The president lays out jobs, education and social care plans and says “America’s on the move again”.
US President Joe Biden has laid out sweeping proposals for jobs, education and social care in his first speech to a joint session of Congress.
Delivered on the eve of his 100th day in office, the Democrat pitched plans involving some $4 trillion (£2.9tn) in spending – the largest overhaul of US benefits since the 1960s, analysts say.
He called it a “once in a generation investment in America itself”.
But the proposals face strong opposition from the Republican party.
Republican Senator Tim Scott called Biden’s agenda a “liberal wish list of big government waste” while senior Republican official Ronna McDaniel said Mr Biden’s first 100 days had been an “unqualified failure”.
Despite slim Democratic control of both houses, the plans face a battle in Congress before they can become law.
In a historic moment, US Vice-President Kamala Harris – the first woman to hold that office – and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi both sat behind Mr Biden during Wednesday night’s primetime address. It is the first time two women have appeared behind the president during a speech to Congress.
After addressing Ms Harris in his opening remarks as Madam Vice-President, Mr Biden added, “No president has ever said those words from this podium. And it’s about time.”
The event was far smaller than for past presidents, due to restrictions imposed to fight the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
National Guard troops remain in force around the Capitol after pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the building in January.
He said that on taking power in January he had inherited “a nation in crisis”.
“The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” he said.
“Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again.”
Mr Biden touted the success of the vaccine rollout – calling on all Americans who had not already had a dose to “go get vaccinated” – and the growing economy.
But he stressed there was far more to do. With strong approval ratings and slender Democratic control of both houses, Mr Biden presented his proposals – the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan – which the White House has said will be funded by tax raises on US corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and can deliver for the people,” he said.
Speaking directly to those who “feel left behind and forgotten” in a changing economy, he described the American Jobs Plan as “a blue-collar blueprint to build America”. It will invest in public transport, high-speed broadband, and roads and bridges.
He also stressed that the plan would be guided by the fight against climate change.
“When I think climate change I think jobs,” he said. “There’s no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries.”
Mr Biden then spoke about the American Families Plan, which aims to provide free pre-school for children aged three to four, paid family and medical leave, and free community college. It would also extend until 2025 a child tax credit that was expanded during the pandemic, which Democrats reportedly hope to keep as a permanent government programme. The president said the tax credit would “help more than 65 million children and help cut child poverty in half this year”.
He then turned to social issues – including gun violence, immigration, and racial inequality.
“We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of black Americans,” he said, in reference to the murder of George Floyd, which sparked global protests against police brutality and racism. “Now is the opportunity to make some real progress.”
And he framed these proposals and changes in discussing foreign policy, saying the US was “in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century”, and calling for politicians from both parties to back his plans and “heal the soul of this nation”.
“We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy – of pandemic and pain – and ‘We the People’ did not flinch,” the president said.
“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America. And it still isn’t.”
Joe Biden’s speech to Congress started as a victory lap and ended with a warning.
He began by touting what has been by all accounts a very successful rollout of vaccinations in the US, paving the way for a return to some semblance of normalcy in the months ahead. He boasted of hundreds of thousands of new jobs created in his first 100 days and a growing economy. He touted recently passed funding that will help cut child poverty in the US in half.
That was all a set-up, however, for the president’s pitch for more – more spending and more action from Congress. He proposed a trillion-dollar package of universal pre-kindergarten, two years of free college education, family leave and childcare funding. He called for legislation on gun control, immigration, criminal justice reform and voting rights.
He concluded, however, by turning to the 6 January attack on the US Capitol and the threat posed to democracy by the world’s autocratic nations.
He assured the nation that the US will prevail. His ending, however, seemed designed to create a sense of urgency – one that, perhaps, he can harness to achieve the ambitious agenda he set out on Wednesday night.
Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel released a statement immediately after President Biden’s speech. She said his first 100 days in office were “an unqualified failure”, accusing him and his party of “hyper-partisanship”.
“In his inaugural address, Biden called for unity. That was a lie, and our nation is worse off and more divided thanks to Joe Biden,” it read.
Then Senator Tim Scott – a possible contender for the White House in 2024 and the only black Republican senator – followed Mr Biden’s speech with the traditional rebuttal from the opposition party.
He said Mr Biden’s proposals would “lower wages of the average American worker” and dismissed it as a “liberal wish list of big government waste”.
Mr Scott then brought up racism in America, accusing Democrats of wanting “the issue more than they want the solution”.
“America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination and it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”