WASHINGTON — The last time a sitting president addressed both chambers of Congress, few Americans had heard of the coronavirus. The unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. The intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis, had not yet become the epicenter of a racial awakening that would shake the world.
The date was Feb. 4, 2020, and President Trump was delivering the final address of what he hoped would be the first of his two terms as president. The “great American comeback” he’d promised when running for president had been achieved, Trump claimed. “The American adventure has only just begun,” he later said.
The last 14 months have been an adventure, to say the least. But for all that has changed since then, President Biden opened his own speech to both chambers of Congress with a refrain strikingly similar to Trump’s. “America is on the move again,” he said, an echo of the dynamism Trump had invoked. It was Biden’s first applause line of the night, only the applause was not as fulsome as it usually tends to be on such occasions, with the president’s party rising in unison at every appointed moment.
The coronavirus pandemic meant that only about a fifth of the House chamber’s seats were filled, with only about 200 people in the audience. The familiar theatrics of a presidential address to Congress — Rep. Joe Wilson’s cry of “You lie” to President Obama in 2009, the female legislators who dressed in suffragette white in 2019 as a rebuke to President Trump — were almost entirely absent, save for the occasional sidelong glance from Sen. Ted Cruz. Heavy security that has been in place ever since the Jan. 6 riot by pro-Trump insurrectionists only added to the evening’s subdued mood.
Crowd size was never Biden’s concern during the presidential contest, and he did not seem to mind the House chamber’s especially airy feel on Wednesday night. And though many seats did remain empty, those who sat in the two seats customarily reserved for the House speaker and the vice president was historically significant. For the first time, both were filled by women, Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris. Pelosi made news during Trump’s address in 2020 by theatrically ripping apart a paper copy of the blustery speech he gave as soon as it was done. This time there was only clapping — one old-school Democrat cheering on another.
After that, Biden cheered on the nation. “We all know life can knock us down,” Biden said, “but in America, we never, ever, ever stay down. Americans always get up.” Trump, too, had wanted to be a cheerleader for the nation, but his brand of salesmanship turned out to be an awkward fit for a nation in dire crisis.
The tumult of the last year — lockdowns, protests, a riot in Washington, lines to vote in Atlanta — has presented Biden with an opportunity to enshrine a domestic agenda unlike any proposed by a president in nearly a century. The hallmark of Wednesday’s speech was a $1.8 trillion raft of social programs known as the American Families Plan. It includes money for community college, paid sick leave and child care.
Biden cast his proposals as common-sense fixes that were far more practical than they were ideological: “Good jobs and good schools. Affordable housing. Clean air and clean water,” he said at one point in describing his domestic agenda. “Being able to generate wealth and pass it down through generations.”
He described last year’s killing of George Floyd by a police officer at a now infamous Minneapolis location as evidence of “systemic racism that plagues American life.” For the most part, though, he shied away from divisive issues of racial justice, making the kind of class-based appeals that have been a feature of his long career as a U.S. senator. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out,” he said.
The new $1.8 trillion proposal, called the American Families Plan, comes close on the heels of the far-from-realized American Jobs Plan, which carries a $2.3 trillion price tag. The Biden administration has deemed both to be necessary components of an infrastructure package, even if many aspects of those proposals — billions of dollars allotted for child care, home health aides and paid sick leave — do not meet the commonly accepted definition of infrastructure.
Whereas Trump had championed the private sector, Biden argued that “only government can make” the kinds of investments he envisioned. That was a break with his immediate Republican predecessor and a generation of Democrats who have shied away from articulating a muscular vision of the federal government. The last year, the Biden administration clearly believes, has made Americans more amenable to an assertive Washington than they have been for decades.
If there was any point on which Biden hewed close to Trump, it was in treating China as the nation’s primary opponent. “China and other countries are closing in fast,” he said in describing how in the U.S., federal support of scientific research and development had dropped.
Still, the sticker shock for Biden’s vision is valid, especially when the two unrealized infrastructure proposals are combined with the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that Congress ratified in February. The combined cost of all three bills — the already passed American Rescue Plan and the two infrastructure proposals, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan — is $6 trillion, or nearly twice the gross domestic product of Germany.
Biden intends to pay for these proposals by increasing taxes on corporations and individuals making more than $400,000 per year. “We’re going to reward work, not wealth,” he said. But with at least one key Democrat in the Senate coming out against a higher corporate tax rate, the entire edifice could be in peril.
If nothing else, Wednesday’s address signaled Biden’s willingness to stake his entire legacy as president on the two infrastructure proposals. If previous Democratic predecessors feared being labeled profligate liberals, Biden has cast himself as bound not by political ideology but national imperative. He argued on Wednesday, as he has previously, that it was incumbent on his administration to “prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.”
The entire address was an obvious rebuke of Trump, whose primary legislative accomplishment was cutting taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. More intriguing, and perhaps more telling, was Biden’s lack of reference to his former boss, Barack Obama. Obama’s own grand ambitions became mired in efforts at bipartisan outreach, as well as in jockeying between progressives and centrists over how big to go, and how fast. Biden made it clear on Wednesday night that he does not share those concerns.
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