Written by Peter Baker
President Joe Biden laid out an ambitious agenda Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners.
The $1.8 trillion plan he unveiled his first address to a joint session of Congress along with previous proposals to build roads and bridges, expand other social programs and combat climate change represent a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and can deliver for the people,” Biden planned to say in his nationally televised speech, according to excerpts released by the White House earlier in the day.
Taken together, the collection of initiatives that Biden has introduced in his first 100 days in office suggest a breathtaking scope of change sought by a 78-year-old president who spent a lifetime as a more conventional lawmaker. After presenting himself during last year’s campaign as a “transition candidate” to follow the volatile tenure of Donald Trump, Biden has since his inauguration positioned himself as a transformational president.
But the succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government and the sort of redistribution of wealth long sought by progressives. Biden’s Democrats have only the barest of majorities in the House and Senate to push through the most sweeping of legislation and, successful or not, he may have framed the terms of the debate for the next election.
“Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., planned to say in his party’s televised official response, according to advance excerpts. “It will come from you — the American people.”
For Biden, who watched such speeches as a senator or vice president for nearly a half-century, it was the first time behind the microphone setting the agenda for what was the functional equivalent of a State of the Union address. But coming in the latter days of the coronavirus pandemic and less than four months after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the event was unlike any other presidential speech as Biden faced a half-empty chamber.
On the advice of the Capitol physician, only 200 members of Congress and other officials were invited instead of the usual 1,600, all wearing masks in assigned seats at least 6 feet apart. The president, who fist-bumped his way down the aisle, arrived amid tighter security than usual, with streets around the building closed and patrolled by swarms of police officers and National Guard troops.
In a notable first, Biden became the first president to deliver an address to Congress with two women sitting behind him representing the next in the line of succession to his office, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After addressing her as “Madam Vice President,” Biden said to applause, “No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time.”