions allied with their party have been blamed by many parents and Republican lawmakers for keeping children in remote learning.
“Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future,” Scott will say. “Our public schools should have reopened months ago.”
Biden’s speech will be a “call to action” for solving the crises the nation faces and seek “to prove our government can deliver again,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said Thursday during an event at Georgetown University.
Biden will stride to the House rostrum having attended more joint session addresses than any previous president: eight times as vice president and dozens more as a senator. But Wednesday’s will be unlike any in the nation’s past. Two women -- Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- will sit over his shoulder as he addresses the American people.
Biden is expected to paint the gathering as a symbol of renewal after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in which Trump supporters breached the House chamber where he will speak. Before addressing the nation, Biden plans to meet with workers who were in the building as rioters sought to disrupt the certification of Biden’s electoral victory.
Other elements of the evening may only serve to emphasize how far the nation still has to go in battling the coronavirus pandemic. Pelosi limited the number of attendees for the event to around 200 people on the advice of medical experts, less than a fifth of the normal attendance.
Members of Congress won’t be allowed to invite guests, and the first lady’s box -- where presidents traditionally position a group of Americans who help illustrate the need for policies outlined in the speech -- will be empty.
Instead, the first lady held a “virtual reception” Wednesday afternoon with a guest list that hinted at elements of the president’s speech: a child migrant who became a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic, gun control and transgender rights activists, the director of a child care center for at-risk kids, and an information technology worker focused on bringing broadband access to rural Native American communities.
Chief Justice John Roberts will be the only representative of the Supreme Court, while just two cabinet officials -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin -- will attend. Biden is expected to don a face mask as he’s introduced for the traditional walk up the center aisle of the House chamber.
White House officials also credited the pandemic for the timing of Biden’s address, which the president had initially pledged to hold during his first month in office.
Instead, aides on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue struggled to sort the logistics of the traditionally standing-room-only event as conditions rapidly shifted with lawmakers receiving vaccines -- and Biden’s stimulus legislation took longer than expected to pass both chambers of Congress.
The delay in some ways proved fortuitous, allowing the president to highlight accomplishments that enjoy broad support among voters. Nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of Biden’s coronavirus relief package, 64% support his handling of the pandemic, and 58% back his plan to raise corporate tax rates to pay for infrastructure investments, according to an ABC News poll released Monday.
“The timing gives him an opportunity to take a victory lap not for victory’s sake, but to prove the concept that government can work right for the people,” said Liz Allen, a former Biden aide.
By delaying the speech, Biden can use one of the biggest bully pulpits provided to a president to tout spending plans that satisfy his party’s restless left flank. Promoting the initiatives will help shield Biden from criticism if the package ends up losing signature components at the hands of moderates like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, or in negotiations with Senate Republicans.
The White House walked away from its call for a $15 an hour minimum wage when the Senate parliamentarian ruled it would not satisfy the requirements to bypass the 60-vote filibuster threshold during negotiations over the first stimulus bill, and the White House has already begun engaging GOP members on their scaled-back infrastructure proposals.
The president will also discuss initiatives facing long odds on Capitol Hill. Those include a call for action on three House-passed bills aimed at strengthening background checks for gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Biden would need Republican votes to overcome a filibuster.
Biden is also expected to devote time to foreign policy, and is likely to detail his recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the upcoming 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He’s also likely to appeal to those reluctant to get vaccinated or continue wearing face masks.
After the address, Biden will follow in the path of his predecessors by taking his message directly to voters. He plans visits to key swing states to amplify his proposals. The president, Harris, their spouses and cabinet members plan to visit approximately a dozen states. That includes Biden’s trip Thursday to Atlanta, where he’s expected to hold a car rally to celebrate his 100th day in office.
The following day, he’ll visit Philadelphia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak -- expected to receive a sizable funding increase under his infrastructure plan -- at the city’s 30th Street Station. Georgia and Pennsylvania marked key electoral victories for Biden in November after they had voted for Trump in 2016.
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