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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden declared Wednesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress that "America is rising anew," and pointed optimistically to the nation's emergence from the pandemic as a vital moment to rebuild the economy and fundamentally transform roles the government plays in American life.
Biden marked his first 100 days in office as the nation pushes out of a menacing mix of crises, making his case before a pared-down gathering of mask-wearing legislators because of pandemic restrictions. Speaking in highly personal terms while demanding massive structural changes, the president urged a $1.8 trillion investment in children, families and education to help rebuild the economy and compete with rising global competitors.
He speech took place in a familiar but changed venue — the U.S. Capitol, but still surrounded by fencing after insurrectionists in January protesting his election stormed the doors of the House chamber where he spoke.
"America is ready for takeoff. We are working again. Dreaming again. Discovering again. Leading the world again. We have shown each other and the world: There is no quit in America," Biden said. "I can report to the nation: America is on the move again."
For the first time, a female vice president, Kamala Harris, was seated behind the chief executive. And she was next to another woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The first ovation came as Biden greeted, "Madam Vice President." He added, "No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it's about time."
The scene was familiar yet strange, with members of Congress spread out, a sole Supreme Court justice in attendance and many Republicans citing "scheduling conflicts" in staying away. There was no need for a designated survivor with many Cabinet members not there.
Biden laid out a sweeping proposal for universal preschool, two years of free community college, $225 billion for child care and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents. His ideas target frailties that were uncovered by the pandemic, and he argued that economic growth will best come from taxing the rich more to help others.
The speech provided an update on combating the COVID-19 crisis, with Biden showcasing hundreds of millions of vaccinations and relief checks delivered to help offset the devastation wrought by a virus that has killed more than 573,000 people in the United States — including over 5,900 of them in Iowa. He also championed his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, a staggering figure he has proposed to be financed by higher taxes on corporations.
Biden has embraced endorsing major action over incremental change. But he’ll have to thread a needle between Republicans who cry government overreach and some Democrats who fear he won't go big enough.
The Democratic president's strategy is to sidestep polarization and appeal directly to voters. His prime-time speech underscored a trio of central campaign promises: to manage the deadly pandemic, to turn down the tension in Washington in the aftermath of the insurrection and to restore faith in government as an effective force for good.
Unimpressed, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said in the Republicans' designated response that Biden was claiming too much credit. "This administration inherited a tide that had already turned," Scott said in excerpts released in advance. "The coronavirus is on the run."
Biden’s desire for swift action is born from political necessity. He understands that the time for passing his agenda could be perilously short, given that presidents' parties historically lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, less than two years away. The Democrats' margins already are razor-thin.
Biden also used his address to touch on the national reckoning over race in America, and to call on Congress to act on prescription drug pricing, gun control and modernizing the immigration system.
In his first three months in office, Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed without a single GOP vote and has shepherded direct payments of $1,400 per person to more than 160 million households. Hundreds of billions of dollars in aid soon will arrive for state and local governments, enough money that overall U.S. growth this year could eclipse 6 percent — a level not seen since 1984. Administration officials think that it will be enough to bring back all 8.4 million jobs lost to the pandemic by next year.
A significant amount proposed Wednesday would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden's COVID-19 aid. There would be over $400 billion for subsidized child care and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Another combined $425 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act, as well a national paid family and medical leave program. Further spending would be directed toward Pell Grants, historically Black and tribal institutions and to allow people to attend community college tuition-free for two years.
Biden wants to raise the top tax rate on the most affluent families from 37 to 39.6 percent to help pay for it. People earning in excess of $1 million a year would see their rate on capital gains — the profits from a sale of a stock or home — nearly double from 20 to 39.6 percent, which would mean the wealthiest Americans could no longer pay at a lower rate than many families who identify as middle class.