When President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans on Wednesday night, it was clear that much of the speech was directed far beyond our borders to an audience of one in Beijing, China. Because while Biden’s speech laid out as bold an economic agenda as put forth by any American president since Franklin Roosevelt, it also let Xi Jinping, China’s president, know that the United States had no intention of handing over the reins of global leadership any time soon.
As often as the speech was directed to American lawmakers in a House chamber only partially filled due to anti-pandemic social distancing requirements, it also time and time again, directly or implicitly, offered a message to the ambitious autocrat at China’s helm that reports of the end of the American century were premature. Biden was not subtle about it. Indeed, the entire structure of the speech from the articulation of overarching goals to the rationale given for each major proposal within it was strikingly China-centric.
Biden began and ended with a statement that his goal was “winning the future for America.” Clearly, this implied a competition and, he made clear, the leading competitor is the rising superpower Xi leads.
The first portion of Biden’s speech was a recitation of his administration’s extraordinary accomplishments in response to the COVID crisis. One after another he cited exceptional achievements and their human consequences—from administering 220 million vaccinations within 100 days of taking office to providing “$1400 rescue checks to 85 percent of American households,” from cutting child poverty in half to creating more new jobs in his first 100 days than any American president ever has. But he concluded his recounting of these genuinely consequential achievements by saying, “America is moving. Moving forward. And we can’t stop now. We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”
This was his predicate for outlining the specifics of the American Jobs Plan, the second pillar of his tripartite economic program that is the largest and most sweeping the nation has seen in almost 100 years. The first part of the plan was the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion relief program signed into law last month. The third part, described later in the speech, is the American Families Plan. Each would be roughly $2 trillion in size. Together, if passed, they would make Biden America’s six-trillion-dollar man, the architect of a program of “building back better” far more vast in scope than almost anyone could have or would have predicted prior to Biden’s election to the presidency last November.
Throughout, China was referenced as a rationale for investment and as a potential threat. Describing his hopes for creating new American jobs in green energy he stated, “There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.” He then argued that there was also “no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries” and while he did not mention China explicitly in that instance, Chinese innovation and growth in those areas was clearly on his mind.
He also referenced China when discussing the element of the American Jobs Plan focused on increasing research and development saying, “Decades ago we used to invest 2 percent of our GDP on research and development. Today, we spend less than 1 percent. China and other countries are closing fast.”
Then, setting the stage for the description of his American Families Plan focusing on investing in our human resources, he returned again to the opening theme of the speech and the specter of Chinese competition: “The rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. Doing nothing is not an option. We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget that the competition is with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. To win that competition for the future, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families.”
The “rest of the world?” He did not mean Luxembourg.
He framed the need to invest in education by saying we are falling behind the rest of the world. From there he described his bold goal of making fully four additional years of free education available to American students, ideas to strengthen American health-care options especially for the most needy and the tax proposals that he explained would pay for his programs. No taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year. Ensuring that corporations and the very rich pay their fair share.
When he turned his attention to international issues, naturally the portions directed to President Xi increased in frequency. Some references were subtle as when he said, “I’ve often said that our greatest strength is the power of our example—not just the example of our power” or his discussion of how we must work with our allies to contain new threats. He cited China first in his reference to combatting the climate crisis.
Biden followed a reference to making sure that all nations play “by the same rules in the global economy, including China” with an explicit reference to his many conversations with Xi. He recounted telling the Chinese leader, “We welcome the competition—and that we are not looking for conflict. But I made it absolutely clear that I will defend American interests across the board.” He spoke of trade disputes between the countries and of theft of technology and Intellectual property. He also said he told Xi that the U.S. 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 conflict.” He concluded the lengthy China sub-section of the remarks by emphasizing his administration will unflinchingly challenge the Chinese on human rights issues.
While the speech also covered a wide range of domestic issues and calls for action from the Congress—on questions from immigration to violence against women to voting rights—he concluded with a stirring passage on the threat our democracy faced on Jan. 6. But he went from there to say power lay not with “some force in a distant capital” and that the American people would have to rise to “meet the central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong.” “The autocrats,” he asserted, “will not win the future. America will.”
As his voice rose for the conclusion of his remarks, he may have sounded like he was simply summoning patriotic spirit when he said “At the very moment our adversaries were certain we would pull apart and fail…we came together. United. With light and hope, we summoned new strength and new resolves. To position ourselves to win the competition for the 21st Century.”
But if you were listening from Beijing, after the entirety of the speech, the message likely seemed to be something more than jingoism, something that hit closer to their Chinese homes.
Biden concluded by saying “It’s never been a good bet to bet against America. And it still isn’t.” He spoke those words with great conviction. They resonated in the hall. That was in part because of his delivery. It was in part due to the fact that those listening knew well the U.S. does face a real competitive threat for the first time in since the end of the Cold War, perhaps the greatest such threat we have ever faced…which is one reason the China subtext was such a powerful element of the Biden address. But of course, they also lingered because they sent a message eight thousand miles away that despite Trump, despite COVID, despite economic setbacks, the U.S. was not backing down, that if Joe Biden has his way, America will rise to the challenge posed by China and usher in a new era of American ascendancy.