Joe Biden argued that “America is on the move again” and is turning “peril into possibility” in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, where he unveiled a sweeping $1.8tn package for families and education and pitched a “blue-collar blueprint” to re-build America.
Flanked by two women – Vice-President Kamala Harris and House speaker Nancy Pelosi – for the first time in US history, the president gave his speech on the eve of his 100th day in office as the country continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s been “100 days since I took the oath of office – lifted my hand off our family Bible – and inherited a nation in crisis”, Biden said.
“The worst pandemic in a century. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The worst attack on our democracy since the civil war,” he added, referring to the January 6 assault on the Capitol, when rioters stormed the House chamber where he delivered Wednesday’s speech.
“Now – after just 100 days – I can report to the nation: America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”
Due to social distancing measures, only 200 people attended rather than the usual 1,600. The supreme court’s chief justice, John Roberts, was be the only member of the high court present.
The address centered on selling the administration’s ambitious economic policies, but wove them together with foreign policy and efforts to combat the climate crisis, as well as a wide range of domestic policies from healthcare to police reform, paid family leave to child benefits, gun control to border security.
The undertone was optimistic and hopeful as Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and argued his administration would create jobs and modernize the country.
The $1.8tn American Families Plan includes free tuition for community college for every American, paid medical and family leave for American workers and expanded affordable childcare, which has the potential to transform the role government plays in American life. The plan also includes billions of dollars aimed at reducing child poverty. The funding method for thereforms is $1.5tn in tax increases meant to make the wealthiest Americans pay more.
The plan is the second part of the Biden administration’s ambitious and broad set of domestic reforms spanning infrastructure, education, and childcare. The first part, dubbed the the American Jobs Plan, is focused on improving the nation’s infrastructure and boosting the country’s economy.
“The American Jobs Plan is a blue collar blueprint for America,” Biden said. “And it recognizes something I’ve always said. Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions build the middle class.”
“Think about it, there is simply no reason that the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh rather than Beijing,” Biden said. “There’s no reason why the American people can’t lead the world in production of electric vehicles and batteries. The American Jobs Plan is going to create millions of jobs, jobs that you can raise a family on.”
The president hit themes he has focused on throughout his decades in public office. Biden, who has long styled himself as an ally of working class Americans, urged Congress to pass the Pro Act to strengthen protections for unions and said lawmakers should pass legislation to raise the minimum wage.
Biden also emphasized issues of racial justice, calling on Congress to pass a policing reform bill before the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next month.
“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress,” he said, adding that he believed the “vast majority of men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably”.
Biden’s proposals are meant to fulfill some of his biggest campaign promises, though they omit other policy pitches the president made on the trail.
Related: White House announces sweeping $1.8tn plan for childcare and universal preschool
They are also effectively the final installment of major policy proposals the Biden administration can hope to comfortably pass through Congress before lawmakers turn more attention to the 2022 midterm elections and their re-election prospects, which will further stall Congress.
Biden and his team have made a point of saying they want to work with Republicans to craft legislation. Biden reiterated that on Wednesday, but cautioned that outreach would only last to a point.
“From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option,” Biden said.
Some lines in Biden’s speech won standing applause from both Republicans and Democrats. The Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas could be seen clapping when Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated. But when Biden laid out why and how he wanted to pay for his proposals – by closing tax loopholes for the rich and raising other taxes for Americans – the Republican senator Mitt Romney of Utah stayed in his seat silently.
“It raises the revenue to pay for the plans I’ve proposed that will create millions of jobs and grow the economy and enhance our financial standing in the country,” Biden said.
He then knocked the tax cut Republicans passed when Donald Trump was in office.
“Instead of using the tax savings to raise wages and invest in research and development, it poured billions of dollars into the pockets of CEOs,” Biden said.“My fellow Americans, trickle down economics has never worked and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”
Biden’s address comes as the US continues to vaccinate an average of 2.7 million people daily. The speech will observe social distancing measures.
Biden also announced ways he wanted to improve the Affordable Care Act -commonly called Obamacare – through working with Congress.
“The Affordable Care Act has been a lifeline for millions of Americans –protecting people with pre-existing conditions, protecting women’s health. And the pandemic has demonstrated how badly it is needed,” Biden said. “Let’s lower deductibles for working families on the Affordable Care Act, and let’s lower prescription drug costs.”
On foreign policy, Biden said he had made clear to Vladimir Putin that the United States would respond to any acts of aggression. On Beijing, he warned Americans were “in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century”.
At another point Biden touched on domestic threats, saying: “The most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland today is from white supremacist terrorism.”