Since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a US president’s first 100 days has been a significant, or at least much-discussed, measure of time. In his first 100 days, FDR, the first president to use the phrase, put in place the foundation for the New Deal, a series of social and economic reforms, including public works projects, that were designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy, in his opening 100 days, created the Peace Corps and deepened US involvement in Vietnam. In Donald Trump’s first 100 days — in fact, at the end of his first week — he introduced a travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries.
A president’s first 100 days set the tone for their administration. Their actions in this symbolic window tell us what they care about and how capably they can hit the ground running and avoid getting bogged down in the political machinations of Washington, DC.
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In a way, this is Biden’s second first 100 days: he had his first 100 days as Barack Obama’s vice-president, when the crashing US economy was hemorrhaging jobs. This time round, Biden is once again faced with unprecedented crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed over 400,000 American lives so far; the resulting economic catastrophe and job losses; and a profoundly polarised public, divided not only by ideology but by their relationship to reality itself: millions of people refuse to believe that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the US, and are convinced that Trump, the defeated incumbent, was the victim of unproven electoral fraud. Perhaps more than any single task, though, the achievements of Biden's first 100 days will be determined by how successfully he can get legislation through Congress, and make the Democrats’ thin majority in the lower chamber, and even thinner de facto majority in the upper chamber, tell.
Biden has tried to outline a plan to deal with the pandemic and repair the economy; the new president seems to correctly intuit that there will be no economic recovery if the virus continues to tear through the country unchecked. Biden has said he is aiming to have 100 million Americans vaccinated in his first 100 days, and his administration has pledged to set up federal vaccination centres and ramp up vaccine production.
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Still, there is a gap between how many vaccines have been distributed and how many have actually been administered, as well as a gap in coordination and communication between the federal, state and local governments – both of which badly need to be filled. And while the Biden administration has vowed to work with Congress to release more funds for vaccination, some senators — notably, Mitt Romney from Utah — are already voicing reservations about the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that the Biden team said it would like to see pushed through Congress, which includes $1,400 to be sent out directly to individuals.
There is, of course, plenty that Biden can do without Congress, some of which he has already done. Like every president before him, save for William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after taking office in 1841, Trump put policies in place by way of executive order. Biden has thus set about undoing those policies by executive order. Biden has already lifted Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries and his ban on transgender people serving in the military. He recommitted the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and to rejoining the World Health Organisation — two multilateral projects from which Trump had withdrawn the US.
Part of the challenge for Biden, though, is that every action he takes to restore some stability and harmony to the US — to stop discrimination against one group of people, or to be a part of agreements that put in place better environmental and health standards for everyone — will be held up by opponents as proof that he seeks not to unite but to further divide the country. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, echoing Trump’s line from four years prior, said that Biden was putting Paris over Pittsburgh in rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. John Cornyn, another Republican senator from Texas, issued a sarcastic tweet asking whether Biden’s lifting of the ban on transgender troops was another “unifying” move (71 per cent of Americans support transgender people serving in the military). This is to say nothing of Trump’s impeachment trial, which some Republicans are also denouncing as a threat to national unity.
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In addition to defeating Covid-19 and rescuing the economy, Biden’s task is to define the “unity” of which he spoke in his inaugural address. By “unity”, did he mean placating Republicans, even if that involves discriminating against people based on religion or sexuality or identity? Or did he mean trying to create conditions that make life safer and fairer for all, even if, in doing so, he upsets some people across the political aisle?
The adroitness with which Biden meets that challenge will dictate the course of the country for long after his first 100 days.