Biden addresses US lawmakers after 100 days in office
Addressing lawmakers Wednesday in an eerily unfilled US Capitol, President Joe Biden delivered his first speech to Congress under extraordinary circumstances that highlighted the coronavirus pandemic and January's deadly riot that shook the citadel of democracy.
Barely 200 mask-wearing lawmakers spread out in the House of Representatives chamber -- the very body where many were acting to certify Biden's election victory on January 6 when marauders sent members scrambling for their lives.
"As we gather here tonight, the images of a violent mob assaulting this Capitol -- desecrating our democracy -- remain vivid in our minds," he told the hushed chamber in a primetime speech to mark his first 100 days in office.
But he turned the reaction to the harrowing attack, and America's response to the coronavirus, as cause for optimism.
"We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy -- of pandemic and pain -- and 'We the People' did not flinch," he said.
Evidence of the unrest remains on Capitol Hill. The metal fencing around Congress still stands, and heavily armed National Guard troops ringed the building Wednesday as a precaution.
The building's hallways were nearly empty, the tours that normally bring tourists and other guests to the Rotunda halted.
Covid restrictions made Biden's maiden speech to Congress one like no other. Most of the US Supreme Court's nine members usually attend such addresses, but this time Chief Justice John Roberts alone represented the bench.
Of the entire Biden cabinet, only Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin were present.
Diplomacy not confrontation
In a speech focused on selling major investments at home, Biden told lawmakers who months earlier had dodged a deadly insurrection that they needed to show democracy can work.
"We're in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century," Biden said, warning: "Autocrats think democracies can't compete."
Biden said he told President Xi Jinping in a two-hour first phone conversation after taking office: "We welcome the competition -- and that we are not looking for conflict."
"But I made absolutely clear that we will defend America's interests across the board," he said.
"America will stand up to unfair trade practices that undercut American workers and industries, like subsidies for state-owned enterprises and the theft of American technologies and intellectual property," he said.
"I also told President Xi that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe -- not to start a conflict but to prevent one," Biden said to applause from an unusually small audience due to Covid restrictions.
In an aside that was not in prepared remarks, Biden noted his extensive dealings with Xi when both were vice presidents -- and warned that China's most powerful leader in years had firm plans for the future.
"He's deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world," Biden said.
Tensions have sharply risen with China over the past few years as the United States also take issue with China's assertive military moves and human rights concerns, including what Washington has described as genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.
President Joe Biden also called on Congress Wednesday to pass sweeping reforms to US policing by the May 25 anniversary of the killing of George Floyd, who died under a white officer's knee last year.
"We need to work together to find a consensus. Let's get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd's death," Biden told US lawmakers during a joint session of Congress.
"Now is our opportunity to make real progress," he said, eight days after the Floyd trial ended with a murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.