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Biden Is Optimistic U.S. Can Move Past Pandemic, Economic Crisis, Insurrection

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden has been in office for 100 days, and in his first speech to Congress last night, he gave lawmakers a challenge.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works and we can deliver for our people.

MARTIN: The president talked about America moving past the pandemic, an economic crisis and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, where he spoke last night. For more on what the president laid out, we are joined now by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning to you both.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Franco, let's start with you. The president's main focus was laying out his economic agenda for the country. What did we learn about what he plans to do?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the focus was on both the American Jobs Plan, which he had unveiled earlier - that's more about infrastructure and fighting climate change - and also the American Families Plan, which focused on child care and education. That's the new piece of his agenda that he was pitching. It was actually kind of interesting how he shed the framing that everything was about infrastructure. He talked about traditional infrastructure from roads and bridges to water pipes and broadband. But he was not framing the education and child care parts, for example, as a form of, quote, "human infrastructure," as the White House had done before. He instead made the economic case about how these programs would impact people's lives, like universal pre-K and free community college.

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BIDEN: If we were sitting down and we set a bipartisan committee together and said, OK, we're going to decide what we do in terms of government providing for free education, I wonder whether we'd think, as we did in the 20th century, that 12 years is enough in the 21st century. I doubt it. Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Rachel, that idea of competition and the need to defend democracy was really a strong theme throughout this speech. You know, Biden framed the need for his plans in terms of a battle between the ideals of democracy versus autocracy and more specifically about competition with China.

MARTIN: Although, you know, Republicans take a lot of issue with this plan. Domenico, Joe Biden promised to reduce the partisan fighting in Washington. Has he been able to do that?

MONTANARO: Well, no. I mean, the part - the divide is still pretty darn sharp. Not many Republicans approve of the job Biden is doing. He passed that COVID-19 relief package, remember, without any GOP support. But he doesn't take a partisan tone. Last night, you didn't hear him vilify Republicans, and he even at one point said he didn't want to be confrontational. During the Republican response, you heard South Carolina Senator Tim Scott even allude to the fact that it's hard for Republicans to caricature Biden as some extreme left-wing figure. Scott said Biden seems like he's a nice guy but showed why most Republicans fundamentally disagree with Biden's approach to governing. Let's take a listen to what he said.

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TIM SCOTT: Tonight, we also heard about a so-called family plan, even more taxing, even more spending to put Washington even more in the middle of your life from the cradle to college.

MONTANARO: And there you see that big, sharp divide about the role of government between the two parties. You know, Scott is the only Black Republican in the Senate. He followed up saying that America isn't racist, and if you work hard, you can overcome it. A lot of Democrats, certainly, including Biden, disagree with that. And Biden is trying to put government to work showing that it can help people and propose programs to provide racial equity.

MARTIN: Part of the racial equity debate is about policing in this country. Franco, what did the president have to say about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it is. You know, Biden pressed Congress to pass the George Floyd policing bill, and he made some news here. Biden set a deadline. He told lawmakers to pass the bill by the first anniversary of Floyd's death at the end of May. So that's just in four weeks. It's really quite ambitious. But, you know, he's trying to take advantage of the energy of the moment. Tim Scott is actually also the lead negotiator for the Republicans. And he told reporters last night that he would be having talks today.

MARTIN: What about immigration, Franco? I mean, this is a huge issue. Did President Biden address it head on?

ORDOÑEZ: It's really a huge issue. He didn't really address the border crisis, which has dogged him for his first 100 days. He instead focused on pushing Congress to pass his comprehensive immigration plan but, you know, not really with the same vigor that he pushed other parts of his agenda. And he actually kind of appeared also ready to give up on passing that plan and urged Congress to, if they needed to, instead go and pass one of the smaller measures involving farm workers or young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

MARTIN: So, Domenico, an address like this is meant to be a reflection of a president's values. How did President Biden use this moment to articulate his priorities?

MONTANARO: Well, Franco is talking about Biden essentially shelving a real strong, comprehensive immigration overhaul push, even though he still wants to do that, Biden. What he did last night was push for this infrastructure plan that he really wants to get through. And he did that in a pretty normal way for a president - no insults, no drama. He did what most presidents have done in the past, which is put forward an argument for his agenda. He took credit for the things he believes he's done well, especially on the coronavirus, and he's pushing for what he thinks can get done. And he tried to make a bipartisan outreach, maybe trying to guilt Republicans into, you know, coming out in favor of some of those points on infrastructure. And here's some of what he said on that.

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BIDEN: Investments in jobs and infrastructure, like the ones we're talking about, have often had bipartisan support in the past. Vice President Harris and I met regularly in the Oval Office with Democrats and Republicans to discuss the jobs plan. And I applaud a group of Republican senators who just put forward their own proposal. So let's get to work.

MONTANARO: So what's that going to mean going forward? You know, this is a big piece of what Biden sees as his potential legacy. You know, he wants this to transform the country. But if he can't get some of, let's say, some of those more ambitious climate pieces of agenda through some of the social safety net spending pieces that are in this, does he break it up to go into, you know, something that seems more bipartisan? You know, we know that top congressional leaders will be at the White House for talks in the next couple weeks.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Franco, he's got to sell this to the American people, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Well, the president and some of the Cabinet are going to be doing a lot of traveling to build support for these plans. He's flying to Atlanta later today, and then he's going to travel to Philadelphia tomorrow. You know, the White House is calling this the great American back on track tour. And they're going to be looking to drum up support from the American people for things like the American Families Plan.

MARTIN: NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Domenico Montanaro, thanks to you both. We appreciate it.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.