100 days of quietude: How Biden's placid presence belies a disruptive agenda
He keeps a lower profile than Trump, but he's already passed a costlier bill than FDR
It's been 100 days of quietude for a nation whose volatile politics has lately seemed to be on the perpetual edge of internal combustion.
Cable news ratings are down, clicks on news sites have dropped, tweets from the president are now rarer than when his predecessor occupied the White House — and they seldom make headlines because they're normal.
People spend less time googling what the new president is up to.
In fact, Google's search data shows Canadians are still looking up the last president more often than the current one.
And that means Joe Biden's presidency has come as advertised: more calm and less chaos after the 1,461-day roller-coaster presidency of Donald Trump.
"Biden is often called boring," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"And my answer to that is, if we ever needed a boring president, it's the one following Donald Trump.... This is precisely what Americans hope they get."
A quietly radical agenda
But that's only one-half of an improbable dual reality, the near-contradiction that has defined the first 100 days of Biden's presidency.
Call it boring radicalism.
Biden has an agenda that would transform aspects of American life that's significantly more progressive than the one pursued by the Obama administration he served.
In his first presidential speech to Congress at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday, he'll reveal the latest of several trillion-dollar plans — in this case family-friendly policies, coupled with tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations.
That's after Biden expanded the social safety net — if only for a year — in a now-passed budget bill that will, among many other things, slash child poverty.
Here's a wild factoid about that $1.9 trillion law and its place in American history.
Even in current, inflation-adjusted dollars, Biden's bill is more than double the size of both the 2009 Recovery Act and the entire New Deal program to fight the Great Depression — the centrepiece of Franklin D. Roosevelt's extraordinarily active start that created the 100-day benchmark by which all subsequent U.S. presidents are judged.
A bigger bill than FDR's New Deal
This requires a large asterisk: Roosevelt was governing a country with barely one-third the population of today, so every dollar he spent had a bigger per-capita impact.
Beyond that, Biden also doubled Barack Obama's climate targets and proposed a green-infrastructure plan intended to accelerate the clean-energy transition.
"I'm shell-shocked," said Christina Holley, a Philadelphia mother of three, describing the whiplash-inducing change in presidencies.
She says the daily drama is gone, and in its place is an administration attacking the problems of working families like hers.
She and her husband have struggled with finances as she finishes a college degree and as her part-time jobs disappeared during the pandemic.
"As a Black woman in America, it's hard for me to even say out of my mouth that my president's doing a good job, for me," the 29-year-old said.
But Holley, who voted for Biden, says he has exceeded her expectations.
What opinion polls say
Public opinion polling remains mostly on his side.
Biden still has an approval rating above 50 per cent, which, on a positive note for him, is better than Trump ever achieved.
On the other hand, it's weaker than other recent presidents in their first 100 days — and it's softened lately.
One observer with a unique vantage point on presidential achievement and public opinion says Biden's start puts him in the middle of the pack or higher.
Biden's tweets have less drama, make less news than Trump's:
Today, we’re launching a new program funded by the American Rescue Plan to provide nutrition assistance to more than 30 million children over the summer. Help is here to ensure no kid goes hungry in America.—@POTUS
"Average — maybe reaching above average," said Terry Madonna, who is not only a presidential historian but also a pollster.
A senior fellow at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and director emeritus of the Franklin & Marshall poll, Madonna says Biden gets his lowest marks from voters on immigration.
That's as the U.S. is seeing a spike in irregular entry at the Mexican border.
But there's a bigger long-term threat to Biden's agenda — and it's the fundamental challenge for anyone hoping to achieve anything in American politics.
That simple fact is the country's bitter polarization.
Will polarization pulverize his plans?
A constant state of political battle persistently undermines efforts at reform. In a political system designed to require compromise, partisans prefer to slug it out.
Biden's own approval rating illustrates the ever-escalating nature of the partisan cold war.
A succession of recent presidents have seen this trend, and it's grown to new levels under Biden: Increasingly, the voters of this country are split in how they view a presidency based on whether that person belongs to their own party.
That's despite Biden's oft-stated vow to unify the nation.
"We are living in a polarized era that really is unlike any since the American Civil War," Sabato said.
That dynamic, he says, explains Biden's sense of urgency to get things done now while his party still holds a wafer-thin majority in both houses of Congress.
Historical precedent suggests it will likely get even harder to achieve anything legislatively after next year's midterm elections.
The party in power has a history of losing lots of seats in midterms, and Democrats can't really afford to lose any right now.
What's next on the agenda
So Biden is a man in a hurry.
His party has made clear its limited desire to spend time negotiating with Republicans if it's going to prove pointless.
It quickly ditched bipartisan talks on the pandemic relief bill and used a complicated budget measure to force through a short-term measure far more ambitious than what Republicans were ready to accept.
There could be a repeat of that short-term budget move on other aspects of that agenda. For now, the parties are talking again about compromise bills on immigration, energy and police reform.
Republicans fume that threats to go it alone undermine the president's oft-stated message of healing and unity.
"If you can't be bipartisan on COVID-19 and you can't be bipartisan on infrastructure, what can you be bipartisan about?" Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman said.
"This partisan approach ... is the opposite of what President Biden pledged on the campaign trail and in his inauguration address."
But veterans of the last administration say the limited patience for bipartisanship is driven by the political times, the seriousness of the country's problems and hard-learned lessons from the Obama era of dead-end cross-party talks.
Another tool for getting things done is executive action.
The drawback to executive orders is multifold: They're often temporary, they can be easy for the next president to undo and they can be struck down by a court if they're found to violate existing laws or the U.S. Constitution.
Biden has signed more executive orders than any president at this stage since Roosevelt in 1933.
Some are less substantive and others more so, such as his $15 minimum wage for federal workers and the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.
Foreign policy: What we know, what we don't
On international affairs, he's come exactly as predicted.
Biden has opposed the Canadian oil pipeline, promoted clean energy and re-entered the Paris climate accord; he has rejoined or rekindled relationships with international institutions; and, on international trade, he shares some of Trump's misgivings.
One thing that hasn't happened yet under his watch is a fresh foreign crisis.
Yet reminders abound that such an event could upend his presidency. There's trash-talking from Russia and China, coupled with rhetorical or military moves on the doorsteps of Taiwan and Ukraine, a scheduled U.S. pullout from Afghanistan and attacks between Israel and Syria.
It's also worth recalling that the 100-day yardstick does nothing to predict a president's legacy.
Roosevelt later fought the fascists, developed the nuclear bomb and began building the postwar international order.
"People put a little too much emphasis on the first 100 days," the University of Virginia's Sabato said. "That's kind of the curse of FDR."
With files from Katie Simpson