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4 takeaways from Biden’s first address to Congress

President Biden pitched his plan to invest in American families and infrastructure in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 29. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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President Biden delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, an address coinciding with the end of his first 100 days in office.

Below are some takeaways from the speech.

1. ‘All of you’: A repeated, fanciful nod to bipartisanship

Listening to parts of Biden’s speech, you wouldn’t necessarily know Congress is stuck in gridlock. While no Republicans supported Biden’s coronavirus stimulus and the party is balking at the size of his infrastructure package — among many proposals — Biden spoke almost as if Congress had put up a united front.

Biden said that with “the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — we did act together. We passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history.”

He added of the coronavirus vaccine response: “Senior deaths from covid-19 are down 80 percent since January — down 80 percent, because of all of you.”

And: “We will have provided over 220 million covid shots in those [first] 100 days — thanks to all the help of all of you. We’re marshaling — with your help, everyone’s help — we’re marshaling every federal resource.”

It was an interesting rhetorical tactic. Beyond an appeal to Republicans to support various gun restrictions, Biden didn’t dwell much on his opposition. And even when making that appeal, Biden seemed to almost apologize for his tone, ad-libbing from his prepared remarks: “Look, I don’t want to become confrontational.” (Neither of Biden’s references to “all of you” appeared in his prepared remarks, either.)

Aspects of the coronavirus response have sometimes been more bipartisan, but that hasn’t been the case during Biden’s presidency. Biden almost seemed to be pretending it were, perhaps reaching out to Republicans by suggesting he would be more than happy to give them credit if they just played a little ball.

2. A conspicuous China focus

Here are the moments President Biden focused on foreign policy during his first address to Congress on April 28. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

This week, I wrote about how Biden’s early agenda is geared toward capitalizing on the partisan barriers that President Donald Trump bulldozed. Trump made Republicans more noninterventionist, more in favor of infrastructure spending and less doctrinaire on many issues. (The unifying principle of the GOP often seemed to be “Trump” rather than any specific ideology.)

Again on Wednesday, there were traces of Biden trying to build upon or recast Trumpism for his benefit. That was particularly the case on China, which he brought up repeatedly.

At one point, he said there was “simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”

Biden at two different points recounted conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, pitching China as a formidable foe that must be dealt with (albeit in ways different from Trump’s approach).

“He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said of Xi. “He and other autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies — it takes too long to get consensus. To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.

Biden added at another point: “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 we can’t.”

To oversimplify things a bit: You really want to get tough on and keep the upper hand on China? Forget trade wars; pass my bill.

3. Hey, big spender

For much of the 2020 presidential campaign, Republicans tried to paint Biden as a radical liberal — or at least an enabler of radical liberals.

It’s too simplistic to say Wednesday’s speech revealed that caricature to be true. Biden used it to propose massive spending — but generally focused more on bread-and-butter issues that have high levels of bipartisan support than the liberal true-believer ideas that conservatives have turned into boogeymen.

But the speech did demonstrate a president who seems less and less concerned about risking that kind of reputation.

While Congress is still considering Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill, Biden detailed a new $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would include significant expansions of government spending on education and the social safety net. Combined with the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan that already passed in Congress, that brings Biden’s proposed spending near $6 trillion.

On April 28, President Biden outlined the American Families Plan, which would fund additional public education and expand family leave, among other provisions. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

It remains to be seen how much the still-percolating ideas will be paid for rather than financed through deficit spending. Biden is calling for tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, for example, along with funding the IRS to more aggressively audit their tax returns, which he claims could bring in hundreds of billions. And he’s pitching these ideas as spurring huge growth, rather than simply giveaways. But what’s clear is that he’s proposing a huge expansion of government the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

For weeks, stories have described a president who is not content to play it safe in the office he long sought. He has to be especially emboldened by the strongly positive public reviews of the coronavirus stimulus and his early infrastructure proposal, despite the price tags. But even as Americans seem more comfortable with government spending these days — again, with Biden owing some credit to Trump — there’s always a limit.

The proposals also present a challenge for Republicans. The math isn’t really in Biden’s favor, given the 50-50 Senate and the required 60-vote majority for most things. A cynic might suggest he’s putting forward popular ideas that probably won’t pass and challenging Republicans to kill them.

But either way, Wednesday’s speech threw down the gauntlet for the next three years of legislative battles. And a big story line in the coming days, weeks and months will be just how much spending people are prepared to stomach, beyond the trillions used to combat a public health emergency.

4. Setting the terms of the tax debate

Biden devoted a significant chunk of his speech to defending his proposed tax increases, saying over and over again — in several different ways — that they wouldn’t touch anyone but the very wealthy.

Let’s start with what I will not do: I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000,” Biden said.

And: “We’re only going to affect three-tenths of 1 percent of all Americans by that action — three-tenths of 1 percent.”

And: “When you hear someone say they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent or corporate America, ask them whose taxes you want to raise instead.”

And of the 39.6 percent rate he’s proposing for top earners: “That’s where it was when George W. [Bush] was president.”

The repeated emphasis on this point was calculated. Biden knows he’ll be called a tax-raiser. He wanted to make sure he’s talking early and often about exactly who will pay those taxes — a promise that he’ll now have to live up to — and challenging Republicans to address that specifically, given polls showing Americans strongly favor those specific types of tax increases.