100 Days into the new administration, Nick Jessup examines how Joe Biden is doing as president.
Since the transformative days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, American presidents have been judged by the first 100 days of their presidency. In some ways, this is an unfair benchmark, as the size and complexity of both the White House and the U.S. Federal Government is daunting for even the most experienced politicians, and 100 days gives them little time to get their feet under the desk, and work out where the paperclips are. What’s more, the gears of legislative change, so often a cornerstone of a new president’s agenda, grind slowly, and some presidents might approach the office without any crisis dominating the agenda, and others might be facing a complete meltdown from day 1.
However, voters expect quick results, and undeniably, the first 100 days of a presidential term are the most productive. Not only does a new administration coincide with a fresh legislative term, with legislators on Capitol Hill more likely to be amenable to a legislative programme, but presidents have the opportunity, the moment they take office, to set policy direction with the issuing of executive orders on a vast variety of policy areas.
Biden could well be said to have been facing a meltdown on assuming office on 20 January. With a mounting COVID death toll, economic hardship facing millions, and a public divided sharply over the very integrity of the U.S. electoral process, few presidents have faced a challenge of this scale so early in their tenure.
So how successfully has President Biden capitalised on his honeymoon with voters?
200m jabs in 100 days
One of the key early successes for the Biden administration has been the vaccination rollout, which has gathered pace across the U.S. Biden’s initial promise that within 100 days, his administration would have facilitated 100 million jabs. Not only did his Biden’s administration hit their target, they doubled it, administering over 234 million doses of vaccination, amounting to 52% of all Americans who have received at least one jab.
On the vaccination rollout and on the COVID pandemic more broadly, Biden receives high praise from the American people – with 75% of voters supporting his efforts to rollout the vaccine, and 69% supporting his overall handling of the pandemic.
Government is the solution?
For at least the past forty years, conventional American political wisdom has held that the federal government is a broken, bloated behemoth. At his 1981 inauguration, Republican President Ronald Reagan famously declared “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, and Democrat Bill Clinton followed in the 1990s in asserting the same sentiment: “the era of big government is over”. In the first 100 days, the Biden Administration has sought to flip this wisdom on its head.
In his first address to Congress last night, Biden set out plans for what could amount to $4 trillion of spending – “a once in a generation investment in America”. This follows on from the $1.9 trillion that was agreed for COVID relief at the beginning of his term, and represented a very quick legislative win for the new president. Biden took the bold decision to push the COVID relief package through Congress without any support from Republicans, arguing that the relief package proposed by some Senate Republicans in contrast to his own was too small and therefore insufficient.
Biden’s chances of continued legislative success, particularly on the key issue of infrastructure spending will greatly depend on the unity of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate. Few Republicans have hinted that they are even willing to consider the President’s proposals for infrastructure, and some of the more conservative members of the narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have hinted that they are unlikely to support legislation that does not at least try to secure some Republican support.
The White House is therefore likely to be stuck walking a very tight rope – attempting to secure some concessions from the Republican Party, but also remaining mindful that watered-down legislative achievements may not secure the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. With COVID relief, the administration took the decision that passing the Bill without Republican support was acceptable, but it remains to be seen whether President Biden is in a more compromising mood when it comes to the next tranche of significant spending. Biden is undoubtedly hoping that a significant amount of spending to stimulate the economy, coupled with a successful vaccination rollout and the return to something resembling normal life, will put the Democrats in a stronger position to retain control of Congress in November 2022, which history suggests will be challenging. Likewise, Republicans may well be betting that total intransigence will stymie any chances of Democratic wins and hand them control of the legislative chambers.
With few significant slipups, Biden has managed to secure what some are calling his ‘technocratic’ cabinet within the first 100 days. A large number of Biden’s nominees for key posts, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai received strong bi-partisan support.
Given the fact that the Democrats only hold control of the 50-50 Senate by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris being able to break a tie, managing to secure the overwhelming majority of his nominees with relative ease is a significant accomplishment. However, the process has undoubtedly taken longer than other new administrations.
Controlling the border
A significant amount of political attention has been given to the U.S.-Mexico border since Biden assumed office in January, and Biden’s approval on the issue of the border is currently one of his weakest points.
Republicans have been very quick to blame the new administration for the crisis and have repeatedly suggested that President Biden’s decisions to undo some of the policies of the Trump administration has caused it. Migration has risen sharply since Biden took office, continuing a trend that began in the last months of Trump’s term and increasingly, families and children travelling alone have made up a large proportion of those attempting to cross.
Biden has previously expressed a desire to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, but a sharply divided and highly partisan Senate makes that challenge, which has vexed so many of his predecessors, one that he may not be able to overcome.
The Green House?
As for the climate crisis, the first 100 days of Joe Biden already represent a complete reversal of his predecessor. The U.S. is heading back into the Paris Climate Agreement, and the administration has already seized the opportunity to have a virtual summit with world leaders to renew their commitment to keeping global temperatures below an increase of 1.5 degrees. Biden has also pledged that the U.S. will slash carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. However, the U.S. relationship with China and India will be critical if the world’s climate goals are to be met.
Uniting the country
At his inauguration, Biden pledged that one of his priorities was to try and bring the country together, particularly against the backdrop of a violent riot of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol weeks before in protest at Congress’s certification of the election results.
Uniting the country when millions of your opponent’s supporters have bought into a baseless conspiracy theory that you are not the duly elected, legitimate president, is tough – some would say impossible. What’s more, compromises and unity on Capitol Hill are made all the more difficult when over half of House Republicans, and a sizeable number of Senate Republicans, still voted, after rioters had been repelled from the Capitol, to not certify the election result from key swing states. Many House Democrats have expressed a reluctance to work with their colleagues across the aisle until those colleagues accept their supposed culpability in bringing the rioters to the Capitol’s steps.
Early signs suggest that the Biden Administration is willing to work with the Republican Party, but is perfectly prepared to press ahead without them if necessary, as demonstrated by the passing of the COVID relief package.
One thing is for sure – the country remains glaringly divided on partisan lines. Joe Biden’s approval rating, which hovers in the low to mid 50s, is one of the lowest on record for a new president and represents a very stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans: 9 in 10 Democrats say they approve of the new president, compared with 1 in 10 Republicans. These numbers are significantly further apart than the ratings enjoyed by predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the same point in their first terms.
For Biden, possibly the best news is that a number of the policy proposals favoured by his administration, including the sweeping American Jobs Plan, voting rights reform, and raising the minimum wage, enjoy support that often crosses party lines. Bringing that message to bear upon Congress will be crucial – as will hoping that any legislative achievements bear the fruit which is expected of them.
The first 100 days of President Biden have marked a massive contrast with his predecessor. The change in tone and posture of the White House is undoubtedly a sign that the Biden years are likely to be less alarming, spontaneous and chaotic than Trump’s were and that a more predictable White House can be relied upon when it comes to diplomacy of all kinds. However, uphill domestic battles remain to be fought, especially as the honeymoon effect begins to wane, so expect to bear witness to another four years of partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill.