WASHINGTON — In his first major address to Congress as U.S. president, Joe Biden urged Republicans and Democrats April 28 to work together as the country emerges from a pandemic but still faces threats from countries such as China.
“We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget the competition with the rest of the world,” said Biden, who seemed to be addressing not just the nation, but also the democracies of the world.
The speech lasted just over an hour. He highlighted the progress the U.S. has made against the coronavirus, with more than half the country having received at least one vaccine against COVID-19. He also said an economic crisis was averted with a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package, for which he gave credit to Republicans as well as Democrats even though no GOP members voted for it.
He also referenced the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, saying the U.S. had not only survived a health threat and an economic threat, but also “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
“But the struggle is far from over. The question of whether our democracy will long endure is both ancient and urgent,” he said.
“Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God — have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart? America’s adversaries — the autocrats of the world — are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage.”
He spoke to a sparsely packed chamber, where divisions seemed as deep as ever: Democrats enthusiastically applauded him and Republicans seemed unaffected by his words, even when he referenced the danger that politicians of all stripes had faced inside the very room where they were gathered.
“The images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol — desecrating our democracy — remain vivid in our minds. Lives were put at risk. Many of your lives,” he said.
Restrictions because of COVID-19 safety protocols and security measures limited the number of participants at the address that was clearly aimed at pitching to Republicans and blue-collar workers the American Jobs Plan. With his pitch for the $2 trillion project for infrastructure, Biden seemed to be reaching out to Trump voters who feel “forgotten.”
“I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing. Let me speak directly to you,” he said, explaining that in his “blue-collar blueprint to build America,” 90% of the jobs do not require a college degree. “These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.”
He also touted his American Families Plan, which he said would provide quality, affordable child care and a tax credit for each child in the family. And with two of the most powerful women in the country behind him, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he called for lawmakers to support the Paycheck Fairness Act “to ensure greater equity and opportunity for women.”
Republicans called it a “socialist” plan, and many of their arguments were grievances against the president and his party, saying they had failed to unite the country.
“Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams. It will come from you, the American people,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who delivered the Republican rebuttal.
“Black, Hispanic, white and Asian. Republican and Democrat. Brave police officers and Black neighborhoods. We are not adversaries. We are family. We are all in this together,” he said.
Scott, who is Black, said the Biden administration and the Democrats had pulled the country further apart, and even as he had been a victim of intolerance by being labeled an “Uncle Tom” as well as “the N-word by progressives, by liberals,” he said, “America is not a racist country.”
“It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present,” he said.
Attacks also came from a variety of Catholic groups, prior to Biden’s speech marking his first 100 days in office. Criticism focused abortion, his handling of immigration and not addressing the death penalty publicly since taking office.
But others seemed to agree with the vision he laid out during the speech.
“Terrific and inspiring agenda … breathtaking! A CST (Catholic Social Teaching) agenda,” tweeted Stephen Schneck, a retired professor from The Catholic University of America in Washington who is the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, an organization that advocates for Catholic social justice values.
“Wow! Love @potus’s audacity!!” he added.
Polls taken after the speech also showed the majority of Americans liked what Biden had to say and stayed largely focused on the economic message. A CBS News poll showed that 85% said they approved of the message, while 74% said they would personally benefit from it.
Even before the speech, Biden enjoyed an approval rating of more than 50% across polls, with much of the country agreeing with the administration’s handling of the coronavirus response as well as further economic stimulus to keep the country moving as the U.S. moves toward a full reopening.
Those like Scott, however, said that while Biden “seems like a good man,” and “his speech was full of good words,” found the president’s plan to be “a liberal wish list of big-government waste, plus the biggest job-killing tax hikes in a generation.”
Scott held Biden and his party responsible for not opening schools and churches faster, “weakening our southern border,” using taxpayer money to fund abortions and using race as a political weapon.
Seeming to understand he has a big fight ahead, not just in Congress but in setting a global tone, Biden said the United States could prove wrong those wishing the downfall of democracies across the globe by working together across party lines for the good of all.
“We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people,” he said.
“We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch. At the very moment our adversaries were certain we would pull apart and fail, we came together. United.”