High on emotion, light on policy: 5 takeaways from Biden’s first address to Congress

President Joe Biden delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday evening, striking a hopeful yet stoic tone as he spoke to an American people still under siege by the health and economic implications of the COVID-19 crisis but, for the first time in over a year, seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. 

As the President stood in front Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first time two women have sat behind the lectern, he faced a half empty hall of legislators adorned in masks, a reminder that this was an unusual speech delivered during unprecedented times. 

The speech, which clocked in at just over an hour, had a unifying tone. The President mentioned that he was working and listening to Republicans on numerous occasions. But it was also largely big picture: Biden glossed over policy detail and, instead, focused on broad convictions and his own personal experiences.

Here are five large takeaways from the President’s first address. 

A blue-collar framework 

Biden used his speech to justify his plan to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans. “I’m not looking to punish anyone,” he said, “What I’ve proposed is fair. It’s fiscally responsible.”

The President implored Congress to increase taxes on top earners to help pay for his sweeping $1.8 trillion American Families Plan which would subsidize child care, guarantee paid family leave, and make community college free. He would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year, he said. 

He also addressed the Republican belief that tax cuts for the rich would eventually help middle class and low-income Americans. “My fellow Americans: Trickle-down economics has never worked, and it’s time to build the economy from the bottom and middle out,” Biden said. 

The President took the time to emphasize his support for unions. He asked Congress to pass the PRO Act, which would make it easier for American workers to organize and unionize, and stated his support for a $15 federal minimum wage. 

Focus on George Floyd 

Biden urged Congress to pass police reform legislation and to work to protect minorities, referencing George Floyd, who was murdered last year by police officer Derek Chauvin, a man who had a history of using excessive force. 

“Let’s get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. The country supports this reform. Congress should act,” the President said of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. While the President has spoken on behalf of the bill previously, this was the first time he gave Congress a concrete deadline. The President also spoke of his support for the Violence Against Women Act and legislation to protect AAPI and LGBTQ Americans. 

Finally, he made his words clear on the recent increase in violence targeting minority Americans: “White supremacy is terrorism.” 

Troops out of Afghanistan

Biden defended his decision to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The Pentagon has pushed to keep troops in the country, and Republicans strongly oppose Biden’s plan. 

“This is a reckless and dangerous decision,” said Senator James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Arbitrary deadlines would likely put our troops in danger, jeopardize all the progress we’ve made, and lead to civil war in Afghanistan—and create a breeding ground for international terrorists.”

The more than 2,500 American troops still in Afghanistan are expected to begin leaving the country before May 1. 

“American leadership means ending America’s forever war in Afghanistan,” said the President. “We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We delivered justice to Osama Bin Laden, and we degraded the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. After 20 years of American valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring our troops home.” 

Tough on China—but without a plan

Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Biden, is an “autocrat” who does not believe that democracy can survive in the 21st century. “He’s deadly earnest about becoming the most significant and consequential nation in the world,” he warned.

Still, his tough words have not been backed by policy. The President has yet to lay out his full plan for China and has so far kept President Donald Trump’s tariffs against Beijing in place. 

Gun safety 

A cluster of mass shootings in recent months have once again brought the epidemic of gun violence plaguing the United States into the national spotlight.

Biden urged Congress to reinstate a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines—measures he helped pass as a senator in 1994—and to pass measures to expand background checks for gun buyers. 

“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,” he said.   

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