President Joe Biden struck an optimistic tone in his first speech before a joint session of Congress, coming after a long pandemic year that has been marked by isolation, loss, and for far too many Americans, death.
“After just 100 days — I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said during his speech. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
Biden’s address was not delivered over Zoom; a number of lawmakers, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and guests sat spaced out in the cavernous US House chamber to hear him speak. But the room was far from full, and attendees fist-bumped rather than shaking hands, signals that the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over.
The coronavirus is still surging around the world, notably in India, but things in the United States are improving; more than half of all adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, cases and deaths are on the decline, and most economic forecasts predict booming growth.
Biden spent a good portion of his speech talking about what he already accomplished, including signing a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package into law. He also previewed the next major phase of his presidency, introducing a two-pronged economic package: the $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan, which invests in building roads and schools, green energy jobs, and supplementing long-term care; and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which creates a paid family and sick leave program, and dedicates billions to affordable child care, universal pre-kindergarten, and two years of free community college. Biden also addressed economic competition with China and told the US Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by next month.
But the biggest emphasis of Biden’s speech by far was job creation.
“Some of you at home wonder whether these jobs are for you. You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing,” Biden said. “The Americans Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. 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 is presenting himself as a historically ambitious president. But many questions remain about whether his plans can pass Congress, and though Biden was technically addressing lawmakers, the president made sure to take his case to the American people directly. Biden’s administration has been using public opinion — rather than congressional Republican sentiment — as its guiding principle so far.
Biden must decide whether he will prioritize bipartisan compromise or use obscure Senate procedural rules to pass his economic agenda with just Democratic votes.
Here are the winners and losers from Biden’s first major speech since taking office.
Winner: Joe Biden
Biden dreamed of becoming president since grade school and ran for president three times, finally assuming the role at age 78. He took the helm at a particularly fraught time in the United States. Or, as he characterized it on Wednesday, he “inherited a nation in crisis.”
“The worst pandemic in a century,” Biden said. “The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War. Life can knock us down. But in America, we never stay down. In America, we always get up.”
Throughout his speech, Biden seemed particularly suited for the current moment. He spoke with deep empathy about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost to the Covid-19 crisis and the millions of workers who lost their jobs during the resulting economic recession. As a president who took office right after a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, fomented in part by his predecessor President Donald Trump, Biden spoke sternly about the need for a deeply polarized nation to come together.
“The insurrection was an existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive,” Biden said. “Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate, and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries — the autocrats of the world — are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.”
For someone who styled himself as a centrist for much of his career, Biden is clearly showing he wants to think bigger. Biden made the case for massive federal investment into America’s middle and working classes. He repeated the word “jobs” over 40 times throughout his speech, promising high-paying and unionized work in a new, clean-energy economy.
Biden’s proposals — and his plans to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for them — are broadly popular with the public. But much as Biden believes he needs to win over public opinion to pass his policies, he also needs to win over Congress. As long as Democrats stay unified, Biden can still pass big pieces of his economic agenda without Republican votes using a procedure called budget reconciliation, but he and Democrats can’t pass anything related to immigration, policing reform, or universal background checks without Republican support. And that more than likely means none of these items will happen.
“I don’t want to become confrontational, but we need more Senate Republicans to join with the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues, and close loopholes and require background checks to purchase a gun,” Biden said at one point, ad-libbing the “confrontational” part.
A president known for his years of bipartisan dealmaking in the US Senate may find himself confronting congressional Republicans soon enough. —Ella Nilsen
Loser: The Washington consensus on trade
Trump’s victory on an anti-China, protectionist platform upset the longstanding pattern of bipartisan support for free trade. But during the Trump presidency, the public was surprisingly open to international commerce. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 79 percent — the largest number in 25 years — thought that trade was more of an opportunity for the American economy than a threat. Under these conditions, it would seem reasonable that the Biden administration might steer policy back toward the pre-Trump consensus.
But during his speech Wednesday, Biden went out of his way to emphasize that his economic policy will focus on America first — the kind of nationalist rhetoric that would have been perfectly at home in the last administration.
“The investments in the American Jobs Plan will be guided by one principle: Buy American,” the president said. “American tax dollars are going to be used to buy American products, made in America, to create American jobs.”
The only section that explicitly discusses trade agreements focused not on the importance of economic globalization, but the damage China’s approach to commerce is doing to American citizens (a rhetorical emphasis consistent with Biden’s policy):
America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and American industries, like subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technologies and intellectual property.
This is not the language of an administration looking to return to a broadly pro-globalization agenda. It’s language that reflects a post-Trump bipartisan consensus that calls for a tougher stance on trade liberalization — something both sides used to agree was an unalloyed good.
This approach to trade underscored how much of Biden’s approach exists in reaction to Trump’s political victory. Trump won by emphasizing protectionism and the interests of whites without college degrees. Biden is going to push a “blue-collar blueprint” that creates well-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees.
