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Five things to watch in Biden's first joint address to Congress

Five things to watch in Biden's first joint address to Congress
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President BidenJoe BidenObama: Ensuring democracy 'continues to work effectively' keeps me 'up at night' New Jersey landlords prohibited from asking potential tenants about criminal records Overnight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE will deliver his first joint address to Congress on Wednesday, but his ultimate audience will be the American public — one that’s anxious about the future and eager for a return to normalcy after more than a year of pandemic turmoil.

Biden’s biggest challenge will be to convey a message that both rallies his Democratic base and speaks to independent and moderate Republicans, whose support may be crucial to accomplishing the ambitious legislative goals he’s set for Congress in the months ahead.

Two of those goals include passing the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan. The first proposal calls for $2.3 trillion in spending on infrastructure such as roadways, railways and broadband expansion, while the second package, at $1.8 trillion, is focused on expanding access to education, child care, paid leave and health care.

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As his first 100 days have shown, Biden is facing enormous obstacles to delivering on his pledge for unity, from a border surge and calls for racial justice to reopening the country after a catastrophic pandemic.

Here are the five things to watch during Biden’s speech Wednesday night.

COVID-19 message

Biden’s speech arrives at a delicate moment in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. While the president has been widely praised for vaccine distribution — more than 141 million people in the U.S. have received at least one shot — the threat from COVID-19 variants persists, and cases have recently spiked in certain parts of the country as local officials ease restrictions.

Additionally, those who have already gotten vaccinated largely represent the low-hanging fruit of the recipient pool: those with the best access to health care and the most eager to be inoculated. The rest of the population will present a much greater challenge. In addition to harder-to-reach rural communities, many Americans are hesitant — or simply refusing — to get the shot, for political reasons or otherwise.

Biden’s test will be in navigating that political minefield to assure holdouts that the vaccines are not only safe and effective, but also the quickest way to reopen businesses, get kids back in schools and return the country to something like its pre-COVID-19 self.

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The president has an early victory to point to on the pandemic front: the massive $1.9 trillion relief bill he signed into law last month. Yet that package received no Republican support, highlighting the political nature of the COVID-19 debate — and the obstacles facing Biden as he fights to keep the virus in check.

Olive branch to Republicans

Most congressional Republicans have already concluded that Biden isn’t serious about fulfilling his campaign promise of bipartisanship, especially after he pushed through the nearly $2 trillion relief package without a single GOP vote.

But that won’t stop Biden, who burnished a reputation during his Senate career as a dealmaker, from extending an olive branch Wednesday. The president will likely tell Republicans what he has told the handful of GOP lawmakers he’s hosted in the Oval Office: He is “prepared to compromise” on his $2.25 trillion jobs and tax package, which features funding for traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges, broadband and waterways.

However, Biden will also hammer home that his infrastructure package enjoys broad support among Americans across the political spectrum, and that Republican lawmakers should get on board. More than half of Americans say they support Biden’s proposal, including 21 percent of GOP voters, according to an NBC News poll released this week.

Bipartisanship is “in his heart and soul. That’s who he is as a person,” said Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinHollywood goes all in for the For the People Act The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (D-W.Va.), a centrist who is negotiating with Republicans on a slimmer, $600 billion to $1 trillion compromise infrastructure plan.

Still, skeptical Republicans view Biden’s outreach as a charade and warn that he will soon cast the GOP aside and take up the Green New Deal and so-called family or care infrastructure policies that Republicans have scoffed at and liberals like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  EPA announces new clean air advisors after firing Trump appointees |  Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior | Watchdog: Bureau of Land Management saw messaging failures, understaffing during pandemic MORE (I-Vt.) have cheered. They’re particularly irked by White House officials who are trying to redefine popular bills as “bipartisan” even if they don’t receive support from a single Republican in Congress.

