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On the 50th day of his presidency, Joe Biden marched into the Oval Office and took a seat behind the Resolute desk, where the massive, 628-page American Rescue Plan awaited his signature. Across the room hung a portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt, a nod to the transformative presidency Biden envisions for a nation tormented by disease, strife and division.
The $1.9tn package was designed to tame the worst public health crisis in a century and to pave the way for an overhaul of the American economy. It overcame unanimous Republican opposition in Congress, where Democrats hold the barest majority.
“This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation, working people, middle-class folks, people who built the country, a fighting chance,” Biden said. And with the flick of a pen, he signed into law one of the most expensive economic relief bills in American history.
Biden took office at a moment of profound grief and turmoil, inheriting from Donald Trump a virus that has killed more than 550,000 and exposed glaring inequalities in healthcare, education and the economy. Fear and anxiety still gripped the nation in the aftermath of the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol, when Trump loyalists stormed the building in a bloody attempt to stop lawmakers certifying Biden’s electoral victory. All of this amid a generational reckoning on race and the ever-accelerating threat of climate change.
One hundred days into his term, Biden’s solution to the myriad crises is an ambitious economic agenda that promises to “own the future” by dramatically expanding the role of government in American life.
The White House is guided by the belief that if it can lift the nation from the Covid-19 crisis and the economic havoc it wrought, it can begin to restore Americans’ faith in government and pave the way for the next phase of the Biden presidency.
“We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” Biden said in his first primetime address, hours after signing the American Rescue Plan. “It’s us. All of us.”
The pandemic remains an inescapable challenge. But the picture is inarguably brighter than it was when Biden delivered his inaugural address in January to a sea of American flags marking the crowds absent from the Mall. Now, Biden is dangling the prospect of backyard barbecues by the Fourth of July.
Marshaling a “full-scale, wartime effort”, his administration has built one of the largest and most effective mass immunization campaigns in the world.
At its peak the US was administering more than 3m shots a day. In a nation of nearly 330 million, more than 50% of adults including 80% over 65 are at least partially vaccinated. Last week, Biden surpassed his goal of administering 200m shots by his 100th day. The problem is rapidly becoming too much vaccine and not enough people willing to be vaccinated.
“That was arguably one of his main jobs as president – to start getting this pandemic under control,” said Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, “It’s not fully under control yet, but it is clearly in much better shape than it would have been had this incredible vaccination effort not happened.”
Jha credits the campaign’s success to several factors, from improving coordination between the federal government and states to tweaking the way doses are extracted from vials. He added that such success is due in part to the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which dramatically accelerated vaccine development.
Deaths from the coronavirus have declined sharply since a peak in January, as many of the most vulnerable Americans are vaccinated. Yet infections are rising again in many parts of the country. The more contagious B117 variant of the coronavirus that was first discovered in the UK has emerged as the dominant strain in the US, and young people are at particular risk. Even so, a number of Republican states have ignored Biden’s pleas to keep mask mandates and other restrictions in place.
Reaching the roughly 130 million Americans who have yet to be inoculated remains a challenge, as demand softens and vaccine hesitancy persists. As of 19 April, all adult Americans became eligible to receive a vaccine, marking what Biden called a “new phase” of the immunization effort.
Public health experts are working to confront misinformation and conspiracy theories. The decision by federal health officials to temporarily halt the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after rare instances of blood clots among millions who have received the shot further fueled mistrust in some corners.
“The biggest challenge that the administration faces over the next 100 days is in building confidence in people who are not sure they want the vaccine,” Jha said. “That is going to take an enormous amount of effort and, in some ways, it’s much harder than simply building vaccination sites because it’s sociological.”
As the vaccine campaigns help Americans push past the pandemic, and the economy begins to show signs of recovery after a year of hardship, Biden is turning to the potentially legacy defining pieces of his agenda. He plans to spend trillions more on an infrastructure package.
“It is not a plan that tinkers around the edges,” Biden said, introducing the first half of a multi-trillion dollar agenda in a speech outside Pittsburgh. “It is a once-in-a-generation investment in America.”
The president’s “Build Back Better” agenda widens the definition of infrastructure to include investments in home care, an expansion of broadband and a restructuring of the tax system in addition to more traditional public works projects like roads, bridges and railways.
It also represents the cornerstone of Biden’s fight against climate change, which he has called the “the existential crisis of our time”. Embedded throughout the plan are proposals to reduce carbon emissions by investing in green infrastructure and technologies, electric vehicles and clean energy, as well as a clean electricity standard that aims to decarbonize the nation’s power sector by 2035 – and the whole economy by mid-century.
At a White House virtual climate summit with world leaders, Biden unveiled an ambitious new pledge to cut US carbon emissions by at least half by 2030.
A forthcoming piece of his infrastructure agenda is expected to center on expanding childcare services and making education more affordable and accessible. It too envisions hundreds of billions of dollars of spending.
It is perhaps a surprising approach for a man who has spent nearly four decades in public life building a reputation as a consensus-minded moderate eager to negotiate with his “friends across the aisle”. In the Democratic primary, he was cast as the establishment alternative in a field of rising stars and progressive challengers.
But since emerging as the party’s standard bearer, Biden has steadily embraced a more expansive vision, arguing that the social and economic moment demands bold action.
During his first press conference last month, Biden said repeatedly he wanted to “change the paradigm” – a stark shift in tone from the early days of his presidential campaign, when he promised donors that under his leadership “nothing would fundamentally change”.
Congressman Jim Clyburn, the Democratic majority whip and a close ally and friend of the president, said Biden’s tenure has so far “exceeded my expectations – not my hopes are my dreams – but my expectations.”
Clyburn, who is widely credited with saving Biden’s campaign by endorsing him weeks before the South Carolina primary, said he was pleasantly surprised by Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which he “didn’t expect to be as bold as it is”.
