WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden proposed a wide expansion of national government assistance for American children and families on Wednesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress.
Biden said Democrats and Republicans cannot be so busy competing against each other at home that they forget about competing with the rest of the world.
“To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families, in our children,” he said.
The $1.8 trillion proposal features two years of government-paid, pre-kindergarten education for the country’s children and two years of free community college for young adults. It also calls for $225 billion in child-care assistance for U.S. families and monthly payments of at least $250 to parents, a heretofore unknown U.S. social safety net.
Biden is proposing to pay for the programs with tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
“I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000,” he said. “It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to just begin to pay their fair share.”
Biden said the plan is both “fair” and “fiscally responsible.”
“These are among the highest value investments we can make as a nation,” he added.
Whether Biden’s spending plans have any chance of enactment is an open question in Washington.
Biden, a Democrat who took office January 20, won approval for a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package without the support of a single vote from opposition Republican lawmakers, relying totally on the narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Republicans are attacking his infrastructure and family spending plans as too costly and assailing Biden’s plans to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest of Americans. Under Biden’s prescription, those who earn more than $400,000 annually would have to pay higher federal income taxes and those earning more than $1 million annually would pay much higher taxes on their profits when they sell stock investments.
The Senate Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Tuesday that Biden's three-plus-month presidency "can best be described as the Biden bait and switch."
"President Biden ran as a moderate, but I'm hard pressed to think of anything at all that he's done so far that would indicate some degree of moderation," McConnell said.
The president’s nationally televised speech was witnessed in person by about 200 socially distanced, mask-wearing lawmakers and key U.S. officials in the House of Representatives chamber. Normally, the crowd for such an address would be 1,600 but it is being sharply limited Wednesday night by the ongoing threat of the coronavirus. Biden entered the House chamber giving fist bumps to lawmakers instead of the more traditional handshake line on his way to the dais.
"Tonight, I come to talk about crisis and opportunity. About rebuilding our nation, revitalizing our democracy, and winning the future for America,” Biden said.
He cited challenges at the start of his administration, including the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic crisis, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol shortly before his January inauguration.
"Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again,” Biden said.
He highlighted progress in coronavirus vaccinations, but urged people to continue doing what is necessary to beat back the virus that has killed more than 574,000 people in the United States and infected 32 million.
“There’s still more work to do to beat this virus,” he said. “We can’t let our guard down.”
Biden urged people to get vaccinated, noting those age 16 and older are now eligible.
“But tonight, I can say because of you — the American people – our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen,” he said.
Biden highlighted the coronavirus pandemic as he discussed the need to collaborate with other nations on challenges facing the entire world. He said no one nation can deal with terrorism, nuclear proliferation, mass migration, cybersecurity or climate change.
While promising every American who wants a vaccination can get one, Biden said the United States will become “an arsenal of vaccines for other countries.”
After four years of foreign policy under former President Donald Trump that prioritized U.S. interests, Biden said the United States would lead with its allies.
Biden said in his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping that while he welcomes economic competition between the world’s two largest economies, “we are not looking for conflict.” Biden said the United States would oppose trade practices that undercut American workers and companies, and that it also will not retreat from a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Weeks after imposing sanctions against Russia for election interference and cyber attacks, Biden said he made clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States does not seek escalation, but that Russia’s actions have consequences. He also stressed that the two countries can cooperate on mutual interests such as combating climate change.
Regarding the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, Biden said his administration will be “working closely with our allies to address the threats posed by both of these countries through diplomacy as well as stern deterrence.”
And after announcing the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan by September 11, Biden said the country must remain vigilant against the threats it faces, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group abroad, and white supremacist terrorism at home.
National surveys this week show Biden with an average approval rating of 53%, according to a polling aggregator, Real Clear Politics.
Biden delivered his address Wednesday from the same dais in the House chamber that insurrectionists overtook on January 6 as Trump supporters stormed past law enforcement officers into the U.S. Capitol, in an effort to block Biden’s official certification as the winner of last November’s election over Trump.
The attack on the Capitol that left five people dead. More than 400 people were arrested on various charges.
The Capitol is now heavily guarded and still surrounded by black fencing, although some National Guard troops who were guarding the perimeter have returned home.