President Biden spoke to a joint session of Congress in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday, April 28, laying out an ambitious $1.8 trillion social spending plan to expand health care, increase access to education and reduce the cost of child care by raising taxes on the wealthiest earners. The American Families Plan comes after the Biden Administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, bringing his two-part package of economic proposals to just over $4 trillion. According to the New York Times, this package represents a significant reorientation of governmental roles that has not been seen since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people,” said Biden, addressing a half-empty chamber; a stark comparison to the usual 1,600, only 200 members of Congress and other officials were invited. All audience members were wearing masks and socially distanced, a sign of the pandemic that set the stage for the event.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III were present, representing the cabinet. Standing in for the Supreme Court was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and General Mark A. Milley for the military. In the first lady’s box was Dr. Jill Biden. Although she could not invite anyone into the box, she hosted five guests virtually prior to the event, including a transgender teenager, a gun control activist and an immigrant brought to the country illegally as a child. Coming also to the defense of transgender people, President Biden said, “For all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people who are so brave, I want you to know that your president has your back.”
The most striking element that differentiated this address from those of previous presidents, however, were the positions of Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind President Biden. For the first time in history, two women sat on the dais behind the presidential podium. “No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time,” said Biden, after addressing Pelosi as “Madame Speaker,” and Harris as “Madame Vice President.”
“Historical moments like these are always exciting,” said Leah Renkema (’24), “but it’s also a reminder that it has taken over a hundred years of women having the right to vote to get to this point. How long will it take to have our first female president? Our first openly gay president? Representation is so important. To take a page out of the late [Ruth Bader Ginsburg]’s book, there will be enough women up on the platform when there are three. Biden’s cabinet is the most representative and diverse one we’ve seen, but it’s been a long time coming.”
One thing that remained the same, however, were the party-line reactions. While members of the president’s party applauded and jumped to their feet to support his statements, the majority of the opposition remained in their seats.
Biden praised the progress that has been made in vaccinating most American adults, noting that, “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. We all know life can knock us down. But in America, we never, ever, ever stay down.” When taking office in January, he pledged 100 million vaccine doses in his first 100 days. At the end of March, he doubled that commitment, saying, “I know it’s ambitious — twice our original goal. But no other country in the world has even come close, not even close, to what we are doing.” According to the CDC, the United States has delivered a total of 235 million vaccine doses but still lags behind some other countries proportionate to population, namely Israel and the United Kingdom.
In light of heightened racial tension, Biden called for legislation to improve policing across the United States and to restrict access to high-powered firearms, referring to gun violence as an epidemic. “The vast majority of those wearing the badge serve our communities honorably,” said the president. He added that “we have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system and enact police reform in George Floyd’s name.”
Highlighting his proposed overhaul of the immigration system, the president also brought up the point that, out of “over 11 million undocumented folks… the vast majority [become undocumented by] overstaying visas.” Biden then addressed the economy, pointing out that over a million more jobs have been created within his first 100 days of presidency. While the past year has been financially and emotionally burdensome for many, Biden expressed optimism that the economy — and the circumstances of millions of Americans — will improve in the coming months.