WASHINGTON, DC: President Joe Biden addresses a Joint Session of Congress, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris behind on the dais, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday.-AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden triumphantly declared that the United States is "on the move again" in a rousing speech to Congress Wednesday, calling for trillions of dollars to rebuild the post-pandemic US middle class and give new life to "forgotten" workers. Lauding the success of mass vaccination against COVID-19, Biden told Congress and the nation on primetime television that "in America, we always get up." "America is ready for takeoff," he said. "We are working again, dreaming again, discovering again, leading the world again."

Biden, who was celebrating the eve of his 100th day in office, called the vaccine rollout one of "the greatest logistical achievements" in US history. But Biden quickly pivoted to insisting that this national effort must now focus on rebuilding the economy and fighting inequality with "the largest jobs plan since World War II."

In a line that could have come from his populist Republican predecessor Donald Trump, Biden said working-class Americans had been ignored, while the top one percent got richer, and that his plans would give them a chance. "You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that's rapidly changing. Let me speak directly to you," Biden said, before going on to promise Americans "good-paying jobs that can't be outsourced."

No more solo America

In every aspect of the primetime television speech, Biden echoed his mantra that "America is back"-both in recovering from the coronavirus disaster and in putting the turbulence of the Trump era behind. On foreign policy he underlined Washington's return to international partnerships damaged under Trump. "No one nation" can succeed alone, he said, in a rebuke of Trump's isolationist policies.

Among his many references to arch-rival China, Biden said that while Beijing is seeking supremacy, "we welcome the competition" and "are not looking for conflict." On domestic issues, Biden made the case for the Democrats' lengthy wish list, including police reform, pro-immigrant reforms and gun control-some of the most sensitive issues in US politics. "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," Biden said, urging the Senate to pass a police reform bill already approved in the House.

He pleaded with Republicans and Democrats to work together on one of the nation's most hot-button topics, saying "let's end our exhausting war on immigration." But Republicans showed little sign of listening to Biden's appeals for unity, accusing him of only paying lip service to the idea, while promoting a leftist agenda. "Our best future won't come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams.

It will come from you-the American people," Tim Scott, the Republicans' only Black senator and a rising star, said in an official party rebuttal after Biden finished. "President Biden promised you a specific type of leadership," he said. "Three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further and further apart."

Yes, new taxes

US presidents usually bend over backwards to avoid or at least hide tax increases. However, Biden is banking on popular support for his idea of leaning on the super-rich to fund his latest new spending proposal, which he unveiled in the speech-the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. The plan, which will need approval by a deeply divided Congress, would pour money into early education, childcare and higher education. To fund this, the top income tax rate would increase from 37 percent, where Trump's plan put it, back to its pre-Trump 39.6 percent.

The Biden plan would also end loopholes and capital income tax breaks, while raising "billions," according to the White House, in a tightened tax regime for inherited wealth. Americans earning less than $400,000 a year, however, would face no extra taxes. "My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked. It's time to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out," Biden said. "What I've proposed is fair." The proposed new splurge comes after Congress already approved a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which injected stimulus into almost every corner of the economy, and is now debating a proposed $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan.

Extraordinary times

The setting for Biden's maiden address to Congress as president reflected the chaotic times in which he took office. Security has been at top level around the Capitol building since the January 6 riot when Trump supporters rampaged against what the Republican falsely claims was a stolen election.

Although COVID-19 is on the back foot-vaccinated Americans were told Tuesday they can now do most things outside without wearing masks-the pandemic also loomed heavily. Instead of a House chamber crammed with the usual 1,600 or so politicians and guests, Biden looked out on a select group of around 200. Of the nine members of the Supreme Court, only Chief Justice John Roberts attended. Only the secretaries of defense and state were in the room, meaning that the tradition of nominating a "designated survivor"-someone who could take over the country if the entire government died while inside the Capitol-was not necessary. - AFP