Washington: President Joe Biden laid out an ambitious agenda Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners.
Invoking the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Biden unveiled a $1.8 trillion social spending plan to accompany previous proposals to build roads and bridges, expand other social programmes and combat climate change, representing a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,” Biden said in his first nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress.
Taken together, the collection of initiatives that Biden has introduced in his first 100 days in office suggest a breathtaking scope of change sought by a 78-year-old president who spent a lifetime as a more conventional lawmaker. After presenting himself during last year’s campaign as a “transition candidate” to follow the volatile tenure of Donald Trump, Biden has since his inauguration positioned himself as a transformational president.
But the succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarised along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government and the sort of redistribution of wealth long sought by progressives. Biden’s Democrats have only the barest of majorities in the House and Senate to push through the most sweeping of legislation and, successful or not, he may have framed the terms of the debate for the next election.
“Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” Sen. Tim Scott, said in his party’s televised official response. “It will come from you - the American people.”
For Biden, who watched such speeches as a senator or vice-president for nearly a half-century, it was the first time behind the microphone setting the agenda for what was the functional equivalent of a State of the Union address. “It’s good to be back,” he said as he greeted lawmakers.
Coming in the latter days of the coronavirus pandemic and less than four months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the event was unlike any other presidential speech as Biden faced a half-empty chamber.
On the advice of the Capitol physician, only 200 members of Congress and other officials were invited instead of the usual 1,600, all wearing masks in assigned seats at least 6 feet apart. The president, who fist-bumped his way down the aisle, arrived amid tighter security than usual, with streets around the building closed and patrolled by swarms of police officers and National Guard troops.
In a notable first, Biden became the first president to deliver an address to Congress with two women sitting behind him representing the next in the line of succession to his office, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After addressing Harris as “Madam Vice-President,” Biden said to applause, “No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time.”
The smaller audience produced a more intimate feeling in the chamber, and unlike previous presidents, who had to project their voices, Biden at times lowered his to a whisper, as he often does during speeches. He departed from his prepared text and ad-libbed more than most presidents do, and lingered around the chamber afterward to chat with lawmakers.
One thing that did not change were the party-line reactions as members of the president’s party jumped to their feet to cheer his ideas while the opposition remained sitting on their hands with a few notable exceptions.
Biden struck an optimistic note with the fading of the pandemic that has killed more than 573,000 people in this country, hailing the progress in vaccinating most American adults and the easing of public health restrictions that have so warped everyday life for more than a year.
‘America on the move again’
“Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” the president said. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength. We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never, ever, ever stay down.”
The gathering nonetheless came at a moment of racial turmoil after last week’s conviction of a former Minneapolis police officer in the murder of George Floyd and after a spate of subsequent shootings involving law enforcement agents around the country. And it came at a time of multiple mass shootings that have once again put gun laws into question.
Biden called for legislation to improve policing across the United States and to restrict access to high-powered firearms. He expressed hope that negotiations to rein in police abuses may reach bipartisan agreement and called on lawmakers to come to a deal by next month, one year after Floyd’s death, but no consensus across the aisle appears likely for meaningful gun legislation.
“The vast majority of those wearing the badge serve our communities honourably,” Biden said, drawing bipartisan applause. But he added, “We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system and enact police reform in George Floyd’s name.”
Biden also came to the defence of transgender people who have been targeted by some Republicans. “For all transgender Americans watching at home - especially young people who are so brave - I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said.
The president, who has struggled to respond to a surge of migrants at the southwestern border since taking office, highlighted his proposed overhaul of the immigration system and discussed his goals to stem climate change and urged legislation to expand voting rights.
The “American Families Plan,” as he called his latest, $1.8 trillion proposal, would follow the “American Rescue Plan,” a $1.9 trillion package of spending on pandemic relief and economic stimulus that he has already signed into law, and the “American Jobs Plan,” a $2.3 trillion program for infrastructure, home health care and other priorities that remains pending.
The families plan includes $1 trillion in new spending and $800 billion in tax credits. It would finance universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, a federal paid family and medical leave program, efforts to make child care more affordable, free community college for all, aid for students at colleges that historically serve nonwhite communities and expanded subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The plan would also extend key tax breaks included as temporary measures in the coronavirus relief package that benefit lower- and middle-income workers and families, including the child tax credit, the earned-income tax credit, and the child and dependent care tax credit.
To pay for that, the president proposed increasing the marginal income tax rate for the top 1% of American income earners to 39.6% from 37%. He also would increase capital gains and dividend tax rates for those earning more than $1 million a year. And he would eliminate a provision in the tax code that reduces capital gains on some inherited assets, like vacation homes, that largely benefits the wealthy.
Republicans did not wait for the speech to be delivered to focus on the sticker shock of Biden’s various plans, eager to unify in their opposition to a Democratic president’s liberal blueprint rather than continue to engage in their own fractious civil war over the role of Trump in their party.
Pressure to go further
Nor did Republicans give the president credit for progress in curbing the pandemic, pointing out that the vaccines were developed under Trump and that the economy was already on the rebound by the time Biden took office. “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” Scott said. “The coronavirus is on the run.”
But as aggressive as Biden’s programmes were, he faced pressure from the left to go further. Some liberals, for instance, were disappointed that he did not do more to expand health care and pulled out of the families plan a proposal to authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices amid industry opposition. In the speech, he promised to pursue such a policy and called for separate legislation to be passed by the end of the year.
In making his pitch for a more expansive government, Biden tied his plans to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, suggesting that the American system itself was being tested.
“Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us, created equal in the image of God, have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect and possibility?” he asked. “Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?”
The world’s autocrats, he said, were betting that it could not. “They look at the images of the mob that assaulted the Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy,” Biden said. “But they’re wrong. You know it. I know it. But we have to prove them wrong.”