Biden Strikes Optimistic – and Expensive – Notes in Populist Pitch for His Economic and Social Agenda

President calls on Congress to support his plans for economic equity, gun safety, policing, education, energy, rural broadband, biotech, clean energy, immigration, and paid leave - all of which come with local impacts.

Biden elbow bumps Pelosi after speaking to joint session of Congress
President Joe Biden elbow bumps Speaker Nancy Pelosi following speech to a joint session of Congress while Vice President Kamala Harris looks on and applauds.
Pool photo, April 28, 2021
In his first address to Congress, President Joe Biden laid out his case for $4 trillion in additional spending over the next decade on infrastructure and support for families, children and students. He suggested the nation had largely risen above the challenges of the pandemic year.

Less than two months after taking office, the president signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. Now, less than two months later, he wants to spend double that amount.

In his first address to Congress Wednesday night, Biden outlined his plan to spend $1.8 billion on childcare, universal pre-kindergarten and two years of free college, along with other social service programs. This new package comes on the heels of his recent $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal.

“These are among the highest value investments we can make as a nation,” Biden said.

Biden’s new American Family Plan would eventually mandate 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and extend increased child tax credits that were part of the stimulus package, while also increasing food assistance and health insurance subsidies.

“Mr. President, you are speaking my love language: investment in preschool, community colleges, paid family and medical leave, and childcare,” tweeted Irma Esparza Diggs, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities. “This is investment in America’s working families.”

Congressional Republicans met Biden’s ideas with stony silence. They are concerned both about the price tag – coming after the federal government has spent some $6 trillion in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – as well as the tax hikes Biden is calling for. Biden wants to increase taxes on corporations and the capital gains of wealthy investors, as well as beefing up the IRS to increase enforcement.

“TX has no corporate or income tax & low regulations, which leads to more jobs,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted during Biden’s speech. “Biden is proposing a $2T tax hike to fund his ‘infrastructure’ plan. Raising taxes kills jobs.”

Biden’s bet is that Americans are ready to embrace a more expansive federal government. He lambasted Republicans for their own lack of frugality, saying tax cuts enacted by the GOP in 2017 had added $2 trillion to the deficit.

Biden Takes Turnaround Credit

Biden spoke to a sparse crowd, with only about 200 people sitting in the House chamber, as opposed to the usual 1,600. That was due, of course, to COVID-19 safety protocols. A new president’s first speech to Congress is not deemed officially a State of the Union address.


Biden noted that Americans have received more than 200 million vaccinations against the coronavirus. He took credit for the stepped-up pace, noting that when he took office in January, only 1 percent of American seniors had been vaccinated, but now 70 percent are fully vaccinated.

He sought to suggest that he has been in general a fast-acting turnaround agent. He noted that the country has faced the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and the greatest threat to its democracy since the Civil War, in a reference to the Jan. 6 assault on Congress.

The reality is that the economy had already started to turn around long before Biden was elected.

“This should be a joyful springtime for our nation,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said, delivering the official GOP response and crediting the Trump administration with spurring vaccine development. “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned,” he said.

Biden claimed credit for 1.3 million jobs created thus far on his watch, while touting the help Americans are receiving in areas such as rental assistance and health coverage thanks to the March stimulus.

“America is rising anew,” he said. “After 100 days of rescue and renewal, American is ready for a take-off, in my view.”

Calling for Enormous Investments

Noting that the country is in competition for global leadership with China and other countries, Biden insisted that much more needs to be done.

Biden called for an increase in federal funding for research and development in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and green energy. He claimed his infrastructure package as a whole would be the largest job-creating bill since World War II, increasing spending over the next decade in areas such as roads, transit, water and broadband.

He noted that infrastructure bills have traditionally received bipartisan support and said he welcomes an exchange of ideas with congressional Republicans. “From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option,” Biden said.

Administration officials have been meeting quietly with Republican senators, who unveiled a $568 billion counter-proposal last week. When the stimulus passed in March, Democrats were able to ignore a more modest GOP offer, pushing their plan through on a party-line vote using budget reconciliation, a procedure immune to Senate filibuster.

Republicans are confident Biden won’t be able to go that route again so soon.

“If they could roll us on the whole thing, they would,” GOP Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi told Axios. “I don’t think they can.”

Hopeful About the Future

As is typical of such speeches, Biden touched on a wide range of topics, including relations with China and Russia; his decision to bring troops home from “the forever war” in Afghanistan; immigration; prescription drug costs; voting rights and gun control. Biden called on Congress not only to pass a bill to address policing, but to do so by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death next month.

Biden noted the historic nature of his address, which was the first time a president addressed Congress flanked by two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He closed by saying it has always been a losing proposition to bet against America and remains so today, despite the challenges over the past year.

“I can say with absolute confidence, I have never been more confident or more optimistic about America,” Biden said.
Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.