President Biden called for a broad reshaping of American society Wednesday night, using his first formal address to Congress to urge a vast expansion of safety net and educational programs while promising to harness the government to create jobs and opportunity for those often left behind.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Biden returned to Capitol Hill, where he served for more than three decades as a senator, seeking greater spending to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure by imposing new taxes on businesses and corporations. He urged lawmakers from both parties to embrace a sweeping new vision for public benefits, financed by higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
“America is moving. Moving forward. And we can’t stop now,” the president said. “We’re in a great inflection point in history. We have to do more than just build back. We have to build back better.”
If he succeeds, Mr. Biden could usher in a new era that fundamentally expands the size and role of the federal government, powered in part by the government’s efforts combating the health and economic crises caused by a pandemic that has killed more than 573,000 people and upended work, recreation and schooling across the country.
The president offered optimism, saying that “America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength.” He said Americans are beating back Covid-19 and urged everyone to get vaccinated.
Mr. Biden said progress against the virus must be followed by dramatic investments to help people who “feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing.” He said his spending proposals will generate millions of jobs, describing them as “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”
But the president faces a Congress — and a country — that remains deeply divided about how much to increase government spending and who should pay for it. Mr. Biden said the moment of crisis demands a sufficiently bold response from both sides of the aisle. But he will made clear that he is prepared to act without Republican support if necessary.
Mr. Biden said he welcomes ideas from Republicans, but added that “China and other countries are closing in fast” in a global competition with the United States. He said he told the president of China, Xi Jinping, that he would “defend American interests across the board,” and he urged lawmakers not to give in to gridlock.
“The rest of the world isn’t waiting for us,” Mr. Biden said. “I just want to be clear. From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option.”
Mr. Biden’s address took place against a backdrop that is both familiar and new. Like his predecessors, he delivered it in the House chamber, standing before lawmakers and in front of the House speaker and the vice president. But it was the first time in American history that the two officials behind the president are both women.
Because of the pandemic, Mr. Biden spoke to no more than 200 socially-distanced lawmakers and officials, a fraction of the packed audience that is typically on hand to witness the president’s use of the ultimate bully pulpit.
The president used his speech to lay out his broader foreign policy and domestic agenda, and described his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 as a way to make good on his promise to end America’s “forever wars” even as he warned that the United States still faces a range of other threats, including challenges from Russia, Iran and North Korea.
“I responded directly, proportionally to Russia’s interference in our elections, in the cyberattacks on our government, business,” Mr. Biden said. “They did both of these things. And I told them we would respond and we have.”
He renewed his call for Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that would provide a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented people and urge Congress to pass a federal policing overhaul named after George Floyd, who was killed last year by a police officer in Minneapolis. He repeated his call for Congress to pass new laws to tighten background checks on gun purchases and said global warming demanded that the United States take action to prevent climate change.
Even as Mr. Biden’s remarks drew regular applause from his Democratic colleagues, Representative Jamal Bowman of New York responded to Mr. Biden’s speech on behalf of Working Families Party, a progressive group, arguing that the president’s agenda was not broad or liberal enough.
“The proposals that President Biden has put forward over the last few weeks would represent important steps, but don’t go as big as we’d truly need in order to solve the crises of jobs, climate and care,” Mr. Bowman said. “We need to think bigger.”
But Mr. Biden closed his own speech with a plea to members of both parties, underscoring his hopes for a broad, expansive agenda: “We have to prove democracy still works,” Mr. Biden said. “That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people.”