In CT visit, President Biden makes pitch for social spending, human rights

HARTFORD — President Joe Biden, in a two-part visit to the friendly territory of Connecticut Friday, issued two sweeping warnings.

At a Hartford child care center, speaking of his $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” proposal of social and environmental spending, he said “the world is watching” as the plan teeters in Congress. And as he helped re-dedicate UConn’s Dodd Center for Human Rights in Storrs, the president railed against authoritarian abuses and the rise of anti-democratic thinking — at home as well as abroad.

It was a fast-moving triangle route of four hours, landing in Air Force One at the Air National Guard base at Bradley International Airport, then helicopter rides to Hartford, then Storrs, then back to Bradley. Along the way he hit the playground with pre-schoolers and paid homage to his old Senate pal, a now-white-bearded Chris Dodd, and the fellow Democrat who was among the first to support his candidacy, Gov. Ned Lamont.

Biden’s half-hour visit amid tight security at the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford was designed to highlight the centerpiece of the massive plan: child care. With a handful of protesters shouting epithets a block away, Biden said the United States is far behind other developed nations and the country is at-risk of losing its competitive edge unless more investments are made in preschool programs and other touchstones of his proposal, including expanded broadband internet.

In a soft-spoken voice and reading a script from a screen, Biden first paid his respects to the state’s solidly Democratic congressional delegation, and to Gov. Ned Lamont, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and Barbara Jo Warner, executive director of the development center, which was created by the General Assembly in 1988 for the children of legislative employees and is partially subsidized by the state.

He then admitted that while the $3.5-trillion program might not be fully implemented in Congress, a good part of it is likely to win adoption — and the nation’s wealthiest are going to have to contribute more.

“Name me a single time in American history when the middle class was doing well and the wealthy weren’t doing very, very well,” Biden said.

“Pay your fair share,” Biden whispered to the 60 or so people, including TV crews, jammed into a small classroom. “By the way, I’ve had a number of Fortune 500 companies come to me and say ‘you’re right, we can pay a higher taxes,’ because they understand the impact. Working folks understand it. That’s why despite the attacks and misinformation, my plan still has the overwhelming support of the American people.”

The 7 percent solution

The $3.5 trillion bill, sometimes called the human infrastructure plan, has little support from Republicans and must be trimemd because a few Democrat say it’s too big, and their votes are needed. That debate is holding up passage of a bipartian, $1.1 trillion plan for traditional infrastructure, which would send $5.3 billion to Connecticut.

Biden said the moment is crucial.

“The world is watching,” he said. “Autocrats believe that the world is moving so rapidly that democracies cannot generate consensus quickly enough to get things done.”

That plan would extend the $300-a-month child tax credit that’s set to expire in December; create universal pre-K; subsidize child care for low-income families; and add federal paid family and medical leave, which Connecticut adopted two years ago.

Among many pieces of the president’s plan, Biden highlighted that families making up to 150 percent of the statewide median income would pay a maximum of 7 percent of their earnings on child care — a savings for the vast majority of those with preschool children. Specific details were not available Friday.

Republicans claim the ambitious proposal, combined with Biden’s effort to address climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, is too expensive and will run up the nation’s deficit, causing inflation. That debate cuts two ways; In January, the news site Pro Publica quoted the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s estimate that the nation’s deficit increased by $7.8 trillion under President Donald Trump.

Playing with kids

After entering the center through a back door, the president spent ten minutes introducing himself to about two dozen pre-school children in an outdoor playground, within earshot of the handful of loud protesters a block away.

At the same time, on the other side of the playground, Lamont said child care funding is crucial. “It’s the most-important investment we can make,” Lamont told a couple of reporters. “It’s a key for kids, giving them a head start in life and also allows mom and dad to get back to work, so if I had to prioritize, that’s what I would do. That and pre-K. I think it’s really that important.”

Lamont gestured to the president. “That why he came here,” Lamont said. He voiced optimism that legislation will emerge eventually from Washington. “They’ll get something done.”

