In his first speech before a joint session of U.S. Congress Wednesday night, President Joe Biden urged the legislative branch to support his progressive agenda, unveiled his American Families Plan and warned of the threat posed by white supremacy.
Biden addressed the 117th Congress in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber one day before his 100th day in office. While Biden spent his speech attempting to portray his proposals as popular among Americans of all political persuasions, the president also made overtures to the progressive base of the Democratic Party.
He specifically expressed a desire to see federal lawmakers send the Equality Act to his desk, which he described as a bill “to protect LGBT Americans.”
Biden delivered a specific message to the transgender community, one of the intended beneficiaries of the legislation that would codify discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity into federal law.
“All transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people, who are so brave, I want you to know your president has your back,” the 78-year-old declared.
The Equality Act has already passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Championed by Democrats, the Equality Act has come under frequent criticism by conservatives, who have expressed concerns about its implications for religious liberty and women’s sports.
Throughout his speech, Biden discussed a wide variety of topics, including the coronavirus stimulus package, the progress in distributing the coronavirus vaccine, efforts to fight climate change and foreign policy. The president promoted the American Jobs Plan, his infrastructure plan, in addition to unveiling his American Families Plan.
American Families Plan
The plan seeks to expand access to education, reduce the cost of child care and support women in the workforce while providing upwards of $1.8 trillion “in investments and tax credits for American families and children over ten years,” according to the White House.
The plan will be financed by raising taxes on high earners.
Discussing the need to compete with other countries, specifically China, Biden stressed that the United States needs to “make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
According to Biden, the American Families Plan addresses “four of the biggest challenges facing American families and in turn America.”
Biden identified the lack of “access to a good education” as one of the biggest challenges facing American families.
Arguing that 12 years of free public education was no longer sufficient as the U.S. seeks to compete on the world stage, he explained that the American Families Plan “guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America.”
“The great universities in this country have conducted studies over the last 10 years that shows that adding two years of universal, high-quality preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old no matter what background they come from puts them in a position to be able to compete all the way through 12 years,” he said. “It increases exponentially their prospect of graduating and going on beyond graduation.”
“The research shows when a young child goes to school — not daycare — they’re far more likely to graduate from high school and go to college or something after high school,” he added. “When you add two years of free community college on top of that, you begin to change the dynamic.”
Additionally, Biden explained, the American Families Plan will “increase Pell Grants and invest in historically black college[s] and universities, tribal colleges [and] minority-serving institutions.”
“The American Families Plan will provide access to quality affordable child care,” he announced. It would “guarantee that low and middle-income families will pay no more than 7% of their income for high-quality care for children up to the age of five” while “the most hard-pressed working families won’t have to spend a dime.”
He said the plan would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave and family and medical leave. He lamented that the U.S. is “one of the few industrial countries in the world” without such a policy.
“No one should have to choose between a job and a paycheck for taking care of themselves and their loved ones or parent or spouse or child,” the president said.
The former senator from Delaware maintained that extending a $3,000 child care tax credit for children over the age of 6 and a $3,600 child care tax credit for children younger than 6 years old through 2025 “will help more than 65 million children and help cut child care poverty in half.”
The president vowed that to pay for his proposals, he would “not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000.”
Instead, the cost would fall on “corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans,” whom he argued needed to “pay their fair share.” He proposed increasing the top income tax rate to 39.6% and getting rid of “the loopholes that allow Americans to make more than $1 million a year and pay a lower tax rate on their capital gains than Americans who receive a paycheck.”
As he addressed foreign policy, Biden warned that “terrorism has metastasized” to the point where “the threat has evolved way beyond Afghanistan.” He vowed that “it’s time to bring our troops home.”
Racism and policing
While stating that Al Qaeda and ISIS are still in the Middle East and Africa, he cited the intelligence agencies’ analysis when characterizing “white supremacy” as “the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today.”
“We have to come together to heal the soul of this nation,” Biden stressed as he pivoted to discussing the death of George Floyd and race in America. “We’ve all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of black Americans. Now’s our opportunity to make some real progress.”
“The vast majority of men and women wearing a uniform and a badge serve our communities, and they serve them honorably,” he continued. “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 to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.”
While he praised Republicans for having “very productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate,” Biden reiterated the need to “work together to find a consensus,” urging Congress to pass criminal justice reform by May 25, the first anniversary of Floyd’s death.
Describing immigration as “essential to America,” the president asked Congress to support a “comprehensive immigration bill” that includes a pathway to citizenship for “11 million undocumented folks” as well as “high tech border security.”
He specifically highlighted “protection for Dreamers,” illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. He called for “permanent protection for immigrants who are here on temporary protective status” and a “pathway to citizenship for farmworkers who put food on our tables” as the most important immigration-related priorities that Congress must address.
In addition, Biden asked Congress to pass H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act.
Democrats, including Biden, have portrayed the bill as necessary to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box.” But conservatives allege that H.R. 1, which they characterize as a “federal takeover of the administration of elections,” will “make it easier to cheat and make it easier to manipulate election results” because it loosens voter ID requirements and signature verification requirements for mail-in ballots.
As his speech concluded, Biden declared, “I have never been more confident or optimistic about America” because “we’ve stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy, pandemic and pain and we the people did not flinch.”
While it is not customary for newly elected presidents to give State of the Union addresses, they have given speeches to joint sessions Congress soon after assuming office.
The audience in the Hosue chamber did not include most of the 535 members of Congress as is customary for State of the Union addresses or similar addresses given by presidents shortly after taking office.
To maintain social distancing as the U.S. continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, only a handful of members of Congress were physically present in the chamber.