It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a radio address in 1933, who introduced the concept of a president’s first 100 days as a significant unit of time. He also set the benchmark for productivity during it, passing 15 major pieces of legislation to haul the US out of the Great Depression, all while keeping the nation abreast of developments with his “fireside chats”.
With respect to domestic policy, Joe Biden’s first 100 days will likely be remembered as one of the more action-packed, too, especially compared with those of his predecessors. Barack Obama passed an $800bn stimulus package on his 29th day in office in response to the 2008 financial crash, but arguably his signature achievement – the Affordable Care Act, partially reforming America’s iniquitous and inadequate healthcare system – didn’t happen until his 428th day. Donald Trump managed to get a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, confirmed in his first 100 days, but could not, as he had pledged, repeal and replace Obama’s healthcare plan in his first 100 days (or ever).
Biden signed a flurry of executive orders, letters and statements on his first day, pausing the construction of Trump’s border wall, ending the ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries and rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organisation, both of which the US had withdrawn from under Trump. He vowed that 100 million Covid-19 vaccinations would be delivered in his first 100 days – a target he comfortably surpassed: the US had dispensed 100 million jabs by day 60 and is now on track to deliver 200 million by Biden’s 100th day.
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He managed to prevail upon every Democrat in the Senate to pass his $1.9trn Covid relief stimulus, which included direct payments to most American households and tax credits for families with children, which, if made permanent, could significantly reduce child poverty. He has put forward a $2trn infrastructure bill which, if passed, would overhaul the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, from bridges to water pipes, reduce housing and school inequities, and provide access to high-speed internet across the country.
Biden has also announced that he’s assembling a commission to explore expanding the Supreme Court. Some on the left clamoured for reform after a Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider the nomination of an Obama appointee, Merrick Garland, in 2016 on the grounds that Obama’s term was in its final year, only to confirm Trump’s appointee Amy Coney Barrett days before the 2020 presidential election. Biden has taken some first steps to address gun violence in the US, such as trying to limit “ghost” guns – weapons that are made from parts online and are thus not traceable through serial numbers.
The Biden administration’s haste comes in part from an awareness – made acute by Obama’s experience of congressional deadlock after the Republicans retook the House in the 2010 midterm elections – that it has less than two years to make an impact. If the GOP takes back the House or Senate in 2022, Biden will have considerably less latitude for passing substantial legislation for the remainder of his term.
Biden’s energetic first few months can also be explained by his appreciation of the unique conditions in which he finds himself. The Covid-19 crisis has not only necessitated extreme measures but has also provided opportunities for an ambitious administration, helping to revive expectations of more proactive governance. Biden has said Obama did not take enough credit for his accomplishments in his first two years, and appears keen not to repeat the mistake, evidently recognising that the time is right not only for getting a lot done, but for touting how much he is getting done.
At the US border, though, Biden is doing less, and less quickly. In some ways this is unsurprising: it takes more than 90 days to overhaul an immigration system to which Trump made 1,064 changes. Still, Biden’s border policy is effectively unchanged from the last few months of Trump’s presidency. There are still children in jail-like facilities. There has also been an increase in migrants arriving at the southern border, because of a combination of annual migration cycles, a return to pre-pandemic migration levels and, some have argued, the fact the US no longer has an openly xenophobic president.
Farther afield, the Biden administration has been slower to act and the break with the Trump regime is less decisive. Biden has announced that the US will withdraw troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year. But the US has only recently joined talks about reviving the Iran nuclear deal. It took until late March for a State Department spokesperson to clarify that Israel’s control of the West Bank is “occupation” (Biden had reportedly vetoed the word from appearing in his campaign platform), and until April for the US to announce it would once again give money to UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
On Russia, there have been more sanctions. On China, Biden has broadly kept Trump policy, with hawkish rhetoric and tariffs remaining in place, though the specific differences are significant: Biden is courting allies to work together to counter Beijing. The US is expected to approve some arms sales to the United Arab Emirates, in a continuation of his predecessors’ policies.
As far and as fast as Biden has moved domestically, in foreign policy, he has so far mostly overseen a reversion to the status quo ante. It is too early to conclude that Joe Biden will remake American society along the lines of Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon B Johnson’s Great Society. But, surveying his purposeful first 100 days, it seems clear that, at least on the domestic front, he intends to try.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical