President Joe Biden declared the U.S. has turned the corner on a pandemic that’s killed more than half a million Americans and crippled the economy, promising tax increases on the wealthy to pay for ambitious plans to spend trillions on infrastructure, education and other Democratic priorities.

“America is on the move again,” Biden said in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. “Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setback into strength.”

But he warned corporations and wealthy Americans that he expects them to carry more of the burden of financing the nation’s advancements.

“It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay their fair share,” he said, promising to “reward work, not wealth” by raising taxes for the richest 1% and ordering an Internal Revenue Service “crackdown on millionaires and billionaires who cheat on their taxes.”

He would restore the top personal income tax rate to 39.6% for people earning more than $400,000 a year, tax capital gains at the same rate for people earning $1 million or more, and end a capital gains tax break on inheritances as well as the “carried interest” tax break utilized by fund managers.

“What I’ve proposed is fair. It’s fiscally responsible,” he said, promising programs financed in part by the tax increases would “create millions of jobs and grow the economy.”

American Families Plan

Biden’s 65-minute speech laid out a broad vision for the country’s recovery from the pandemic, centered around a vastly expanded role for the federal government. His aides say he regards the nation’s emergence from a year of lockdowns, death and economic collapse as a unique opportunity to persuade voters that the country is more united — and poised for massive taxpayer investments.

In the speech, the president unveiled his American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion package of tax credits and domestic priorities including child care, paid family leave, and tuition-free community college that would be funded in part by the largest tax increases on wealthy Americans in decades.

He also touted his previously proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill, casting it as a jobs-maker especially for people without college degrees — Americans who largely supported his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

“Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan don’t require a college degree,” he said. “Seventy-5% do not require an associate’s degree.”

The plan, he said, is “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.”

U.S. Vice president Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look on as U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
U.S. Vice president Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look on as U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

“Good guys and women on Wall Street but Wall Street didn’t build this country,” he said. “The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.”

The two proposals follow the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus that Biden called “one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history.” Biden’s address also celebrated a coronavirus vaccine rollout that’s delivered more than 315 million shots and a stimulus program that provided more than 160 million checks to taxpayers.

“Our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen,” he said.

U.S. equity futures extended their gains as Biden spoke, building on an advance propelled by strong tech earnings. The Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index extended its post-Fed decline, dropping 0.1% as of 10:10 p.m. in New York. Treasury 10-year futures were little changed.

Trump rebuttal

On foreign policy, Biden vowed to stand against Russia and China where he sees America’s interests at risk — such as in the South China Sea — but he also reiterated his willingness to work with rival nations on areas such as climate change.

“In my discussion with President Xi, I told him that we welcome the competition — and that we are not looking for conflict,” Biden said of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “But I made absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board.”

Biden looked to frame both his accomplishments and aspirations as an implicit rebuttal of the disarray that defined the federal government during the Trump administration, eroding confidence in the nation’s ability to meet big challenges.

“We’re vaccinating the nation,” he said. “We’re creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. We’re delivering real results people can see and feel in their own lives.”

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, left, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, right, following a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, left, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, right, following a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

He sought to build popular support for police reform, gun control and immigration proposals that have languished on Capitol Hill. He told lawmakers to pass his immigration overhaul in answer to a surge of migrants at the southern border his critics have called a crisis.

“If you actually want to solve the problem — I have sent you a bill, now pass it,” he said.

And he depicted the revitalized U.S. fight against climate change as a jobs plan, saying scores of Americans could go to work “building more efficient buildings and homes,” installing charging stations for electric cars, planting cover crops in fields to absorb carbon dioxide and manufacturing blades for wind turbines.

“There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” he said.

Scott response

Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, delivered the GOP response to Biden’s speech. Scott credited Trump for progress against the pandemic, saying: “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned.”

He also hit Biden for the slow pace of U.S. school reopenings — a potential political vulnerability for Democrats, as teachers’ unions allied with their party have been blamed by many parents and Republican lawmakers for keeping children in remote learning.

“Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future,” Scott said. “Our public schools should have reopened months ago.”

Biden strode to the House rostrum having attended more joint session addresses than any previous president: eight times as vice president and dozens more as a senator. But Wednesday’s was unlike any in the nation’s past. Two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — sat over his shoulder as he addressed the American people.

Biden portrayed the gathering as a symbol of renewal after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in which Trump supporters nearly breached the House chamber where he spoke. “The worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” he said.

Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, center, arrives to deliver the GOP response to President Biden's address to Congress on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG
Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, center, arrives to deliver the GOP response to President Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday. | BLOOMBERG

Elements of the address emphasized how far the nation still has to go in battling the coronavirus pandemic. Pelosi limited the number of attendees for the event to around 200 people on the advice of medical experts, less than a fifth of the normal attendance.

Members of Congress weren’t allowed to invite guests, and the first lady’s box — where presidents traditionally position a group of Americans who help illustrate the need for policies outlined in the speech — was occupied only by Jill Biden and Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff.

The first lady held a “virtual reception” Wednesday afternoon with a guest list that hinted at elements of the president’s speech: a child migrant who became a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic, gun control and transgender rights activists, the director of a child care center for at-risk kids, and an information technology worker focused on bringing broadband access to rural Native American communities.

Chief Justice John Roberts was the only representative of the Supreme Court, while just two cabinet officials — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — attended.

White House officials credited the pandemic for the timing of Biden’s address, which the president had initially pledged to hold during his first month in office. Instead, aides on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue struggled to sort the logistics of the traditionally standing-room-only event as conditions rapidly shifted with lawmakers receiving vaccines. In addition, Biden’s stimulus legislation took longer than expected to pass both chambers of Congress.

The delay in some ways proved fortuitous, allowing the president to highlight accomplishments that enjoy broad support among voters. Nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of Biden’s coronavirus relief package, 64% support his handling of the pandemic, and 58% back his plan to raise corporate tax rates to pay for infrastructure investments, according to an ABC News poll released Monday.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

“The timing gives him an opportunity to take a victory lap not for victory’s sake, but to prove the concept that government can work right for the people,” said Liz Allen, a former Biden aide.

After the address, Biden will follow in the path of his predecessors by taking his message directly to voters, with trips to key swing states to amplify his proposals. The president, Harris, their spouses and cabinet members plan to visit approximately a dozen states. That includes Biden’s trip Thursday to Atlanta, where he’s expected to hold a car rally to celebrate his 100th day in office.

The following day, he’ll visit Philadelphia to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Amtrak — expected to receive a sizable funding increase under his infrastructure plan — at the city’s 30th Street Station. Georgia and Pennsylvania marked key electoral victories for Biden in November after they had voted for Trump in 2016.

Reactions from lawmakers and lobbyists to President Biden’s speech

As reported by Reuters

“Don’t buy Biden’s gaslighting about bringing people together. He established a court-packing commission, is open to ridding the filibuster, and killed good-paying energy jobs.

“His actions are those of a partisan activist, not a president for all Americans.”

— Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee Chair

“A pretty remarkable speech if you’re pro-human.”

— Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat

“President Biden is using his presidency to implement the most radical socialist agenda in American history. He plans to ‘Build Back Better’ by growing the government, raising taxes on American families and investments, destroying jobs, and saddling future generations with a massive debt — an agenda that will inevitably crush economic opportunity.”

— Kevin McCarthy, House Republican Leader

“Tonight, the president delivered a hopeful report on the great progress we’ve made during his first 100 days in office, and charted an equally hopeful path for a lasting, fair economic recovery after the pandemic.”

— Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat

“While I share President Biden’s urgency in fixing our broken immigration system, what I didn’t hear tonight was a plan to address the immediate crisis at the border, and I will continue holding this administration accountable to deliver the resources and staffing necessary for a humane, orderly process as we work to… fix our immigration system.”

— Senator Mark Kelly, a swing state Democrat

“President Biden laid out a bold, ambitious agenda during his speech tonight — including committing to sign into law legislation that would protect our freedom to vote and root out corruption in our politics.

“But if we have any hope of getting it done, we need to first end the filibuster. We cannot let a minority of senators representing an even smaller minority of the population stand in the way of protecting our democracy.”

— Sean Eldridge, founder and president, Stand up America, a progressive advocacy group

“We appreciate the President calling on Congress to send to his desk key legislation, including the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the Equality Act, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”

— Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

“Tonight, President Biden pledged to ‘do everything in my power to protect the American people from this epidemic of gun violence.’ Over the coming weeks and months we will hold the President accountable to this pledge.”

— Igor Volsky, founder and executive director of Guns Down America

“During tonight’s address to Congress and throughout his first 100 days in office, President Biden has demonstrated a commitment to strengthening America’s semiconductor supply chains through robust investment in domestic chip manufacturing, design, and research.

“Now is the time for leaders in Washington to shoulder in by enacting legislation that funds these important provisions.”

— John Neuffer, president & chief executive, Semiconductor Industry Association

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