WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday night delivered his first speech to a joint session of Congress, aimed at making an impassioned plea for his sweeping plan to provide universal preschool, free community college and other benefits, while raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

While also intended to renew calls for an array of priorities – including immigration changes, gun control and police reform – Biden’s speech framed an uplifting message that sought to portray a country emerging from the depths of a global pandemic and still grappling with events that, in his view, tested American democracy as rarely before.

“I took the oath of office – lifted my hand off our family Bible – and inherited a nation in crisis,” he said. “The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”

“Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” he added. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength.”

Biden delivered the remarks with a historic backdrop, as two women – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Harris – sat within the camera’s frame for the first time during such an address. The two women greeted each other at the front of the chamber, grabbing hands and bumping elbows.

But in a historic marker of a different sort, only about 200 people were invited to a speech that is normally teeming with a crowd of 1,600, many of them eager to applaud and others to register disapproval. Members were spread out, with many in the gallery above the floor, nearly everyone wearing masks.

“While the setting tonight is familiar,” Biden said at the start of his speech, “this gathering is a little bit different.”

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. was the only one representing the Supreme Court. Just two members of Biden’s Cabinet – Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin – were in attendance, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represented the military. Jill Biden was in attendance but without the first lady’s box that typically includes guests to be mentioned by the president during the speech.

Biden walked through the House chamber’s wooden doors at 9:04 p.m., passing through the same entryway that had been battered by insurrectionists on Jan. 6 in an attempt to prevent his presidency. He gave a few elbow bumps as he made his way down the aisle.

The president delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress every year except his first, so this event did not technically have that label, but it amounted to a similar effort to cite his accomplishments and outline his plans.

Biden has been a frequent attendee of such addresses over the past half-century – and was a visible presence behind President Barack Obama for eight years – but this was his first time giving the prime-time address himself. It was a notable moment for a president who prides himself less on soaring oratory than on basic prose intended to resonate with average Americans.

The address also comes at a pivotal moment in his presidency, following three months of intense focus on the coronavirus and as Biden begins pitching ambitious new items on his agenda that are facing fierce resistance from Republicans.

It fell on the eve of his 100th day in office, a symbolic marker that many presidents have used to gauge early success and that Biden has highlighted more than most. He has used his first 100 days as a timetable for various efforts, from mask-wearing guidelines to vaccination goals to reopening schools.

Biden planned to follow up the speech with trips to Atlanta on Thursday and Philadelphia on Friday to continue hammering his message.

He has sought to use the coronavirus effort to begin restoring trust in government as it tells citizens to wear masks or get vaccinated or follow school reopening guidelines. In many of those areas, Biden declared victory Wednesday.

“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and can deliver for the people,” he planned to say, according to early excerpts. “In our first 100 days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver.”

Earlier in the day, the administration unveiled a $1.8 trillion proposal that would expand child care, provide universal preschool, cover two years of free community college and expand paid family and medical leave.

To help pay for the plan, taxes would increase for wealthy Americans, reversing part of President Donald Trump’s cuts and increasing the top income tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent.

The new plan comes on top of a separate, $2.3 trillion plan announced last month to rehabilitate the country’s physical infrastructure – bridges, roads, airports – while also improving the water system and expanding broadband access, particularly in rural areas. Some of the spending would be offset by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent.

Biden focused on that plan Wednesday as a way to rebuild the middle class, saying 90 percent of the jobs created would not require a college degree.

“The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America,” he said in his prepared remarks. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said: Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class.”

Biden’s plans face significant opposition in Congress, however, raising the stakes on his efforts to promote them through Wednesday’s address and the subsequent travel.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only Black Republican, was tapped to give the GOP response to Biden’s speech. In the hours leading up to the address, other Republicans tagged Biden’s agenda as out of the mainstream and criticized him for not doing more to work with their party.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a Senate floor speech that Biden and his administration were more interested in offering “catnip for their liberal base” than pursuing promised unity.

“Back in January, many Americans hoped they could take the incoming president at his word,” McConnell said. “The first 100 days have left much to be desired.”

In the opening days of Biden’s administration, he invited 10 Senate Republicans into the Oval Office to discuss his first legislative priority, a $1.9 trillion covid relief package. But when Republicans proposed an alternate approach, with about a third of the spending, Biden pressed forward with his own plan, which passed without any Republican votes.

Biden has sought to redefine bipartisanship as winning support from GOP voters, and in some cases local officials, rather than Republican lawmakers.

“We need a Republican Party. We need another party, whatever you call it, that’s unified – not completely splintered and fearful of one another,” Biden told television anchors in a luncheon at the White House before the speech.

 

“We talk about, you know, ‘Can you unite the parties?’ Well, I united the Democratic Party, and no one thought it could happen – and pretty damn quickly,” he added.

Biden has invited the top four congressional leaders – two Democrats, two Republicans – to meet at the White House on May 12.


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