“In the first 100 days, [it’s clear] this president doesn’t want bipartisanship,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse Democrats' campaign arm raises almost million in May Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Environmental groups urge congressional leaders to leave climate provisions in infrastructure package MORE (R-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday at the GOP retreat in Florida. “Listen to the White House, they don’t believe bipartisanship is working with any Republicans.”

Border crisis plans

During his first three months in office, Biden has proven to be much more popular than former President TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report MORE. But Biden has one glaring vulnerability: More than half of Americans disapprove of his management of the border crisis.

The surge of Central American migrants, including thousands of unaccompanied children, showing up at the southern border is straining Health and Human Services shelters and other agencies at the state and federal level. It’s also handing Republicans early ammunition to go after Biden, with delegation after GOP delegation traveling to the border to hammer the new president with a dramatic backdrop of open desert and Trump’s unfinished wall, a construction project Biden abandoned.

The Republican attack line has been simple, and effective: Biden’s welcoming approach to refugees and asylum seekers, they charge, has prompted a flood of migrants that’s led to a humanitarian crisis.

Biden’s dilemma Wednesday will be in assuring Americans that he’s protecting the border, for the sake of national security, while also signaling to liberal immigrant and human rights advocates that he won’t adopt the more forceful policies of the Trump administration, which included the forced separation of children from their parents as a deterrent for would-be migrants.

“The president needs to say, ‘Look, this is going to be very tough, but unlike my predecessors before me I am going to address this challenge with a whole-of-government approach. I need you to be patient, and I need you to be with me as we rise to address this challenge with American values,’ ” progressive Rep. Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarAbbott signs bill making concealed carry without permits legal in Texas Democrats weigh next steps on Jan. 6 probe Gun violence: Save the thoughts and prayers, it's time for Senate action MORE (D-Texas), who represents a border district in El Paso, told The Hill.

“It should be compassion and pragmatism,” she said. “If he can lay out his vision in very specific terms with goals that we can expect along the way, then the American public will understand the long-term nature of this challenge.”

Efforts toward racial justice

Wednesday’s speech comes on the heels of the verdict finding former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis in May — a case that captivated the country after Floyd’s death sparked countless protests in 2020 against police brutality and racial bias in law enforcement.

The killing led Democrats to propose sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system — a bill that passed the House twice now stands as one of Biden’s top priorities headed into a crowded legislative summer.

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In a year of heightened racial unrest, following a campaign that leaned heavily on Black voters, Biden will undoubtedly use his speech to promote the Democratic proposal, which aims to check racial profiling by law enforcement and ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level. Proponents are hoping his use of the bully pulpit will bring some Republicans on board.

But like a long list of Biden’s other priorities — including bills to curb gun violence, expand voting rights and overhaul the immigration system — it faces a steep climb in the 50-50 Senate, where Republicans are accusing Democrats of siding with criminals over law enforcement.

The partisan impasse is yet another issue leading liberals to press for the elimination of the filibuster in the upper chamber — an idea Biden has so far declined to endorse.

Climate reengagement

After four years of Trump’s “America First” policies, Biden will make clear that the days of U.S. disengagement are over and that he’s bringing the country back as a leader on the global stage, particularly in the fight against climate change.

In a nod to progressives, Biden will highlight how his administration rejoined the Paris climate agreement on day one of his presidency and hosted a virtual summit with 40 nations last week reaffirming America’s commitment to fighting climate change, which the White House views as the single greatest threat to national security.

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At that summit, Biden pledged that the U.S. would cut emissions by more than 50 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

But environmentalists are pressing Biden to deploy the full weight of the government behind his efforts to mitigate climate change, and to get specific about his green jobs strategy.

“Coming fresh off his commitment to cut U.S. climate pollution in half, President Biden should seize this moment to declare a national climate emergency and unlock the powers that can make it happen,” said Kassie Siegel, head of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “The climate crisis won’t wait for congressional hand-wringing, and the president shouldn’t either.”