President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night drew high marks from viewers, according to two snap polls. More than 70% of viewers said the speech made them feel more optimistic about the U.S. in both polls, from CNN and CBS News. The latter found 85% approval of the speech, while the former’s question was worded differently and found that 51% of people had a very positive reaction to it. After the speech, CNN found a greater percentage of people saying that Biden’s proposals would move the country in the right direction than had said so before the speech.
Biden opened the speech by hailing the leaders sitting behind him: “Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words. And it’s about time.”
He went into the speech with more achievements in the 99 days of his presidency than most presidents could claim at that point. The American Rescue Plan has “already sent more than 160 million checks out the door. It’s making a difference,” and the law is delivering expanded nutrition assistance, so that “hunger is down sharply already.” The COVID-19 vaccination effort provided Biden with another major accomplishment to point to, and he did so, saying: “We will have provided over 220 million COVID shots in those 100 days, thanks to all the help of all of you. We’re marshaling with your help, everyone’s help, we’re marshaling every federal resource. We’ve gotten vaccinations to nearly 40,000 pharmacies and over 700 community health centers where the poorest of the poor can be reached. We’re setting up community vaccination sites, developing mobile units to get to hard-to-reach communities. Today, 90% of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site.”
Like Biden himself, the speech was not filled with soaring rhetoric or grand flourishes. Instead, it was characterized more by blunt appeals and Biden’s signature empathy. Speaking of the jobs that would be created by his American Jobs Plan, the president took on economic insecurity in a changing world, saying: “Now, 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, forgotten, in an economy that’s so rapidly changing—it’s frightening. I want to speak directly to you, because if you think about it, that’s what people are most worried about. Can I fit in?”
The plan won’t just add millions of jobs, Biden proceeded to answer the question—it will add jobs that don’t leave people behind. “These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don’t require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. That’s what it is.”
Biden didn’t shy away from how he plans to pay for his plans, including also the American Families Plan—and why would he, when poll after poll shows strong public support for raising taxes on corporations and the wealthiest individuals. Biden laid out his plans to raise the capital gains tax on people who make more than $1 million a year and to actually enforce tax laws against millionaires and billionaires who currently dodge them, identifying the choice: “I’m not looking to punish anybody. But I will not add a tax burden, additional tax burden on the middle class of this country. They’re already paying enough. I believe what I propose is fair, fiscally responsible, and it raises revenue to pay for the plans I propose and will create millions of jobs that will grow the economy and enhance our financial standing in the country. And here some would say they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1%, or corporate America. Ask them, ‘Whose taxes do you want to raise? Instead, whose are you going to cut?’”
He made that point by taking on the Republican tax law of 2017, noting: “It was supposed to pay for itself—that was how it was sold—and generate vast economic growth. Instead, it added $2 trillion to the deficit. It was a huge windfall for corporate America and those at the very top. Instead of using the tax saving to raise wages and invest in research and development, it poured billions of dollars into the pockets of CEOs.”
In addition to making the case for his economic plans—and Biden also called on Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage, strengthen the Affordable Care Act, and pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—Biden spoke to systemic racism and white supremacy, calling on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and saying directly that his administration “won’t ignore what our intelligence agents have determined to be the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism.” The president of the United States said that in one of his highest-profile speeches.
Another historic thing the president of the United States said in one of his highest-profile speeches was, in calling for Congress to pass the Equality Act, “To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially young people, who are so brave, I want you to know, your president has your back.”
Speaking on immigration, Biden touted the comprehensive plan he’d sent to Congress at the beginning of his presidency, but also put pressure on Republicans to do something if they refuse to do everything.
”Now look, if you don’t like my plan,” he said, “let’s at least pass what we all agree on. Congress needs to pass legislation this year to finally secure protection for Dreamers, the young people who have only known America as their home. And permanent protection for immigrants who are here on temporary protective status who came from countries beset by man-made and natural-made violence and disaster. As well as a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers who put food on our tables.
“Look, immigrants have done so much for America during this pandemic and throughout our history. The country supports immigration reform. We should act. Let’s argue over it. Let’s debate over it. But let’s act.”
That was one of many moments in the speech when Biden simultaneously pressured and reached out to Republicans. He cited the widespread support among even Republican voters for the American Rescue Plan, which no congressional Republican voted for. He mentioned his meetings with Republican congressional leaders to discuss his infrastructure and jobs plan. He gave a shout-out to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on past cancer funding. He hailed the 94 to 1 vote on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. The overall picture was this: I have plans and I will push them, but I have already reached out to Republicans. There was little partisan rancor even as Biden did not give an inch on the importance of his policy agenda.
And, of course, no Republican will vote for any of Biden’s most significant plans, and the media will wail about how Biden is forsaking bipartisanship by not seeking votes the Republicans have made plain they will never give. But the American public saw what Biden said, and polls show it went over very well.