“A lot of people, I among them, felt that because of this 50-50 split in the Senate, he would go less bold,” Clyburn said. “But I think that he has calculated, the way that I would, that in the legislative process, you never get all that you ask for … so it’s much better to get some of a big bill, then some of a little bill.”
Republicans are balking at the scale and cost of Biden’s plans, as well as his proposal to pay for it by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to fight Democrats “every step of the way” on Biden’s infrastructure plan, which he has panned as a “Trojan Horse” for liberal priorities.
“It won’t build back better,” he said last week. “It’ll build back never.”
Democratic leaders have yet to choose a legislative path forward for Biden’s infrastructure plan, but, thanks to a recent ruling by the Senate parliamentarian, they now have multiple avenues to circumvent Republican opposition.
Biden’s infrastructure plan has not sat well with moderate Republicans, who say they were expecting a governing partner in the White House.
“A Senate evenly split between both parties and a bare Democratic House majority are hardly a mandate to ‘go it alone’,” Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from Utah who is part of a working group that hopes to find a bipartisan solution on infrastructure, wrote recently on Twitter.
The group unveiled a counterproposal hat is a fraction of the size of Biden’s public works plan, touting it as a “very generous offer”. The White House welcomed the effort but the vast spending gap suggested the differences between the parties may be too wide to overcome.
The president is keenly aware of the difficult math in the Senate, having spent more than 30 years in the chamber. Even if bipartisan discussions collapse and Democrats go it alone, Biden will still face challenges keeping his ungainly coalition together.
But in choosing bold action over incrementalism, Biden is gambling that voters will forgive the price tag if Democrats can deliver tangible results like universal broadband and affordable childcare while seeking to put Republicans on the defensive over their opposition to a plan that polling suggests is broadly popular.
A recent New York Times survey found that two in three Americans, including seven in 10 independents, approve of Biden’s infrastructure spending.
Progressives are pressing the 78-year-old president to act urgently, knowing Democrats’ precarious hold on Congress is only guaranteed through January 2022. Declaring the “era of small government” over, they argue that there is a political risk to being too cautious. Pursuing an expansive economic agenda, they say, is not only good policy but good politics.
Biden, for the most part, appears to agree. He has argued that spending too little confronting the nation’s crises is riskier than spending too much. He told Republicans at a meeting last week that he was open to compromise, but vowed that “inaction is not an option”.
In a recent speech, Biden said it was time to retire the theory of “trickle down” economics, saying now was the time for building an economy that “grows from the bottom up and the middle out”.
“This is the first time we’ve been able, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm,” the president said.
Shortly after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd last week, Biden placed an emotional call. Huddled in the courthouse, Floyd’s family put the president on speakerphone.
“At least, God, now there is some justice,” Biden told them. “We’re all so relieved.”
Their attorney, Ben Crump, urged the president to pressure Congress to pass policing reform and to use this moment to confront America’s violent legacy of racism.
“You got it, pal,” Biden said. “This gives us a shot to deal with genuine, systemic racism.”
The murder of Floyd, who was Black, at the hands of a white police officer touched off global protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Biden said then that the long overdue racial reckoning created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to directly historic racial injustices.
As president, Biden has placed emphasis on racial equity, drawing support from civil rights activists and criticism from conservatives.
He assembled a cabinet that is the most diverse in history, including the first female, first African American and first Asian American vice-president, as well as the first Native American and first openly gay cabinet secretaries, the first female treasury secretary, the first African American defense secretary and the first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Confronting systemic racism is the “responsibility of the whole of our government”, the White House declared, laying out steps the new administration would take to address inequality in housing, education, criminal justice, healthcare and the economy.
He has emphasized equity in vaccine distribution and targeted underserved communities with his $1.9tn relief plan. His infrastructure plan dedicates funding to neighborhoods harmed by pollution and environmental hazards as well as to homecare aids, predominantly women of color. He endorsed statehood for the District of Columbia, a heavily Black city that does not have voting representation in Congress. He warned that some states were “backsliding into the days of Jim Crow” by imposing new voting restrictions.
Yet a major voting rights bill remains stalled along with a long-promised policing overhaul. Biden’s sweeping immigration reform has yet to gain traction as Republicans hammer the administration over an influx of migrant children at the Mexico border. Spasms of gun violence have renewed calls for gun control.
Biden’s first in-person meeting with a foreign leader began with the Japanese prime pinister, Yoshihide Suga, extending his condolences for a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, which left eight people dead. Suga also condemned a rising tide of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of coronavirus lockdowns.
The summit underscored Biden’s belief that the nation’s crises are not only an inflection point for America – but for the world. Biden has framed his domestic revitalization effort as part of a global conflict between authoritarianism and democracy.
“That’s what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about,” Biden said in his infrastructure speech. “It’s a basic question: Can democracies still deliver for their people?”
Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, said Biden, like the 32nd president, has a rare opportunity to transform the political landscape for generations.
“Roosevelt and his New Deal represented a new social contract between the government and the people in terms of what the government owed Americans,” he said. That lasted for nearly five decades, he said, until Ronald Reagan gave rise to a new era of small-government and free-market competition.
Whether Biden can forge a new social contract to meet the most urgent challenges of the 21st century – yawning inequality, a warming climate and rising authoritarianism – is a question unlikely to be answered by his 100th day in office, Alter cautioned. But he expects the next 100 to be revealing.
“It’s hard to imagine but Biden has already spent several times as much in 1933-dollars as Roosevelt did in his first 100 days,” Alter said. “And the odds that a Rooseveltian achievement in American political life will take place this year are highly likely.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Biden’s 100 days: bold action and broad vision amid grief and turmoil | Joe Biden