President Joe Biden on Wednesday declared that the nation is “on the move again” in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, arguing that the United States has under his watch made strides in curbing the spread of the coronavirus and putting Americans back to work.
Speaking on the eve of his 100th day in office, Biden touched on a wide range of issues in addition to the pandemic, urging Republicans to work with Democrats to address gun violence, climate change, police reform and more.
But his hour-long speech drew instant criticism from Republican members of Congress, underscoring the deep divisions between both parties. Here are key takeaways from the address.
Progress on the pandemic
Biden spent most of his speech focused on his administration’s response to a pandemic that has killed more than 570,000 Americans.
Some 220 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across the country since he took office, Biden said, surpassing his initial promise of 100 million shots in 100 days. Now 90 percent of Americans live within a few miles of a vaccination site, and the vaccine is available to everyone over the age of 16. The president used the prime-time address to make a public service announcement for the vaccine, while also cautioning that the pandemic isn’t over.
“Go and get the vaccination. They’re available,” Biden said, adding, “There’s still more work to do to beat this virus. We can’t let our guard down.”
Reminders of the pandemic were everywhere inside the House chamber where Biden delivered his remarks. Roughly 200 people attended the speech in person, far less than is normal for presidential addresses to joint sessions of Congress. Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wore masks the entire time as they sat behind Biden.
A historic first
For the first time in U.S. history, two women — Pelosi and Harris — stood behind the president as he delivered his address to a joint session of Congress. It was a landmark moment that the president himself addressed at the beginning of his speech: “Madame speaker. Madame vice president. No president has ever said those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”
‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’
More than 20 million Americans lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and millions remain out of work. Biden called it the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” but argued that his policies have already begun to help in the recovery.
The relief package that Congress passed earlier this year sent $1,400 paychecks to 85 percent of Americans, Biden said, and the economy has added 1.3 million jobs in his first three months in office, setting a new record.
“America is moving, moving forward. But we can’t stop now,” Biden said as he called on Congress to pass the American Jobs Plan, a sweeping, $2.3 trillion bill centered on infrastructure development, saying it would create millions of new jobs over the next decade and help the U.S. compete with China and other countries. He also asked Congress to act on climate change, saying there is “no reason” America should not become the world leader in renewable energy production.
The president also proposed reversing the Republicans’ 2017 tax overhaul, which lowered taxes for corporations and the wealthiest Americans. In one of the more memorable lines of the night, Biden claimed that “trickle-down economics has never worked,” drawing an icy reception from Republican lawmakers in the chamber.
Few signs of bipartisanship
The president drew bipartisan applause for a few of his proposals, such as a plan to “end cancer as we know it.” (It helped that he called it the most bipartisan issue he knew of.) But by and large, the Republicans listening in the chamber did not appear enthusiastic about Biden’s agenda.
With their silence, Republicans signaled opposition on nearly every issue, including Biden’s call for Congress to address gun violence and take on police reform. There were also few visible signs of agreement from Republicans on foreign policy, a topic Biden spent just four minutes discussing in the roughly 65-minute speech.
Biden attempted at times to strike a bipartisan tone. He never mentioned his predecessor by name, though he blasted some of his policies, such as the tax overhaul. Biden noted that he disagreed with some of his Democratic colleagues on economic policy, a reminder to Republicans — and voters watching at home — that he is less progressive than some of the primary opponents he beat last year.
When he addressed immigration, Biden asked Congress to pass the comprehensive reform plan he introduced shortly after taking office. But in an acknowledgment that there is little Republicans and Democrats can agree on, he added, “if you don’t like my plan, let’s at least pass” parts of the legislation.
‘Washington schemes’ and ‘socialist dreams’
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. delivered the Republican Party’s official response, a role traditionally reserved for a rising star in the party out of power.
Scott blasted Biden, who he said “inherited” a successful COVID-19 vaccine program that was started by the Trump administration. He also blamed Biden for not reopening schools sooner, saying regular classes should have resumed months ago, and said Republicans were not interested in a bloated, costly infrastructure plan that amounted to a “liberal wishlist of government waste.”
The South Carolina senator, who is one of a small handful of Black Republicans in Congress, also presented an alternative narrative on policing reform and the protests over racial injustice that have swept the nation in the past year. Scott pointed to his own family history and experiences overcoming discrimination as proof that America remains a country of equal opportunities for all.
“America is not a racist country,” he said.
Scott also previewed the Republicans’ message in next year’s midterm election. “A president who promised to bring us together should not be pushing agendas that tear us apart,” Scott said. He added, “our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams.”