“When I took office, I decided that — it was a fairly basic, simple proposition, and that is I got elected to solve problems,” Biden said at his first official news conference in March. “And the most urgent problem facing the American people, I stated from the outset, was Covid-19 and the economic dislocation for millions and millions of Americans.”
Had Biden stumbled on these key tasks, his emerging, and staggering, multi-trillion dollar aspirations to remake the US economy and much of the social safety net would have appeared not just ambitious but politically inconceivable.
But the President can report at the end of his first 100 days in office to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night that he has successfully embarked on a mission he defined on Inauguration Day to “repair,” “restore,” “heal” and “build.”
He promised 100 million vaccines administered in his first 100 days, and delivered 200 million. With a Democratic-controlled Congress, he sent out the $1,400 emergency checks that never arrived under ex-President Donald Trump and a Republican Senate.
When Biden took office, the US was averaging around 195,000 new cases of Covid-19 a day and 3,000 deaths. Now there are signs the pandemic is easing, with an average around 57,000 fresh infections and nearly 700 deaths per day.
Those numbers are still dangerously high, but Biden’s claims reflect a strategy that under-promised and over delivered on vaccinations, while his administration benefited from taking power at a dark moment in the pandemic that his predecessor had largely neglected. The President also had the good fortune to inherit an effective vaccine development program from Trump, though his team argues that the previous administration had few plans to distribute it.
But through his own management and a measure of luck, Biden will address a nation emerging from a viral storm in a more sustainable way than it ever has since the start of the pandemic.
It’s no coincidence that Biden’s first address to Congress — an occasion shorn of much of its ceremony by social distancing — will take place later than those of most modern first-term presidents seeking a boost to their agendas.
“He wanted to make sure that the coronavirus pandemic and economic legislation had passed Congress. He wanted to make sure that the $1,400 checks that were sent were received by the public,” said Aaron Kall, director of the debate program at the University of Michigan and editor of “Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States,” about presidential addresses to Congress. “The timing was definitely by design.”
Polling as the end of Biden’s first symbolic 100 days approaches suggests public satisfaction with how the new President seized control of the pandemic. An average of the six most recently conducted surveys shows 55% of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job while 41% disapprove.
In an NBC News poll released Sunday, 69% back his handling of the pandemic and 52% view his economic management positively. ABC News/Washington Post survey data on the same questions puts Biden at 64% and 52%.
Given the polarization of America in the wake of Trump’s presidency, it’s possible that these numbers represent a high point in his popularity. Once the President begins to work on the more partisan elements of his program, impressing some Republican voters may be tougher.
But if he was elected to conquer the pandemic, he’s made a strong start.
After taking office, Biden’s team revived public briefings by scientists that Trump spurned. He massively expanded the vaccine infrastructure thanks to a $1.9 trillion Covid rescue package that cleared the 50-50 Senate with no Republican votes. Biden’s scripted public appearances and a single solo official news conference ensured there were few distractions from his main focus. And while pro-Trump media pundits wail that Biden’s rationing of his own visibility is a cop out, he is also proving that there is more to the presidency than self-indulgent Twitter rants into the early hours.
At times, it seemed as though the administration’s dominant attention on the pandemic squeezed out other dramas and priorities. But gun control forced its way onto the President’s plate following a spate of mass shootings. And the Derek Chauvin trial led to him intensifying a push for police reform. Both initiatives are hostage to the treacherous balance of power in the Senate.
Other than rejoining the Paris climate accord, it took many weeks before Biden fleshed out his foreign policy. But the pace is heating up, after he announced a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, staked out a tough line with China and instructed his diplomats to try to revive a nuclear deal in indirect talks with Iran.
The White House was also caught flat footed by a surge in the number of migrant children crossing the southern border, which Biden’s reversal of harsh Trump-era policies may have exacerbated before the administration was ready to handle the extra numbers. Keen not to play into the right-wing media’s desire to build a narrative that fit Republican political goals, officials refused to admit Biden was facing a “crisis.” In truth, however, the situation — with migrant kids crammed into unsuitable Border Patrol custody during a pandemic — did look very much like a crisis. The President also suffered a self-inflicted political wound when he declined to raise the cap on 15,000 refugee entries this fiscal year, only to reverse himself amid a progressive backlash.
There was also a sense that the President wanted to avoid any issues on immigration that distracted from his focus on the pandemic and the economy.
“Successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing,” Biden said at that first news conference.
As vaccination rates have accelerated — in fact, the next looming problem is of supply outstripping demand — the Biden horizon has expanded. But he is still following his own timeline. There’s no sign yet, for instance, that he is ready to try to force voting rights reform — a priority of the Democratic Party base — through the 50-50 Senate.
To add to his massive Covid-19 rescue package, Biden has already announced an audacious infrastructure bill worth more than $2 trillion that significantly expands spending beyond roads, bridges and airports. The President hopes, for instance, to spend $400 billion on home health care and tens of billions more on building a 21st century green economy to back his plan for steep carbon emissions cuts by 2030. This week he is expected to unveil another huge effort at social engineering — an “American Family Plan” that will target education and childcare, which the Washington Post says could reach $1.8 trillion.
The scale of Biden’s spending and the breadth of his ambition suggest he is planning the most sweeping overhaul of the economy to benefit US workers and the less well off in generations, and is seeking to reverse attempts by ex-President Ronald Reagan and his successors to roll back the New Deal and Great Society programs of Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. His speech will be an important step in explaining what this means to the American people, with opposition building inside Washington to his plans to hike corporate taxes and capital gains taxes to pay for it all.
Princeton University historian and CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer told CNN’s “New Day” on Sunday he was keen to see how much progress Biden makes on Wednesday evening in “continuing to displace Ronald Reagan’s famous adage that government is the problem, with his own Roosevelt kind of vision that government is the solution to our problems.”
Biden’s powers of persuasion will need to convince more than Republican voters. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat critical to the tight Democratic Senate majority, denied on Sunday he was a “roadblock” but expressed concern about Biden’s redefining of infrastructure to include social spending.
“I think it should be separate,” Manchin told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“Because when you start putting so much into one bill … it makes it very, very difficult for the public to understand.”
It was a comment that suggested that while Biden has made significant progress on testing challenges like expanding vaccine doses and nursing the wounded economy, he may have just accomplished the easy bit of his presidency.