WASHINGTON — In his first big speech to Congress on Wednesday, President Joe Biden repeatedly spoke off the cuff and made a populist pitch to "forgotten" voters, urging lawmakers to pass his multitrillion-dollar economic agenda.
Biden sought to strike a balance between optimism and pragmatism, celebrating the progress in the battle against Covid-19, attributed to the widespread availability of vaccines and economic aid to struggling Americans, while emphasizing the magnitude of the task that lies ahead.
"America is on the move again," he said — but the nation has "more work to do" to beat the coronavirus, put people back to work and restore faith in democracy. "We're at a great inflection point in history."
Morph 'crisis into opportunity'
Biden highlighted the enormous crises he inherited, from the pandemic to economic upheaval to the Capitol siege, which he called the "worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War." He struck an upbeat tone.
"Now, after just 100 days, I can report to the nation: America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility. Crisis into opportunity. Setbacks into strength," he said. "We all know life can knock us down. But in America we never, ever, ever stay down."
Biden, who is implementing a sweeping $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief law, has called on Congress to build on it with a $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan and a $1.8 trillion expansion of the family safety net. He has proposed a series of tax increases on households making more than $400,000 to help finance the proposals.
None of it will be easy to pass as Republicans unify in opposition and Democrats hold razor-thin margins in both the House and the Senate.
Populist appeals to 'forgotten' voters
A theme of Biden's first 100 days has been to appeal to Republican voters, even if he can't win over their representatives in Congress. He kept that up in the speech by describing his plans as having been designed for Americans who feel "forgotten," a word former President Donald Trump often used to describe his voters.
"I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. So many of you, so many of the folks I grew up with, feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that's rapidly changing. It's frightening," Biden said, calling his plan "a blue-collar blueprint to build America." He said that 90 percent of the new jobs wouldn't require college degrees and that 75 percent wouldn't require associate's degrees.
And Biden used populist rhetoric targeted as much at Trump voters in conservative strongholds as at liberals in cities like New York or Portland: "Wall Street didn't build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class."
Similar approach as $1.9 trillion law
Biden continued to walk a fine line between encouraging bipartisan discussions about alternatives or changes to his American Jobs Plan and making it clear that he believes an aggressive approach is necessary.
"I applaud a group of Republican senators who just put forward their own proposal. So let's get to work," Biden said, referring to a $568 billion proposal that some have released. "I'd like to meet those who have ideas that are different,"
But he added: "The rest of the world is not waiting for us. ... Doing nothing is not an option."
Biden followed that by selling his American Families Plan, emphasizing its new spending on community college, child care and paid family and medical leave and its proposal to make the annual $3,000-to-$3,600 cash allowance per child for raising kids through 2025 permanent.
Two women, a historic first
It was the first time in American history that two women sat on the dais behind the president — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — representing the line of succession to the Oval Office. Both wore masks.
And it wasn't the only break from the past: Social distancing rules for the pandemic meant lawmakers had to ration invitations. Guests weren't allowed. A usually packed chamber was limited to about 200 attendees.
Biden goes off script, again and again
The president didn't appear to care much for sticking to his prepared remarks. He made some revisions and plenty of additions along the way.
When Biden made his case for raising taxes on upper earners and corporations to help pay for his proposals, he ad-libbed a message to left-wing figures in his own party who he suggested don't believe there should be billionaires.
"Sometimes I have arguments with my friends in the Democratic Party," he said. "I think you should be able to become a billionaire and a millionaire. But pay your fair share."
When he made his case that restrictions on military-like assault-style weapons wouldn't offend responsible firearms owners, Biden ad-libbed another familiar line not in his prepared remarks: "What, do you think deer are wearing Kevlar vests?"