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Takeaways from President Joe Biden's first address to Congress

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 28, 2021. Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images/MELINA MARA

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden used his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night to lay out for lawmakers and the American public his legislative priorities as his administration pivots from responding to the pandemic to envisioning a post-pandemic economy.

"America is on the move again," Biden asserted in a speech on the eve of his 100th day in office.

Biden, who campaigned on the promise of "lowering the temperature in our public discourse," delivered a speech that called for bipartisan support for his sweeping infrastructure proposal, and offered an optimistic take on the country’s future.

"He didn’t scream. He didn’t insult anyone. He didn’t talk about his accomplishments, he talked about the accomplishments of the American people, about what he wanted to do for the American people," Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic campaign strategist, told Newsday.

"He did it in such a soft tone, you wouldn’t know he was proposing a very progressive agenda," Bannon said.

Speaking for over an hour to a socially distanced group of about 200 lawmakers and dignitaries, Biden ticked off an expansive legislative wish list.

He urged passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act by next month, which will bring the one-year anniversary of Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

He called for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15.

And Biden asked Congress to deliver on gun control and to address the nation’s immigration laws.

Biden’s "blue-collar" pitch

In making the case for his nearly $4 trillion pair of infrastructure packages -- the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan -- Biden billed the proposals as "a blue-collar blueprint to build America."

Biden’s $2.3 billion American Jobs Plan focuses on physical infrastructure upgrades and calls for investment in clean-energy jobs.

The plan has faced pushback from lawmakers in coal-friendly states such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Shelley Moore-Capito (R-W.Va.), who contend Biden’s plan will displace thousands of workers.

Biden also tried to make the case that workers in those industries will not be left behind by the transition to clean energy.

"Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree, 75 percent do not require an associate’s degree," Biden said.

Biden described his pair of proposals as measures that would lift Americans out of poverty.

He also called on Congress to increase the minimum wage to $15.

"No one should work 40 hours a week and still live below the poverty line," Biden said.

Biden has proposed paying for his infrastructure plans through a series of tax increases that he has pledged will not impact Americans who earn less than $400,000 a year.

So far, however, Republicans have rejected the prospect of tax increases that would roll back the Trump-era tax cuts passed by the Republican-led Congress in 2017.

The president described his proposed tax hikes as a matter of getting "corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay their fair share."

Taking aim at China

Throughout his speech, Biden cast China as the nation’s biggest competitor, arguing that his infrastructure proposals were needed to counter a rising threat on the global stage from China.

Biden said Chinese President Xi Jingping is "deadly earnest about becoming the most significant and consequential nation in the world," and asserted that the United States is "in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century."

"In my discussion with President Xi, I told him that we welcome the competition — and that we are not looking for conflict, but I made absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board," Biden said.

"America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and industries, like subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technologies and intellectual property," the president said.

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committeeman from Great Neck, told Newsday that Biden "rallied our nation and reasserted America’s role in the world with themes that have strong national bipartisan appeal."

A low- drama affair

Biden’s first joint session address was devoid of big moments of partisan-fueled drama that have occurred at past presidential speeches to Congress.

Last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of President Donald Trump’s speech at the conclusion of his State of the Union address, telling reporters she did so because she believed the speech was riddled with lies.

Trump’s speech came days after he was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate on two impeachment charges passed by the Democratic-controlled House.

In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "you lie!" during President Barack Obama’s first joint address to Congress. But the outburst was widely panned by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and Wilson later issued a public apology, saying he let "my emotions get the best of me."

During Trump’s four years in office, some Democrats boycotted the State of the Union by not attending. They included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died last July.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) were among New York delegation members who were on hand for Biden's address Thursday.

But their presence largely reflected the fact that invitations to the event largely were doled out based on leadership status.

The other members of the Long Island delegation -- Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D- Glen Cove), Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport) -- all tuned in remotely, according to statements from their offices to Newsday.

Republican response

As Biden delivered his address, Trump-era officials were quick to dismiss the current president’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, arguing that Trump should receive more credit.

Trump’s former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tweeted: "Yes, it’s true we have 3 COVID vaccines with hundreds of millions distributed in record time. Thank you, President Trump and Operation Warp Speed."

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who delivered the GOP response to Biden’s speech, said the Biden "administration inherited a tide that had already turned. The coronavirus is on the run."

Administration officials argue that while Trump's Operation Warp Speed focused on securing vaccines, by entering into contracts with five of the nation’s largest vaccine manufacturers, it was Biden officials who ramped up distribution of those vaccines across the nation.

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