WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night (April 28) was strong on symbolism. For the first time in US history, a US leader was flanked by two women, one of whom is a woman of colour – Vice President Kamala Harris – and the other was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
It also reflected the times. Except for the President, who took his off when he was speaking, everyone wore a mask. The audience, normally in excess of 1,000, including invited guests, was limited to 200.
But there were predictably different takeaways from the President’s clarion call to unite and retool America to deal with the times – the pandemic, climate change, great power competition.
His speech was inspirational and compassionate for the Democrats; for Republicans, though, it was divisive.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican Senator, in his rebuttal hit on key sore points for conservatives, denying the existence of racism in America, decrying support for abortion, and denouncing Mr Biden’s “weak” border policy.
“Our best future will not come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” the senator said.
“These days appeals over the heads of Congress to the American people don’t work because of the partisan polarisation that now dominates the political system,” Professor Glenn Altschuler, who teaches American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.
Most members of the House and Senate are not affected by the majority sentiment, but rather by the sentiment of their constituents in their districts or states, the professor noted.
Mr Biden, 78, is aiming to be a transformational president. But he has less than two years before the November 2022 midterm elections, when the Democrats could lose their slim majorities – the Senate is tied 50-50 with Vice-President Harris holding a decisive single vote – in a country that remains badly divided ideologically, between left and right, liberal and conservative, rural and urban. Racial anxiety underpins much of the tension.
Mr Biden addressed the climate crisis and racial injustice, voting rights, human rights, and stressed competition – but not conflict – with China.
But most of the roughly one-hour speech focused on three proposals that have become centerpieces of his agenda: a US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) coronavirus stimulus package which has already passed Congress and put money in the bank accounts of lower-income Americans; and roughly US$3.8 trillion for two Bills on physical and social infrastructure including, in the second one, better childcare, paid family leave and cheaper college.
The President made a long and strong pitch for raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for some of the welfare measures, citing data – including a study that shows that 55 of the nation’s biggest corporations paid zero in federal income tax last year – on more than US$40 billion in profits.
The overarching message was that the current set of challenges calls for a new era of government spending, and that government is a force for good. But federal government expansion is viewed with deep suspicion by the Republicans, who are viscerally opposed to paying more taxes to fund social welfare programmes.
“President Biden is trying to do a delicate high-wire act… consisting of speaking the language of bipartisanship even when you know the Republicans are not interested in compromise,” Prof Altschuler said.
The President is also satisfying the progressive wing of his party with very sweeping legislation, and simultaneously making the pragmatic decision, that since he is not going to get all of it passed, to separate the two Bills so that at least the first – focused on physical infrastructure – does pass, the professor said.
Post-speech polls did show that most viewers came away feeling more positive about the future of the country. But, as is usual for speeches like this, most viewers were Democrat Party supporters.
A CNN-commissioned poll found that among Republicans, the share saying President Biden’s policies would move the country in the right direction grew from 13 per cent pre-speech to 27 per cent post-speech – in sharp contrast to independents, whose positive view rose from 61 per cent to 73 per cent.
“In many ways, Biden’s speech was just what we’ve come to expect from presidential addresses to Congress – ambitious, hopeful, a little boring and perhaps not entirely practical, either,” wrote Ms Sarah Frostenson, politics editor of the website Five Thirty Eight.