Beth Bye, commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood, who attended the event, told reporters after Biden’s remarks that the state needs space for 50,000 more pre-schoolers. “The economics of this just do not work,” Bye said. “Parents can’t afford to pay the full cost, and it doesn’t pay a living wage, so right now child care are subsidizing parents and businesses by taking a lower wage.”

Warner, director of the center, who introduced the president, said the American Rescue Plan Act was crucial in providing some funding to keep the center in operation. “The one time of infusion of funds didn’t solve the underlying problem,” she told Biden. “Most parents cannot afford to pay the high cost of the kind of care their children deserve.”

Worries abroad

Later in Storrs, Biden used the backdrop of the University of Connecticut’s archive of post-war papers documenting Nazi war crimes to deliver a forceful warning against resurgent nationalism and anti-democratic forces around the world.

Biden heaped praise on his former Senate colleague Chris Dodd and his father, Thomas J. Dodd, who was also a U.S. senator and prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. The elder Dod died in 1971. The center was re-dedicated Friday in the name of both father-and-son senators, whose efforts against authoritarian governments in Europe and Latin America Biden made note of in a roughly 40-minute address.

Massacres of Rohingya people in Myanmar, the mass-detention of Uighurs in China and sectarian conflict in northern Ethiopia are all evidence that “the spectre of atrocity is not far behind us,” Biden said, adding “silence is complicity.”

The president saved his loudest remarks — his voice rising well above the din of campus protesters — to warn that the U.S. and its major allies face threats similar to those seen in the build up to WWII.

“As we look around the world today we see human rights and democratic principles increasingly under assault,” Biden said. “We feel the same charge of history upon our own shoulders to act. We have fewer democracies in the world today than we did 15 years ago. Fewer, not more, fewer.”

Biden did not directly name his predecessor, President Donald Trump. However, he did mention his efforts to undo some of Trump’s policies, such as reversing a ban on immigration from several predominately Muslim nations.

Biden arrived in Storrs just before 3 p.m. after travelling from Hartford. In the lead-up to his speech, members of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation lauded the foreign policy sought by Biden and both Dodds — three “giants of the United States Senate” in the words of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-1st District.

Chris Dodd spoke ahead of his “dear, dear friend, the president,” adding humor to the afternoon with a story from when both Senators were running “broke”campaigns for the Democratic nomination to the presidency in 2008 and had to share a trip on a small prop plane from Washington to a debate in New Hampshire. It was a story Biden appeared to remember well.

“Luckily, Chris and I get to travel on much nicer planes these days,” the president quipped after taking the stage.

The state’s longest-serving senator spoke in similarly dire terms about the state of world affairs, which he too compared to the forces his father prosecuted at Nuremberg.

“Today hate crimes and hate speech as we all know are on the rise, supremacist groups are proliferating at home and around the globe as well,” Dodd said. “The number of autocratic regimes seems to grow on a regular basis.”

Opposing voices

Ahead of the president’s arrival, a group of about a dozen people gathered Friday morning near Brainard Airport in Hartford where Biden’s Marine One helicopter landed. Members of the group, who would not give their names but said they were all members of a Facebook group, said they planned to follow the president throughout the day and exercise their First Amendment Rights.

One member of the group said Biden was a “disgrace.”

During the trip from Brainard to the child care center, the press pool’s bus lost track of the front of the motorcade while driving, but reunited with an escort midway through the trip. The pool report said there was a “near accident” while merging back onto the highway.

It was the second visit of Biden’s presidency to blue-state Connecticut, with an all-Democratic congressional delegation and continued success in holding down COVID infection rates.

About an hour before Biden’s arrival at the child center, State Republican Chairman Ben Proto, in a press call sponsored by the Republican National Committee, used the GOP tactic of calling the proposal “Build Back Broke,” called the $3.5-trillion plan a “spending spree,”and predicted that the higher taxes would hit families in Connecticut making as little as $50,000 a year.

“All in all it’s too expensive for the state of Connecticut,” Proto said. Twitter: @KenDixonCT @JohnMoritz18

Staff writer Liz Hardaway contributed reporting to this story.