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The Biden Presidency: The First 100 Days

The Biden Presidency: The First 100 Days

Posted on: April 28, 2021

Written by Stephen J. Wayne, author of the forthcoming book The Biden Presidency.

Why are the first 100 days such an important period for a new president? Attribute the credit or blame to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1933, after his first 100 days, Roosevelt explained in a radio broadcast "We all wanted the opportunity of a little quiet thought to examine and assimilate in a mental picture the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal."

It was during this period that Roosevelt instituted executive actions and called a special session of Congress to enact legislation to relieve personal suffering during the Great Depression, speed the country’s economic recovery, and initiate reforms to preclude such an economic crisis from happening again. Ever since Roosevelt’s assertion that 100 days was a suitable period for an initial assessment of a new administration, that day has been a marker for the press, politicians and scholars to judge the early strengths and weaknesses and successes and failures of a new president. Joe Biden’s first 100 days bear a striking resemblance to Roosevelt’s. He too initiated measures to provide relief, the American Rescue Plan, to help the economy recover and become more competitive, The American Jobs and the Build Back Better proposals, and reforms to address the major problems facing Americans: racial relations, election integrity, and illegal immigration. In doing so, Biden, like Roosevelt, saw the government as a positive force for change. He too wanted to enlarge its size, improve its operations, and expand its services as Roosevelt had done. 

Biden was a very different president than his predecessor, Donald Trump. That incumbent’s performance was a major issue in the 2020 presidential election and in his electoral defeat. Biden’s personal conduct, his orientation to governing, and his institutional decision making were the very opposite of Trump’s. Biden strove for a return to normalcy, normalcy in presidential behavior, government appointments, and executive branch operations. Trump’s presidency was unique. Biden personally projected calmness, coolness, and cooperativeness, but also determination, resoluteness, and command. Low-keyed and well-prepared, he did not seek the public attention or personal adulation that his predecessor did. The Biden White House was highly managed and well planned with highly scripted rhetoric that focused on key policy initiatives. President Biden held only a few news media interviews, one press conference, and delivered one congressional address. His tweets were small in number and highly conventional, designed to reinforce his executive actions and legislative policy goals. During his inauguration and after it, Biden preached unity, advocated bipartisanship, and lauded democratic values, institutions, and practices. He criticized autocratic behavior, contentious diatribes, and divisive behavior.

Highs and Lows of Biden’s Domestic Policy

On assuming office, the president and his aides focused on Americans’ most important problem, the pandemic and its economic impact. He did so with a major legislative proposal and a flurry of executive orders. His personal appearances and conduct reinforced the social distancing and masking recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Biden said that he would be guided by science, not myth or idiosyncratic beliefs; by collective judgments of experts, not the personal remedies of individuals; and by the public’s welfare, not his own self-interest. He also pursued his party’s policy goals: achieving greater social and economic equity, reducing adverse climate change, ending environmental discrimination, and repairing and securing the country’s infrastructure. He appointed experienced public officials who had been his trusted personal aides and advisers; his White House operated smoothly. It was not leak-prone as the previous administration had been. The president received favorable news media coverage from the mainline and press and his predecessor declined in visibility, much to the dismay of the news media and the delight of the White House.

But as president, what Biden was unable to do was reverse the deep and broad partisan polarization that divided the country, fueled nasty political debate, and threatened to immobilize legislative policy making. The continuation of national discord, partisan rancor, and angry protests and demonstrations were a major disappointment to him and a stark revelation that times had changed since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Biden not only adopted a different leadership style than his predecessor but a different view of government. Trump feared and tried to dismantle the “deep state;” Biden saw government as an asset not a liability, an instrument for positive change not a swamp of self-interested politicians, a provider of vital services not an impediment to individual initiative and personal freedoms.
Upon taking office, Biden reversed many of his predecessor’s executive orders, believing them to be unfair, unwise, some undemocratic, and many incongruent with American values.  He also altered many of the administrative procedures and rule-making procedures. Reducing the magnitude of the pandemic and its impact on the economy was President Biden’s most significant early achievement.  He accomplished it in several ways: coordinating the distribution of vaccines (200 million shots by his 90th day in office), urging Americans to continue to follow the CDC’s recommendations on masks and social distancing, exemplified by his own behavior, and proposing a major stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, to aid individuals and businesses most affected by the pandemic and the economic decline. Low income individuals and families received direct cash payments, and extended unemployment benefits and child care deductions; small businesses obtained loans so they could continue to operate; states received grants so they could maintain public services in health, education, and child care; and rental assistance was also provided to those who needed it. The cost of the program, $1.9 trillion, was funded by the government. The public strongly supported the Biden plan.

