“While the setting tonight is familiar, this gathering is just a little bit different,” opened US President Joe Biden in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Biden was, at once, referring to his long career in the Senate and the extraordinary circumstances — an economic crisis, a global pandemic and an attack on democracy — under which he became president.
“America is on the move again,” he declared, and spent his speech outlining that case. “We’re working again, dreaming again, discovering again, and leading the world again.”
Biden hailed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, crucially, a majority of Americans (not just Democrats) for the passage of the American Rescue Plan, the COVID relief bill. Biden’s administration aims to distribute 100 million vaccine doses; it has delivered over 200 million. Ninety per cent of Americans live within five miles of a vaccination centre and everyone 16 and over is now eligible (even Republican Senator Ted Cruz stood up to applaud). Senior deaths from COVID-19 are down 80 per cent, he said, saying it was “because of all of you”.
Biden played to his greatest strength — showing empathy — describing people lined up in cars trying to get food to eat “through no fault of their own,” and outlining the various ways in which the American Rescue Plan has ameliorated economic pain, with its $1,400 checks, money for small businesses, and child tax credits that will cut child poverty in half this year.
“America’s moving,” he said. “Moving forward. But we can’t stop now.” He made the case that the US needed to compete with China, and then pivoted to investing in the country’s infrastructure, a marriage of traditional Cold War foreign policy and a pitch for his relatively bold infrastructure plan. As Biden talked about the need to ensure everyone has clean drinking water, the television camera panned to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who remained sitting in his seat while Democrats stood up and applauded.
Biden’s case on climate change was similarly about benefitting America. The way to combat the climate crisis, Biden said, was to create jobs. “There is simply no reason why the wings for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburg instead of Beijing,” he said. Biden would tackle climate change, but he would do it for economic reasons and for American exceptionalism.
Similarly, while he is almost no resemblance to his predecessor, Donald Trump, in style or substance, Biden did speak at length about the need to create American jobs and to buy American products.
But he broke very much with Trump in speaking about who those jobs and products would be for. The middle class built America he said, and unions built the middle class. He called for Congress to protect the right to organise and to raise the minimum wage.
A major theme of the speech — perhaps surprisingly so, given how much Biden’s first 100 days was domestically focused — was that the US had to get its house in order to compete with China, and to show that democracy could prevail. It was a bit jarring, as a listener, to hear that China wanted to be the most significant nation in the world, and for that reason the US needs to pass the American Families Plan and invest in public education. Is competition with China really the driving force, more than making sure children can go to good schools? Is that what matters to members of Congress? To the Americans listening to this? To Biden?
Biden called on corporate America to pay its fair share (Senator Mitt Romney was caught on camera glowering) and vowed to crack down on millionaires and billionaires “who cheat on their taxes”. The 2017 tax cut, he noted, was meant to pay for itself, and instead added $2tn to the deficit (a neat little pre-emptive strike against Republicans who will certainly say they are concerned about the deficit in response to Biden’s spending). He slammed trickle-down economics; it was time, he said, to grow the economy from the bottom and middle. It was as though Bernie Sanders had, very briefly, taken over at the lectern.
“My fellow Americans,” Biden said. America must show that “we’re not just back,” but back to stay. Back for good. Americans, he said, can’t do it alone. The pandemic is a global fight; climate change is a global fight. All countries needed to play by the same rules.
One of the most awkward parts of the speech was on criminal justice reform, where Biden said America had to make change, address systematic discrimination, and enact police reform, but also stood up and applauded most police being good.
Less contentiously, Biden said that white supremacy was terrorism and wouldn’t be ignored, and thanked the Senate for voting overwhelmingly to pass the anti-Asian American hate crimes act (only one senator voted against it; it was Josh Hawley). He promised transgender Americans that their president had their back. He spoke about the Violence Against Woman Act. And he spoke at some length about the scourge that is gun violence in America. Addressing gun violence is also something the majority of Americans support, though few Republicans in Congress do. Still, Biden asked Republicans to work with Democrats to pass gun control, just as he asked for bipartisan support for immigration reform, or at least protection for DREAMers and immigrants here under Temporary Protected Status. He also vowed to address the root causes of migration abroad.
Biden ended with a call for the protection of voting rights and ended by harkening to the attack on the Capitol on 6 January. It was a test, he said, of whether our democracy could survive. It did, he said. But the fight for our democracy goes on. Could it survive? “America’s adversaries … are betting we can’t,” he said. But then, he added, “but they’re wrong”.
And this was the speech: Domestic policy would support the US against global adversaries; foreign policy would benefit Americans. The external forces could propel domestic unity; domestic unity would help America abroad. The country could restore what was good and make better what was bad. A traditional foreign policy, a domestic policy that might move us forward.