The First 99 Days
Edward Luce, Niall Ferguson, Emily Yoffe, Moisés Naím and other friends of Persuasion assess the start of Joe Biden's presidency.
You could hear the collective yawn on the Democratic left when Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, 2020. What is startling is just how emphatically Biden has belied the left's very low expectations. Whether you look at the scale of Biden's fiscal plans, the scope of his social reformist agenda, or the pace of his ambitions, Biden is offering Americans a teachable moment about how serious change usually happens in America.
Put simply, big ruptures are rarely brought about by America's political superstars. John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama thrilled the crowds, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson and now Biden who understood how to push legislation through. It is too early to make parallels with Franklin D. Roosevelt—another figure who was greatly under-estimated by contemporaries. A Democratic defeat in next year's midterm elections could also stop Biden in his tracks. But on his current trajectory, Biden looks poised to be a very consequential president. Friends of America should be willing Biden's continued success.
Is power the long-sought cure to brain degeneration? Early in his presidential campaign, it seemed impossible that Joe Biden could be the nominee, with his rambling, lost answers and his 50-yard stare. Since his election, Biden has been more crisp and disciplined than he’s been in his 50-year career. The pandemic forced Biden to campaign from his basement, which resulted in the winning strategy of keeping him mostly out of sight. This wisely has continued into his presidency. After four years worrying daily about what an unhinged president and his corrupt minions were doing, it’s an enormous relief not to be hearing from or having to think too much about the president. Placing honest, competent people in his administration, making the presidency boring again, is one of Biden’s gifts to the nation.
During the campaign, Biden faced what he said was a wholly false sexual assault accusation (I found his denials credible). Unfortunately, this experience has not tempered Biden’s announced goal of overturning reforms regarding how allegations of sexual misconduct on campus are handled, reforms put in place by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. I’m thrilled that the Trump administration has entered the dustbin of history. But DeVos’s regulations were overall worthy, a necessary correction to shockingly unfair procedures on campus that were pushed by then-Vice President Joe Biden. After he found himself accused, Biden—and the Democrats—extolled the values of due process and not jumping to conclusions of guilt. This should apply not just to select political figures. Biden should extend these same protections to college students.
“A permanent, seismic shift toward a very different America … The most centrist candidate the Democrats put forward in early 2020 has … become the most radically progressive president since LBJ.” Thus Andrew Sullivan, and a good many other thoughtful commentators including the historian and Biden speechwriter Jon Meacham, on Joe Biden’s administration. Forgive me, but I preferred Harold James’s idea of “late Soviet America.” (Some of the more gushing media coverage certainly verges on Pravda.)
The reality is that Biden has nothing like the congressional majorities of LBJ (or FDR, for that matter). The Democrats had 68 Senate seats and 295 House seats after LBJ’s landslide in 1964. Today they have 50 and 219. Sure, there has been a flood of presidential executive orders since January 20, but the biggest “success” to date is a vaccination program Biden inherited from his airbrushed-out predecessor. The combination of several trillion dollars of Covid relief plus infrastructure spending and a central bank that just changed its own inflation targeting regime worries more economists than just Larry Summers. And I can think of other things to be concerned about besides economic overheating: a surge of illegal immigration, a crime wave in the wake of last summer’s anti-police protests, and the “woke” culture to which this administration constantly panders. Watch out, too, for the geopolitical crisis as Cold War II threatens to turn hot over Taiwan. The big risk for Biden’s presidency is that it ends up as a rerun of Jimmy Carter’s. Or, come to think of it, LBJ's.
A presidential term is 1,461 days. But ever since FDR and a massive Democratic majority in Congress took sweeping action early in his first term, the first hundred days of that term have become a standard milestone to assess presidential performance. It is both understandable and regrettable: Presidents have all their powers over the remaining 1,361 days but they are often constrained by waning public support and electoral losses in midterms that usually hurt the president’s party. Nonetheless, the 100 days (or 99 in this case) standard is still with us. So how do we evaluate Joe Biden?
