By Steve Herman
WASHINGTON – “After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff,” U.S. President Joe Biden told a joint session of Congress, using the occasion to push his proposed $4 trillion in government spending and tout his overall performance in coping with a series of historic crises since taking office in January.
The president, in an address on Wednesday evening, said he had inherited a nation in crisis facing the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
The address on the eve of his 100th day in office, was not deemed a ‘State of the Union’ presentation because it was delivered in the first year of a new president’s term. It was also shorn of some of the typical pomp of the annual presidential speech to both the House and Senate because of coronavirus restrictions.
Typically, as many as 1,600 people packed the House chamber to attend a presidential speech. Only 200 people, mostly members of Congress joined by a small number of officials from other government branches plus select family members, attended. They were socially distanced in the House chamber and wore masks.
Biden spoke from the same dais that insurrectionists overtook on January 6 when supporters of his predecessor, Donald Trump, stormed past law enforcement officers into the U.S. Capitol to try to block the official certification of Biden as the winner of last November’s presidential election over the incumbent.
The attack on the Capitol, which remains heavily guarded, left five people dead. More than 400 people have been arrested on various charges related to the siege.
“The image of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol, desecrating our democracy, remains vivid in all our minds,” said Biden. “Lives were put at risk, many of your lives. Lives were lost. Extraordinary courage was summoned.”
The president said the insurrection was “an existential crisis, a test of whether our democracy could survive — and it did.”
Biden devoted the bulk of his 65-minute address to domestic policy issues, although he did mention matters beyond America’s borders.
The president said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific “just as we do for NATO in Europe – not to start conflict – but to prevent one.”
Biden said he had responded proportionally to Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and the cyber-attacks it launched on government and business. That does not however prevent, according to the president, potential cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear arms reduction and combatting climate change.
During the address, Biden proposed a $1.8 trillion expansion of national government assistance for American children and families.
The plan features two years of government-paid, pre-kindergarten education for the country’s youths and two years of free community college for young adults, all of it to be paid for with higher taxes on the country’s wealthiest people and corporations.
Massive spending for infrastructure, jobs creation and education is justified because “China and other countries are closing in fast,” said the president.
Such spending, if approved by Congress, would usher in a much bigger national government footprint in American life, way more than most Republican lawmakers would like but would not go as far as some progressive Democrats envision.
In remarks directed to the audience of millions at home, Biden said his American Jobs Plan is “a blue-collar blueprint to build America” with millions of “good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.”
Republicans contend his infrastructure and family spending plans are too costly and assail Biden’s plans to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest of Americans.
Delivering the opposition party’s televised rebuttal, the only Black Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott of South Carolina, said Biden had inherited from Trump “a tide that already turned” due to the previous administration’s operation to launch vaccine production and economic policies that were the most inclusive in decades.
“A president who promised to bring us together should not push agendas that tear us apart,” added Scott.
In a statement, one of Scott’s Republican colleagues in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas was more critical of Biden’s address, saying it outlined “his socialist vision for our country,” and that “I can summarize his speech in three words for you: boring, but radical.”
National surveys this week show Biden with an average approval rating of 53%, according to a polling aggregator, Real Clear Politics.
In his speech, Biden also touted his administration’s early success in getting Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus, with more than 200 million shots already administered even as the death toll has risen to a world-leading total of more than 573,000.
U.S. health officials eased mask-wearing suggestions this week, but millions of Americans are refusing, for various reasons, to get vaccinated, or skipping the second shot of a two-dose regimen.
“Go and get the vaccination,” Biden implored in his Wednesday evening address.
In addition to discussing his plans for domestic spending, Biden discussed his goal of engaging with other nations and taking a leadership role on the world stage, a contrast from Trump who often touted his “America First” stance and withdrew from international pacts that he viewed as poorly crafted or too costly for the United States.
Mentioning the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, the president said: “We’re going to be working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries, through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence.”
He added that American leadership “means ending the forever war in Afghanistan.”
It remains to be seen if Biden and congressional Democrats “are willing to engage in real negotiation that would result in changes to many of the proposals highlighted in his speech,” Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet said in a statement to VOA.
“Key Administration proposals to modernize infrastructure, provide paid leave, and strengthen childcare have a history of strong bipartisan support, but it will not be possible to build upon this history if the administration pursues a legislative process that excludes Republicans.”