President Joe Biden urged Congress on Wednesday to pass trillions in spending on infrastructure and social services, saying that the country faces an urgent test for democracy.
Biden invoked the insurrection that shook the Capitol on Jan. 6 at the outset of his speech, calling it “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” He also said that assault posed an “existential crisis — a test of whether our democracy could survive.”
He said the country passed that test, but that Congress now needs to show that the government can take action.
“We have to prove democracy still works,” Biden said. “That our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.”
Biden also said that he remains optimistic, and that touted the successes of his first 100 days in office. He noted that 220 million vaccine doses have been delivered, and highlighted the $1,400 relief checks that came with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
He urged Congress not to stop there, pitching his plans for infrastructure and spending on child care and education. He invoked global competition, saying that America is in a race against autocracies — citing China specifically — to win the 21st century.
“Autocrats will not win the future,” Biden said. “We will. America will. The future belongs to America.”
He also urged Congress to pay for his programs by raising tax rates of the wealthy, though he said those making less than $400,000 a year would not be affected. He said he would beef up the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to crack down on tax evasion, and called former President Trump’s 2017 tax reform a “huge windfall for corporate America.”
Biden spoke for a little over an hour to a joint session of Congress, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris behind him, marking the first time two women have sat behind the president during a Congressional address. He noted at the outset that he was the first president to greet “Madam Vice President” at a joint session, saying “it’s about time.”
He spoke to a smaller audience than the typical address, as COVID limitations continue to be enforced on Capitol Hill. Only about 200 members of Congress and other officials were allowed to attend. Biden wore a face mask on his way into the House chamber, and traded fist bumps with senators and members of Congress.
Biden cited each of the four crises that have been his theme since the campaign: the pandemic, the economy, climate, and racial justice. He noted the recent murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, and asked Congress to pass police reform legislation named after Floyd. He also took on other hot-button issues, asking for action on guns, immigration and voting rights.
The speech was also sprinkled benchmarks of progress, including 1.3 million jobs that have been gained in the last three months.
“America is on the move again,” he said.