One can debate whether this is the right read of Trump’s rise; the evidence that economic distress was a key reason for his popularity among non-college whites is fairly weak. But there’s no doubt that this aspect of Trumpism has profoundly affected the way both parties approach politics and policy — especially when it comes to trade. —Zack Beauchamp
Winner: Children and families
Biden’s speech on Wednesday night was an opportunity to showcase to the American people what he’s already achieved in his first 100 days. But it was also a time for him to sell his latest proposal: the American Families Plan, which he formally introduced on Wednesday.
The plan puts children, parents, and caregivers front and center, with multibillion-dollar investments to make child care affordable for low- and middle-income families, create a new national program for paid family and medical leave, and incentivize universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. It would also extend the child tax credit, a move experts say would cut child poverty in America in half.
In his speech Wednesday, Biden emphasized how transformational his plan would be. “My American Families Plan guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America, starting as early as we can,” he said, citing research showing that going to preschool enhances a child’s chances of graduating from high school.
“When you add two years of free community college on top of that, you begin to change the dynamic,” he said. “We can do that.”
Biden also addressed the crisis of care that has forced many Americans — the majority of them women — out of the labor force in the last year. “Two million women have dropped out of the workforce during this pandemic,” he said. “And too often, because they couldn’t get the care they needed to care for their child or care for an elderly parent who needs help.”
The relief in the American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, will help some of those women by providing child care assistance as well as support to help care providers reopen. But advocates have long said more is needed to truly make child care affordable and accessible over the long term — and that’s what Biden hopes to do with the American Families Plan.
There were some odd moments in the speech, such as when Biden characterized the plan as necessary to compete with China, rather than simply to make life better for Americans, especially those with the fewest resources. But overall, it echoed Biden’s longtime strategy of treating family policy as inseparable from infrastructure and economic policy — and, in this case, perhaps even foreign policy — rather than treating it as a side issue.
It’s unclear whether that strategy will work to get the plan through Congress. But one thing is for certain: Children and families, and policies that would materially change their lives, were at the forefront on Wednesday night. —Anna North
Winner: The filibuster
When President Biden turned to his legislative agenda, he spent a good deal of time discussing his infrastructure plan and his new American Families Plan — and appropriately so, because those are the bills that Democrats can theoretically pass with their votes alone, through the special budget reconciliation process.
Yet in the second half of the speech, Biden rattled off a list of bills that he said he wanted Congress to pass: the PRO Act to strengthen union protections, a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, the Paycheck Fairness Act, a comprehensive immigration bill, strengthening gun background checks, voting reform bills, and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The problem is what wasn’t mentioned, and what will likely prevent most if not all of those bills from passing — the Senate filibuster.
The filibuster isn’t the only obstacle to that list of priorities. Some, like the For the People Act, the PRO Act, and the $15-an-hour minimum wage increase, don’t yet have 50 Democratic Senate supporters. However, if not for the filibuster, advocates could at least hope to convince or pressure the remaining Democratic holdouts in the coming months. With the filibuster in place, 10 Republicans would be required to jump on board. Perhaps bipartisan agreement is possible on one or two of these priorities, but likely not on most of them.
Biden has a plan to pass the reconciliation-eligible parts of his agenda (though we don’t yet know whether that plan will be successful). He has no plan to pass any of the other items because the only realistic way to do so would be by changing Senate rules. It’s not Biden’s fault that Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have vowed to keep the filibuster. But the reality is that as long as it sticks around, Democrats are sharply limited on what they’ll be able to pass through Congress. —Andrew Prokop
Winner: Progressive tech optimism
In Democratic politics in recent years, tech has been out of vogue. Most notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren shot to popularity pledging to break up Big Tech, a call Sen. Bernie Sanders also endorsed. Their stance reflected a growing distance between Democratic lawmakers and technological innovation as a tool for progressive outcomes.
New York Times columnist Ezra Klein noted this growing divide on a podcast last month: “Within the progressive movement I think there’s an understandable and quite deep skepticism of technology. ... But I think that to solve some of the big problems, you want to have a forward-looking theory of what technology can do, a forward-looking theory of how the government can direct funding and energy in that direction.”
Long before the 2020 presidential primary, America’s public investment in research and development had dwindled to record lows overall. The Wall Street Journal reports that while “funding for basic research has been relatively stable” as a share of GDP, government funding for the development of new technologies has dropped significantly.
In his speech Wednesday, Biden embraced a vision of what you might call “progressive tech optimism” — the idea that government investment in tech is the path forward to solving Democratic priorities like the climate crisis and developing treatments for illnesses like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer: “We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: Advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips, clean energy.”
That doesn’t mean that Big Tech should expect reconciliation. Public investment in R&D can go hand in hand with increased regulation of the private sector. According to economist Noah Smith, “the ‘tech’ industry as we know it only accounts for a third” of private R&D spending. But Biden’s speech was still a remarkable shift in tone from the Democratic Party which has largely abandoned tech optimism as a central tenet.
With the success of Operation Warp Speed in helping the private sector produce Covid-19 vaccines quickly, tech may again be back in Democrats’ good graces. —Jerusalem Demsas
In just 100 days of the Biden presidency, more than 800,000 people have signed up for health insurance through the 2010 health care law, as Biden touted on Wednesday. (His health department opened a special enrollment period during the pandemic after the Trump administration had refused to do the same.)
