By Susan Milligan
UNWT- There’s no rage-tweeting, no explosion of insults and accusations against detractors at rallies or on cable TV. He’s only golfed once while in office. His press secretary has daily briefings and his daily and weekly schedule is released regularly to the public. His White House staff members are mostly old hands, and his first slate of ambassadorial nominees include veteran diplomats most Americans have never heard of but who happen to speak several languages and have expertise in their host countries.
President Joe Biden, reaching his first 100-day mark in office this week, is easily fulfilling what may have been his strongest argument to American voters in the 2020 campaign: He’s not Donald Trump. Coming off four years of tumult that went right up to a post-election insurrection attempt at the Capitol, Biden is showing the political advantage of being unexciting, verging on boring.
Voters seem to like it, giving Biden approval ratings in the low- to mid-50s, high for a chief executive seeking to unify a still deeply divided country. While Americans give Biden poor marks for his handling of immigration – a major misstep in setting, then resetting, then resetting, the cap on refugees allowed in the United States didn’t help – he’s getting strong majority support for his approach to handling the pandemic, arguably the issue that led to Trump’s loss last year.
But something happened on the way to Biden’s path toward normalcy. He pushed aggressively for a very ambitious agenda, and he’s already achieved a lot of it. Biden has signed more than 60 executive orders or directives in his first 100 days – more than a third of them reversals of Trump administration policies, fulfilling such campaign promises as ending the ban on transgender people in the military, lifting the so-called “Muslim ban” for international travelers and rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate while stopping Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
He’s also proposed, passed and signed a massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package delivering checks of up to $1,400 to 85% of Americans, extending unemployment insurance and providing help to small businesses hit by the pandemic.
And while the package was billed as a straight-up pandemic relief bill, it has long-term socioeconomic implications as well. Provisions expanding tax credits for low-income parents are projected to reduce child poverty in America by as much as half.
“People thought he was going to be a transitional president,” says Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic campaign operative who now teaches political science at the University of Southern California. Instead, “he’s headed to being a transformational president,” Shrum says.
Biden doesn’t like to mention Trump – “the former guy,” as the sitting president once called his predecessor – but it’s clear he wants to set a new, far calmer and more cooperative tone. He doesn’t publicly threaten to fire people, doesn’t call the media “the enemy of the American people” and issues regular – if not terribly revealing – readouts of meetings and calls he has with foreign leaders and congressional delegations.
He’s had teams from both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to the White House for sit-downs, events that had not happened in more than four years.
“For any administration, in the first 100 days, a key thing that they do is differentiate themselves from the previous administration,” says Julia Azari, a Marquette University political science professor. “For Biden, there was an increased imperative to do this – an important part of what he ran on.”
Part of Biden’s 100-day record has to do with circumstances out of Biden’s hands – the crises of the pandemic, the economy and unrest over racial injustice awaiting him when he took office.
The president has already exceeded his vaccine distribution goal, with more than 200 million shots put into arms in his first 100 days – more than double his (arguably very modest) campaign pledge of 100 million shots in his first 100 days.
The economy, which had already started to recover during the Trump administration, is humming along well, with the government reporting 1.6% first quarter growth in the economy, a pace that puts the nation on track for a 6.4% yearly expansion. Jobless claims dropped to the lowest level since the pandemic hit.
Biden benefited from a guilty-on-all-counts verdict against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. While the decision does not end the debate and anguish over police brutality or racial injustice, a not guilty verdict could have created a great deal more unrest.
“The stars are aligning for Biden in an extraordinary way. In history, it’s not only who you are but when you arrive,” says Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University. “He arrived at an incredibly powerful moment to do what he wants to do.”
No president hopes for a list of major problems to solve upon taking office. But for Biden, the situation has not only allowed him to show some tangible progress early in his administration but gives him more of a mandate to do big-government, big-ticket initiatives that at another time might have been dismissed immediately as too expensive.
Aside from his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan, Biden is pushing a $2.2 trillion infrastructure and jobs package, as well as a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan to expand education, child care and other kitchen-table items.
“Certainly, with Joe Biden, he has this problem of a narrow, almost infinitesimal, majority” in Congress, as opposed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another president who passed big federal programs to bring the country out of a crisis, says Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “It’s hard to say he’s going to continue to have smooth sailing.”
But “up until this point, he’s had, overall, a successful first 100 days, particularly in light of COVID,” Perry says. When presidents are “coming in with things collapsing all around them, if they can make some headway, they’re viewed as successful,” she says.
On the straight-up report card of promises made vs. promises kept in the first 100 days, Biden has earned some high grades. Aside from his vaccination record, Biden’s commitment to getting schools fully reopened is partly filled. (School reopenings are local decisions.)
He’s extended the pandemic-era pause on evictions, foreclosures and student loan repayments. He’s shut down border wall construction. He has the most diverse slate of Cabinet and presidential appointees in history: Of the approximately 1,500 agency appointees, 58% are female and a majority are non-white, the White House reported.
It makes Democratic lawmakers happy – especially after four years of feeling steamrolled by Trump.
“I had hoped for this kind of activist, constructive program. Frankly, the president has exceeded my hopes,” says Sen. Ricahrd Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat.
Even the progressive wing of the party – which had wanted someone more to the left, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to be the Democratic nominee – has come on board. So have young voters, who favored Sanders and Warren in the primary but now strongly approve of Bden, according to polling by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
“One thing that I will say is that I do think the Biden administration, President Biden, has definitely exceeded expectations that progressives had,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, said recently on CNN’s “New Day.” “A lot of us expected a much more conservative administration.”
So far, Biden has been able to roll over Republicans – in part by using a legislative maneuver to prevent GOP senators from filibustering his COVID-19 relief plan, and in part because the president has deliberately directed his message at Republican voters, instead of just lawmakers.
Republicans have helped Biden by remaining focused on cultural issues – whether it’s the debunked claims that Biden wants to limit Americans to a single hamburger a month or that Vice President Kamala Harris was putting a copy of her book into welcome kits for arriving immigrant children. But a bigger and more targeted storm could be coming – in the form of debt, a stronger pushback from the Hill and the very real possibility that Democrats will lose control of both chambers of Congress in the midterms.
“As governments around the world have found, there is nothing like direct checks from the government to you as an individual to create friendly feelings, says William Galston, a scholar with the Brookings Institution. “That obviously was well-judged politically. Whether it’s great public policy, who knows?” Galston adds, saying there could be a public backlash to Biden’s big-spending ways.
And Biden’s most sentimental goal – national unity – may be elusive, experts say. As recently as this month, polling shows that 6 out of 10 Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. His approval rating, while far better than Trump’s at any point in his presidency, still is just slightly higher than the 51.3% of the popular vote he won in 2020. That means he’s not changing a lot of minds yet.
“He hasn’t made many new friends, but he hasn’t lost many old friends,” Galston says. As Biden forges ahead after his first 100 days, he doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.