President Joe Biden made a direct appeal to a primetime audience to sell his “once in a generation” agenda, one that could reshape American life through a vast expansion of federal safety nets and a renewed workforce, primed for a nation at the brink of the climate crisis and emerging from the economic fallout from a global pandemic.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress on the eve of his 100th day in office, the president addressed “crisis and opportunity, about rebuilding a nation, revitalizing our democracy, and winning the future” following the deaths of thousands of Americans from the coronavirus and a previous administration that sowed chaos, capped by a deadly assault in the building where Mr Biden delivered his remarks.
“America is on the move again,” the president said in his hour-long speech. “We all know life can knock us down, but in America, we never ever stay down. … America is rising anew, choosing hope over fear, truth over lies and light over darkness.”
He outlined his sweeping, multi-trillion dollar domestic agenda – one that would touch on nearly every aspect of American life, from broadband internet access across rural communities to the pipes in the nation’s schools, federal funding for childcare and paid sick leave, and extending universal education to preschool-aged children and college students.
It was a sales pitch to Congress, urging lawmakers from both parties to converge around his vision, but it’s one that relies on his personal brand of politicking that can speak to the urgency of the moment.
He also renewed his calls for lawmakers to pass gun control legislation, raising the federal hourly minimum wage to $15, immigration reform to put millions of people on the path to citizenship, criminal justice reform, civil rights protections for LGBTQ people, labour rights, and voting rights protections – all critical to his administration’s agenda.
The president underscored his platform as one echoed in history and American promise, one of “opening the doors of opportunity” and “guaranteeing fairness and justice. “
“It’s time we remembered that ‘We the People’ are the government,” he told lawmakers.
“Not some force in a distant capital – not some powerful force we have no control over,” he said. “It’s us.”
The speech is a familiar tradition – one in which he has participated as both a longtime member of Congress and as vice president, seated behind Barack Obama during his State of the Union addresses.
“It’s good to be back,” he said as he approached the dais.
But it was a tradition warped with the growingly familiar markings of a year-long public health crisis – an emptied room and attendees wearing face masks. There were no guests in the First Lady’s private box, and the House chamber contained only 200 physically distanced lawmakers and officials.
The State of the Union-styled speech also saw for the first time two women flanking the president at the dais – Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It’s an inflection point in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 573,000 Americans, but Mr Biden entered his speech with renewed optimism and reason for hope. Roughly 44 per cent of Americans have received at least one dose of three available Covid-19 vaccines, and roughly 30 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated from the disease.
His agenda also has widespread support among Americans. Recent polling from Monmouth University found that 68 per cent of Americans support his American Jobs Plan infrastructure plan, and 64 per cent support his American Families Plan initiatives, as well as raising taxes on the nation’s wealthiest households and corporations to pay for them.
That agenda is built on decades of organising around workers rights, wage increases and universal childcare and education platforms that progressive lawmakers have pushed his campaign and the White House to embrace.
Passage of the widely popular American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package is “making all the difference in the world” for many Americans, he said.
He pointed to personal stories of hope – a woman in Florida who cried in her car after getting a vaccine, a single mother in Texas who wrote to tell him that direct payments saved her family from eviction, a woman who could afford to take her granddaughter to the eye doctor – against a defining image of miles-long lines for food banks.
“I don’t know about you but I don’t think I’d ever see that in America,” he said.
The president argued that getting Americans back to work through a “blue-collar blueprint to build America” in his American Jobs Plan follows a legacy of “transformational” investments in public services and infrastructure in the US, from transcontinental railroads and interstate highways to public schools and universities.
“Time and again, they propel us into the future,” he said.
The president made several appeals to lawmakers as they mull several pieces of White House-backed legislation, from immigration reform to voting rights.
He pleaded with Congress to end the “epidemic” of gun violence in America and the “exhausting war over immigration” as his administration sees a growing number of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border and the White House grapples with thousands of asylum seekers.
“We also have to get at the root problem of why people are fleeing, particularly to our southern border, from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” Mr Biden said. “The violence, the corruption, the gangs, the political instability, hunger, hurricanes, earthquakes, natural disasters.”
The president urged lawmakers to “find consensus” on police reform with the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which he wants on his desk by 25 May – the anniversary of Mr Floyd’s death.
His speech – with some off-script remarks and several personal reflections wrapped into a pitch for a $6 trillion plan to boost the nation’s economy – also spoke directly to young transgender people.
“To all the transgender Americans watching at home,” he said. “Especially the young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president has your back.”
He underscored his appeal to lawmakers’ and the American public’s imaginations with a reminder of the violence that rocked the Capitol in which he stood, an attack “desecrating our democracy.”
It was an “existential crisis” he said, and “a test of whether our democracy could survive.”
“It did,” he said. “But the struggle is far from over.”