Obamacare is already a winner under the Biden administration, and Biden wants to do more in the American Families Plan he laid out in his speech.
The American Rescue Plan authorized a two-year expansion of the law’s tax subsidies for health insurance premiums. The law had previously cut off that assistance for people at 400 percent of the federal poverty line ($87,800 for a family of three) and higher, leaving an estimated 4 million people for whom insurance was unaffordable either uninsured or relying on short-term limited coverage. Those people are eligible for subsidies now, and the law also expanded subsidies for people already eligible for them. About 7 million uninsured people qualify for free coverage,
Biden said he wants to make that expansion permanent, as part of his American Families Plan, which Democrats may have to pass through party-line budget reconciliation this year.
“In addition to my Families Plan, I will work with Congress to address this year other critical priorities for America’s families,” Biden said. “The Affordable Care Act has been a lifeline for millions of Americans, protecting people with preexisting conditions, protecting women’s health.”
“And the pandemic has demonstrated how badly it is needed. Let’s lower deductibles for working families on the Affordable Care Act, and let’s lower prescription drug costs.” —Dylan Scott
Loser: Wall Street
“Good guys and women on Wall Street, but Wall Street didn’t build this country,” Biden said. “The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class.”
Biden ticked off many of his ideas that, if enacted, would almost certainly harm corporate America’s and shareholders’ bottom lines. Among other items, he’s proposed increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent, raising the top individual tax rate, closing a capital gains loophole, and increasing the capital gains tax rate. His administration is also seeking to clamp down on companies skirting taxes internationally through tax havens such as Switzerland and Bermuda and pushing for funding for the IRS to be able to go after tax cheaters.
“We’re going to reform corporate taxes so they pay their fair share and help pay for the public investments their businesses will benefit from,” Biden said. We’re going to reward work, not just wealth.”
He was careful to say that he isn’t anti-billionaire, but he wants rich people to pay their fair share. “I’m not looking to punish anybody,” he said. He also mentioned skyrocketing CEO pay and noted that 650 billionaires in the US saw their net worth increase by more than $1 trillion during the pandemic — a stark contrast to the millions of Americans who found themselves without work.
Thus far, the investment class isn’t freaking out over Biden’s presidency. When Wall Street was reminded of his proposal to increase the capital gains tax rate last week, stocks declined slightly, but it wasn’t anywhere near a meltdown.
Indexes have traded at record highs throughout Biden’s young presidency, and the market is pretty jazzed about the post-pandemic economic growth many believe is on the horizon, brought about in part by many of Democrats’ economic and health policies. It’s not clear what, if anything, will shake Wall Street’s exuberance or how seriously investors are taking some of Biden’s proposals. But Wednesday was a reminder that CEOs should maybe be sleeping with one eye open. —Emily Stewart
Loser: Defund the police
There have been a lot of examples of police misconduct and violence in the past few weeks. Police shot and killed Daunte Wright miles from where Derek Chauvin was on trial for the murder of George Floyd, and officers shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. in North Carolina.
This violence has led to new protests demanding change, but Biden’s position on policing has not changed. He reiterated the stance he took during his campaign, arguing that the problem with policing both is and is not systemic; that while it is a case of bad apples, there is also broad racism that must be dealt with.
“Most men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably,” Biden said, adding that Americans must also “root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”
Rhetorically, there was something for many in that position, but in policy, Biden offered little for the 63 percent of likely voters (according to a Vox/Data for Progress poll) who want to see more sweeping change.
Those voters said they’d like to see police budgets partially reallocated to “create a new agency of first-responders, like emergency medical services or firefighters to deal with issues related to addiction or mental illness” — they’d like to defund the police.
Biden, instead, advocated for more moderate changes, pressing the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House in March. The bill offers a range of reforms, including expanding access to body cameras, increasing racial bias training, ending qualified immunity, and demilitarizing police forces.
And even this more moderate bill has little chance of passing the Senate — it needs either the support of at least 10 Republican senators or for Democrats to unite around the idea of eliminating the filibuster, which would allow legislation to pass via a simple majority. This is something Biden didn’t mention in his speech — and he didn’t bring up the filibuster, a major barrier to many of his priorities, at all.
As Vox’s Li Zhou has reported, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) — the Senate’s only Black Republican — is working with Democrats on finding a compromise to make the Justice in Policing Act more palatable to Republicans. But it’s not clear this effort will succeed.
“Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said.
Critics of the bill point to epidemics of police violence in cities like Minneapolis, where many of the legislation’s proposals (including universal body camera usage and stringent racial bias training) have already been enacted, as evidence it does not go far enough. And indeed, Minneapolis is now under federal investigation for potential unconstitutional and illegal policing.
Biden clearly indicated Wednesday that he does not agree. It was unlikely to hear Biden call for defunding; many moderate Democrats argued progressive support for the slogan hurt the party in congressional races in 2020, and the phrase itself remains unpopular in polling. For now at least, it would seem that while Biden wants to go big in certain areas, he’ll continue to take a more moderate approach to policing. —Sean Collins