I give Biden very high marks. By seizing control of the distribution and expansion of vaccinations, implementing a complex but robust approach that has exceeded expectations, he has alleviated the pandemic. His robust recovery package will not only help people in trouble and get the economy on track but will also transform things like child poverty. He has used executive power prudently to accomplish other goals within the purview of the executive branch. He is on track to pass a consequential infrastructure package. He has picked a qualified cabinet and staff and set a new ethical and moral tone, in sharp contrast with the corrupt and inept Trump administration. And he has held his party’s many and noisy factions together.
That Biden has accomplished all this in a deeply divided political system, with a majority of Republicans in the country still believing the election was stolen, with the narrowest of margins in the House and Senate, and after being denied a normal transition by Trump, makes this even more impressive. The next months will likely be more difficult and contentious. Big problems, including the racial divide and the border, will not go away. But the Biden beginning has been impressive indeed.
In politics, leaders get visionary only when they have no other option. This is what happened to Joe Biden. In 99 days he transformed America because he transformed himself. Biden won the election as the anti-Trump candidate, but he runs the country as someone who has forgotten who Trump was. He ran his campaign careful not to divide the Democratic Party. Now he runs the country as if he has forgotten how divided his party is. In short, he came with such an ambitious agenda that he changed the national conversation, and by doing so, he made America governable again.
“The recovery president.” “Middle of the road.” “A conservative.” These are just some of the ways in which the 46th president of the United States has been characterized. All are correct except the last. He is no conservative. As president, Joe Biden has turned out to be an ambitious revolutionary.
The campaign slogan that he is fond of repeating, “Build Back Better,” should be changed to “Build Back Larger.” His several unprecedented trillion-dollar spending packages are not just providing needed help to families and businesses in distress, but aim to change America forever.
If the Biden administration’s ambitious plans materialize, poverty will be lower, as will economic and social inequality. Tens of millions of new jobs will be created thanks to a roaring economy, many more Americans will have access to free health care, new infrastructure will begin to be built or repaired, the reform of the criminal justice system will have started, a web of restored alliances with other countries will alter the global geopolitical landscape, and the fight against climate change will be, at last, underway.
We know that plans for large-scale societal change never work as intended. Biden’s ambitious plans are bound to be derailed, slowed-down, reshaped, or altogether impeded. Yet they are so large and wide-ranging that parts of their transformational impact will survive. Many books will be written trying to explain how a septuagenarian establishment politician, who spent almost half a century as a senator or vice president, became a bold, revolutionary leader.
During the turbulent years of Donald Trump's presidency, many Americans longed for something very simple: to go a day, or perhaps even a whole week, without having to think about their president. Joe Biden has delivered on that hope and is, so far, being rewarded by high approval ratings.
While Biden has rarely been in the news, his program for changing America is ambitious. His administration has set and kept aggressive targets on the vaccine rollout, is spending big on a fiscal stimulus, is investing generously in infrastructure, and is raising the minimum wage. All of these steps enjoy broad support.
At the same time, first warning signs of how Biden's presidency might go wrong are also coming into view. Parts of his administration are leaning into the culture war by using the language of racial equity to justify race-neutral policies. Voters give the administration low marks on its handling of the southern border. And while there are some strong reasons for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan, it is too early to tell how dangerous a return of the Taliban will prove to Afghanistan, America, and the world.
Biden won because he promised to unite the country. By and large, he has been true to his intentions. But if he strays from the mission, he—and the country—will pay a steep price.
The views expressed in this piece represent those of the individual contributors, and not necessarily of Persuasion.
Persuasion pieces should always come with short bio blurbs of their authors, but especially for brief multi-author takes like this. It makes it easier to assess the viewpoint diversity presented and their unstated assumptions.
Persuasion needs more voices from the diverse camp of restrained foreign policy proponents. This view, which generally champions robust diplomacy and economic engagement while rolling back our global military presence, security commitments, and defense spending, is gaining followers on the right and the left. It is odd that these voices are not being heard here. Curiously, other new publications that also purport to fight illiberalism on the right and left by engaging in vigorous free exchange of ideas have failed to give these views a fair hearing too (ex: Liberties Journal, American Purpose, Tablet, ArcDigital). There is a blind spot in our movement. Luckily it can easily be fixed with few choice guest essays. I know most here would welcome the debate.