Even with this plan successful, Biden was not finished with his agenda for a better America. He proposed more public works projects and more government incentives to create jobs, rebuild and repair the infrastructure, reduce climate change, electrify private vehicles, improve public transit, strengthen and extend the electric grid, expand broad-band services, and stimulate renewable energy sources, new technology and the manufacturing required to produce it. Programs that enhanced social welfare were also introduced. The president and fellow Democrats regarded these initiatives as the human dimension of the country’s infrastructure. To achieve greater equality within American society the Biden administration proposed expanding the Affordable Care Act, educational opportunities (Pre-K and free community college tuition), and aid to the elderly and disabled, to be funded by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Most Democrats enthusiastically supported Biden’s proposals; most Republicans did not. Opponents pointed to the trillion dollar costs, increased taxes, new regulations on businesses and other institutions, along with decreased private initiatives, economic growth, and continuing budget deficits.

Immigration policy plagued the Biden administration within its first 100 days. The president’s actions in halting deportations for 100 days, reviewing all of Trump’s enforcement and deportation procedures, and promising to enlarge the cap for legal immigrants, which Trump had set at 15,000, contributed to a flood of immigrants at the southern border. The numbers, which included thousands of unaccompanied children, overwhelmed border authorities, overtaxed their facilities, strained immigration courts, and led to the violation of laws for the care and resettlement of minors. Publicized by the news media, concerned citizens, and Biden’s political opponents, immigration became a major problem in the eyes of the American people and for the administration. The issue precipitated internal friction in the White House and external pressures on it to act quickly. It also delayed Biden’s promise to increase the number of legal immigrants, a decision made in the midst of the immigration crisis to which progressive Democrats and pro-immigration groups strongly objected.

International Relations & Foreign Affairs

The president acted more cautiously in foreign affairs than in the domestic policy arena. He rejected his predecessor’s “American First” policies and pledged that the United States would rejoin international treaties, repair traditional alliances, and oppose unfair trade policies and undemocratic practices.  The Biden administration reset its global priorities to Asia, Western Europe, and the Western Hemisphere, not the Middle East. Unlike previous presidents, Biden did not appoint a special envoy to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. The president pointed to China and Russia as America’s principal rivals. He criticized their authoritarian governments, opposition to dissent, and expansionist claims. His remedy for combating these policies was economic competition not military confrontation. He also ordered economic sanctions to deter unlawful actions that threated American interests, values, and security.

The Biden administration turned to diplomacy to coordinate cooperation among allied nations in Asia and Europe. The Quad, composed of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States, met monthly to promote economic competition and oppose China’s expansionist military policies. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, visited Korea to reassert America’s support for a denuclearized peninsula and the sovereignty of South Korea. Nor did Biden reverse Trump’s tariff trade policies with China. The administration’s dealings with Russia were equally firm, but also carefully balanced. One of Biden’s first foreign policy decisions upon taking office was to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, but he also condemned Russian cyberattacks against U.S. government agencies and corporations and its interference in American elections, later imposing sanctions on these Russian actions. In a television interview, Biden said that he concurred with the allegation that Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was a killer, but he also invited Putin to attend a virtual climate summit in April and proposed that they to meet in a third country to discuss divisive issues.

100 Days - Biden's Report Card

Overall, the Biden administration did well in its first 100 days. Public support for the president, his actions and policies, were positive. Health and economic conditions were improving. Vaccinations were expanding, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. were decreasing, and the country was beginning to get back to normal. The economy was creating more jobs, the stock market remained strong, inflation had not increased, and the world began to view the United States more favorably than it had during the Trump administration.

The biggest negatives for Biden during this period were the acceleration of illegal immigration, highlighted by the plight of unaccompanied children, and the continuation of the polarized politics in the country and the Congress that undercut the president’s call for unity and threatened to derail many of his proposals for social change. When Americans were asked to indicate the biggest problem facing the country at the close of the 100 day period, 86 percent cited health care costs followed by the budget deficit, violent crime, illegal immigration, the pandemic, racism, economic inequality, unemployment, and climate change.  

The American people assessed Biden’s first 100 days as positive. A majority approved of the way he conducted himself in office. President Biden’s job approval ranged from 51. 9 to 59 percent; his disapproval from 34 to 39 percent compared to Trump’s 34 percent approval at the beginning of his presidency. Trump’s favorable job rating never reached 50 percent throughout his entire term in office. People credited Biden with improving the tenor of political debate. They lauded his handling of the pandemic and distribution of vaccine. Two-thirds indicated that they supported the American Rescue Plan, but support for his other policy proposals was less. All of these pro and con evaluations were skewed along partisan lines. The deep political divide in the country persisted.