Joe Biden became president at one of the most strained moments in US politics. By the time of his inauguration in January 2021, the coronavirus pandemic had killed more than 400,000 Americans and wrecked the economy. Just two weeks before he was sworn in, an angry mob, who were convinced that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the presidential election, stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of election results.
Today, as Biden’s first 100 days in office draw to a close, the new president has already undone much of the previous administration’s contentious efforts. The president has accelerated the country’s vaccination programme, providing economic relief via a $1.9tn Covid-19 aid package and mandating masks in federal buildings. He has also made a handful of environmental announcements, such as re-joining the Paris climate agreement, revoking the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit, pledging to reach net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 and decarbonising the power sector by 2035.
[See also: America’s race to net zero]
But how does this flurry of activity compare to previous administrations’ first 100 days? And what can the numbers surrounding Biden’s media profile and popularity ratings tell us about how far he is delivering the “unity” he promised?
New presidents often try to show, early on, what kind of leaders they intend to be either by introducing legislative action (which requires congressional approval), or through executive orders, memoranda and proclamations (which the president can issue unilaterally). And by the second metric at least, Biden has been one of the most prolific presidents in recent history.
Records from the American Presidency Project show he has, by his 98th day, issued 42 executive orders, 14 memoranda and 49 proclamations since he took office, a much higher total than Trump, Barack Obama or George W Bush recorded during their first 100 days. He has introduced more executive directives than any president who took office following a partisan change since Franklin D Roosevelt.
A significant portion of Biden’s executive orders – nearly half – were reversals of previous executive orders, compared to just seven out of 25 for Trump. Biden has issued 19 orders revoking Trump decisions in total. Since one revocation can cancel multiple previous orders, in all Biden has overturned 62 of Trump’s decisions.
Executive orders are a presidential prerogative, but they’re also easier for a president’s successor to reverse than bills passed, and Biden has faced some opposition in getting legislation through Congress. The Senate is evenly split between the two parties and the Democrats have only a narrow and unstable majority in the House of Representatives. Only 11 laws have been enacted by the current Congress so far, according to GovTrack – a low number for the first 100 days of a presidency (though one, Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus plan, was certainly significant).
Figures from the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service show that 40 of Biden’s nominees for key government roles have been confirmed by the Senate so far, ahead of Trump and Bush at the same point in their presidencies, but behind Obama and Bill Clinton.
Despite Biden’s relative fruitfulness, however, he has logged a much lower media profile than his predecessor. On the day of his inauguration, some 34.5 per cent of stories in US national media mentioned Biden, stabilising at about 10 per cent a few days later. Trump occupied a larger share of the media’s attention, clocking in at 37.6 per cent of all US national news on his first day as president and managing to stay in the headlines for longer. The proportion of stories mentioning Trump never dipped below 14 per cent at any point during his first 100 days; a pattern which held across the conservative, liberal and neutral media landscapes.
Biden’s Wikipedia page has also recorded a lower level of interest from readers. Some 2.8 million people opened his English Wikipedia page on the day of the inauguration, dropping to about 86,740 thousand by the tenth day. Trump – who started with just 2.2 million page views on his first day as president – was still bringing 331,320 readers to his page nine days later.
This effect is mirrored in internet search trends. An analysis of Google data shows that Trump managed to retain a much higher level of interest in the US throughout his first months, compared to his successor.
Biden’s placid and diligent public attitude is not necessarily a bad strategy. The president has a modest positive approval of around 54 per cent, according to FiveThirtyEight, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since the inauguration. Americans have also approved the way Biden has handled the pandemic (69 per cent) and vaccine distribution (79 per cent).
This is a much better performance than Trump, who started his presidency with an approval rating under 50 per cent and, within a few days, had more people disapproving than approving of the job he was doing. This remained the case for the rest of his term.
But Biden’s approval rating is still a far cry from many of his predecessors. Just two presidents since Harry S Truman have finished their first 100 days with lower popularity than Biden’s current rating: one is Trump and the other is Gerald Ford, who pardoned Richard Nixon just a month into his presidency.
Furthermore, Biden’s stable and moderately positive approval rating is hiding a deep divide in the US. Aggregated polls from Gallup show that Biden’s overall approval has varied between 54 per cent and 57 per cent since he took office. But his support is not evenly split across the country.
Biden receives more support from women, younger adults, non-White adults and college graduates. But the clearest differences are across party affiliation: while nearly all Democrats believe Biden is doing a good job (94 per cent), just one in ten Republicans say the same (11 per cent).
“Wide party differences in approval are not unique to Biden,” says Gallup in an article, “but the size of those gaps in his initial approval ratings is larger than for recent presidents.
“This suggests the extreme polarisation in approval ratings seen under Trump is not going away, despite Biden’s appeals in his inaugural address and other speeches since being elected president to move beyond those political divisions.”
As for the next 100 days? The lack of a stable and filibuster-proof majority in Congress means Biden faces an uphill battle in reaching across the aisle. The president couldn’t secure the support of a single GOP lawmaker for his $1.9tn relief package, for example, despite wide support among Republican voters and meetings with GOP senators. What Biden is and isn’t able to do in the days, weeks, and months that follow may depend on whether he can, finally, get Republicans on board.