WASHINGTON – The most familiar incoming president in modern times has turned out to be the most surprising.
No new commander in chief in American history was sworn into office with a longer Washington resume than Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., who had spent 36 years as a Delaware senator and eight as vice president.
But as he hits the 100-day mark in the Oval Office Thursday, Biden has proved to be bolder in policy, more partisan in politics and more disciplined in pronouncements than the chatty centrist just about every pol in town thought they knew.
He has not been a sort of Obama 2.0, defined by the charismatic president he served. Nor has his disruptive predecessor cast the dominant shadow that some expected, though Donald Trump has hurled criticism via press releases from his Mar-a-Lago retreat.
Instead, the previous White House resident whose name has most often been invoked in discussing the 46th president is the 32nd: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Not since FDR was inaugurated nearly nine decades ago amid the Great Depression has a president proposed more significant transformations in the U.S. economy and the role of government.
Biden was already established as a progressive Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told USA TODAY. Still, his proposals have gone further than many expected. “If there’s any surprise that anybody would have it is that he has been as forward-thinking” as he has been, she said, “that he would have the courage to have such an agenda.”
In an interview, she called him “transformative and visionary and experienced.”
The most difficult tests of Biden’s ambitions are still ahead, and he has made some missteps, particularly in handling immigration. While the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has been enacted, Congress is now considering the even bigger $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, to be followed by an American Families Plan expected to clock in at about $1.5 trillion – historic levels of spending.
And Biden last week set the breathtaking goal of slashing carbon emissions in the United States in half by the end of the decade, an effort to address climate change that would require fundamental changes in everything from how we heat our homes to how we power our cars.
Biden touts successes, faces tests in 1st 100 days
President Joe Biden marks his administration’s first 100 days on Thursday, touting a number of successes and relatively high approval ratings, without the drama brought on by his predecessor. Still, his road ahead is unlikely to be so smooth. (April 27)
He will have a chance to make his case to Americans on Wednesday with his first address to Congress, likely to draw his biggest audience since the inaugural address.
“Presidents are often – almost always – surprising, to some degree,” said Susan Stokes, director of the University of Chicago’s Center on Democracy. “Especially in the U.S., where our political parties are relatively weak and decentralized, so our leaders are less products of party organizations and more self-made politicians.”
But she added, “Biden has been more surprising than most.”
How? Here are three ways.
1. The risk of going ‘too small’
The coronavirus catastrophe that has killed more than 570,000 Americans and pushed millions more into economic crises set Biden’s first priority and opened the door to his biggest proposals.
Polls show broad support for the COVID-19 relief package that Biden signed last month, including cash payments of $1,400 to most Americans. In this bill and the legislation now being drafted, Biden wants to boost growth, reverse economic inequality and bolster the federal safety net, especially for children.
“The way I see it, the biggest risk is not going too big,” he has said. “It’s if we go too small.”
That’s a shift from the two most recent Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Their economic proposals, even during the Great Recession in 2009, were constrained by fears of alarming the political center and fueling the deficit.
Some of those concerns persist. Former treasury secretary Larry Summers, a Democrat, warns that Biden’s plan is so big it could overheat the economy and trigger inflation. Republicans blast it as dangerous government overreach. “A patchwork of left-wing social engineering programs,” Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor last week.
The programs to help people are all but guaranteed to be more popular than the ideas for how to pay for them – by increases in tax rates for corporations and for families making more than $400,000 a year.
That said, the ambition of his proposals has won him kudos from the left, even from past critics.
Advice from Bernie Sanders: Democrats urge Biden to include Medicare expansion, prescription drugs in his American Families Plan
“One thing that I will say is that I do think that the Biden administration and President Biden have exceeded expectations that progressives had,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said at a virtual town hall last week. During the 2020 campaign, the leader of the progressive “Squad” had expressed exasperation that she and Biden were even members of the same party.
“I’ll be frank: I think a lot of us expected a lot more conservative administration,” she said.
2. On bipartisanship, bait and switch?
Biden talked the talk of bipartisanship when he was a candidate. But critics say he isn’t walking the walk as president.
While he has met with some Republican legislators to discuss trying to reach common ground, Biden has displayed little patience in waiting for it. When the American Relief Plan was brought up for a vote last month, not a single Republican supported it. Democrats avoided a filibuster in the Senate only by deploying a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation.
Even as he relies on party-line votes, Biden’s is walking a tightrope, given the slim Democratic margins in Congress. The Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats in control only because of the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Democrats hold a five-seat edge in the House, the narrowest majority in modern times.
In contrast, Obama took office with big congressional majorities. But his focus on getting bipartisan support meant he signed a stimulus package that critics say was too small to work. He delayed the Affordable Care Act for months in a fruitless effort to win even a single Republican vote.
That is a cautionary tale Biden seems to have taken to heart.
Republicans are hammering him for hypocrisy. “If I look at the 100 days, it’s more of a bait and switch,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California said this week on “Fox News Sunday.” “The bait was he was going to govern as bipartisan, but the switch is he’s governed as a socialist.”
3. The power of silence
The biggest change from the last president to this one may be audible.
For four years, Trump’s bombastic declarations and especially his provocative tweets dominated the news cycle. In contrast, Biden seems to avoid being heard.
He waited longer than any other modern president to hold his first news conference. He has done only a handful of interviews with reporters. Even his first speech to Congress is taking place about two months later than previous presidents.
Silence was not exactly Biden’s brand in the past. He was known for his ease with reporters and his tendency to make gaffes.
But not as president.
“He’s been so disciplined!” Stokes said. “Whether you liked him or disliked him, discipline, especially in his speeches, was not a word you would apply to Joe Biden.” She attributes that to the sense of high stakes for the success of the Biden administration after four years of Trump. “There’s no room for error or for Biden to undermine his image with gaffes, misstatements and the like.”
While the new president has been relatively sure-footed, Biden has made missteps, especially on immigration. His administration seemed unprepared for the surge in undocumented migrants at the southern border, a development that experts say was predictable. That is an issue on which Biden gets his lowest grades from voters.
The images of unaccompanied children being crowded in Border Patrol lockups have brought criticism from the left (for not doing more to care for them) and the right (for failing to do more to control the border). The White House announced a decision to leave refugee admissions capped at Trump levels only to reverse it within hours after an public outcry.
At the moment, Biden has a job approval rating that the website FiveThirtyEight.com averages at 54.3% approve, 40.9% disapprove – relatively healthy considering the nation’s polarization. But his long experience has surely taught him this: He doesn’t have much time to deliver results.
His address to Congress will be a crucial moment.
“President Biden must fully take advantage of such a rare platform when tens of millions of Americans will tune in to his speech,” said Aaron Kall of the University of Michigan, editor and co-author of “Mr. Speaker, The President of the United States: Addresses to a Joint Session of Congress.”
Biden needs to use the opportunity, Kall said, to “deftly pivot to a compelling vision of the next phase of his presidency, which could also be the most consequential.”