WASHINGTON — The card tucked in President Joe Biden’s right jacket pocket must weigh a ton. You can see the weight of it on his face when he digs it out, squints and ever-so-slowly reads aloud the latest tally of COVID-19 dead.
Sometimes he’ll stumble on a digit — after all, flubs come with the man. But the message is always clear: The toll of the virus weighs on him constantly, a millstone that helps explain why the typically garrulous politician with the megawatt smile has often seemed downright dour.
For any new leader, a lingering pandemic that has killed more than a half-million citizens would be plenty for a first 100 days. But it has been far from the sole preoccupation for the now 78-year-old Biden.
The oldest person ever elected president is tugging the United States in many new directions at once, right down to its literal foundations — the concrete of its neglected bridges — as well as the racial inequities and partisan poisons tearing at the civil society. Add to that list: a call for dramatic action to combat climate change.
He’s doing it without the abrasive noise of the last president or the charisma of the last two. Biden’s spontaneity, once a hallmark and sometimes a headache, is rarely seen. Some say he is a leader for this time: more action, less talk and something for the history books.
“This has been a really terrible year,” said Matt Delmont, who teaches civil rights history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “There’s so much. We want a new president to be a light forward. From that perspective, it makes sense that you want to get out of the box fast.”
Biden “sees the virtue of going bigger and bolder,” Delmont said. “It so strongly echoes FDR.”
Few would have bet Joe Biden would ever be uttered in the same breath as Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s too soon to know whether he deserves to be.
But the scope of what Biden wants to do would — if he succeeds — put him in the company of that New Deal president, whose burst of consequential actions set the 100-day marker by which all successors have been informally measured since.
A reported 4,380 people in the U.S. died from the virus on the day Biden became president on Jan. 20. COVID-19 is killing about 700 people a day now. For Biden, much of the struggle is about “getting people some peace of mind so they can go to bed at night and not stare at the ceiling.”
It’s not all been smooth. Biden has struggled to change course on immigration practices he railed against in the campaign. He’s earned rare rebukes from some Democrats and shown that a president’s famously empathetic nature does not necessarily mean empathetic treatment of the world’s dispossessed.
THE ZIGZAG NATION
Already, Biden has achieved a pandemic relief package of historic breadth and taken executive actions to wrestle the country away from the legacy and agitations of President Donald Trump.
The U.S. has pivoted on the environment. The government has created payments that independent analysts say should halve child poverty in a year. It has embraced international alliances Trump shunned. It has elevated the health insurance program Trump and fellow Republicans tried to kill, making the Affordable Care Act more affordable than it ever was under President Barack Obama.
When Trump won the 2016 election, Obama said the day after that he saw something very American in the outcome, as unhappy as he was about the result. “The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line,” Obama said. “We zig and we zag.”
It’s Biden’s zigzag now. The temperature is lower. The drama is less. And the persona is fundamentally different.
“He ran as the antithesis of Trump — empathetic, decent and experienced, and he is delivering on that promise,” said former Obama adviser David Axelrod.
Biden’s first months in office were, in many ways, a rejection of what came before.
He evoked his bipartisan deal-making track record of 36 years in the Senate as the example he sought to bring back, though there’s been little bipartisanship in what he’s achieved as president.
Gone are the out-of-control news conferences. Gone are the sudden firings and impulsive policy declarations — both often in the form of a tweet — of the Trump years. Twitter is irrelevant for Biden’s presidential musings; he has yet to tweet by his own hand and what appears under his name is White House boilerplate.
Americans are getting something more organized and methodical. Like the index card in his suit jacket pocket. Printed in black and white, it shows his schedule, the daily numbers of vaccine doses administered, the previous day’s virus deaths, daily hospitalizations and the cumulative death toll.
It lists daily numbers of troops killed and wounded in war, a tally he started keeping in his pocket years ago, through the wars that spanned his two-term vice presidency. He says he will bring the last U.S. troops home from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked America’s longest war.
Biden has appeared in public far less than his predecessors and given the public fewer set pieces. That’s in part due to COVID-19 safety concerns, but also because of a sense among his advisers that people were simply worn out from four years of the Trump show.
Biden wanted to occupy less of the American consciousness than did Trump, who dominated the discourse like no one else had done, while achieving almost nothing legislatively in his 100-day debut. The new president turned virus briefings over to the scientists and administration officials and didn’t gag them.
NO FIREBRANDS HERE
He filled his staff with policy experts and old administration hands, not provocateurs. He achieved more diversity in the administration’s top levels than any president before him.
If there is a consistent through line to Biden’s term so far, it is his attempt to respond to age-old racial inequalities, in corners of public policy where most Americans might not expect to see it.
Biden’s massive infrastructure plan, for example, contains measures to address harms inflicted generations ago when governments built urban highways through Black neighborhoods, fracturing communities.
“That’s something most Americans don’t think about if they don’t have a direct experience of it,” Delmont said. “People hear infrastructure and think it’s a race-neutral set of policies.”
But without knowing about the destruction of Black neighborhoods from the bulldozer or reckoning with the heavy pandemic toll on minority communities, he said, “It’s hard to know what systemic racism looks like. These are civil rights issues. That’s where people want to see actions and resources.”
Biden’s agenda has been more activist than expected, unabashedly liberal and defined by anti-poverty measures and a far-reaching expansion of government.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
For the most part, he’s actually doing more than he promised in his campaign. The election dealt him a hand that makes bigger things possible, thanks to majorities so thin in Congress that he needs Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tiebreaking votes in a 50-50 Senate.
If the pace seems breakneck, there may be a good reason: Time with real power may be perilously short. First- term presidents historically see their party lose big in the midterms and Republicans have shown no inclination to support his policies.
Even within his party, cohesion is not a given, with constant tension between centrists and those on the activist left. So far, Biden has managed to avoid a revolt from either faction.
But liberals were far from pleased when Biden, citing a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border from a wave of migrants seeking asylum, balked at keeping his campaign promise to restore Obama-era refugee admissions worldwide and go even higher, after Trump’s drastic cuts. Thousands of refugees who had been cleared to come to the U.S. have been stranded abroad as a result.
“This cruel policy is no more acceptable now than it was during the Trump administration,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., adding that Biden was “caving to the politics of fear.”
Though the West Wing attempted to script the first 100 days, Biden faced vivid reminders that presidents are often measured more by how they respond to events they cannot control.
A surge of mass shootings confronted him, as did a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. The record number of unaccompanied children who tried to cross the border from Mexico — 18,890 in March alone — strained the administration’s capacity to hold them humanely. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are testing him.
Yet to Axelrod, Biden has moved swiftly and efficiently on the two issues that dominate public concerns — the virus and the economy.
“His team has been competent and focused, a marked contrast to the chaos of the Trump years,” he said. “But, as important, he’s restored a sense of calm and equilibrium to a capital that lived on the jagged edge for four years of Trump.
“Biden is measured. He does not personally vilify his opponents or divide the country. He does not insist on constantly making himself the center of attention.”
Biden was deprived of an orderly transition by Trump’s false claims of election fraud, explosive charges that animated the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and brought a second Trump impeachment trial.
This meant delays up and down the federal bureaucracy. In the case of vaccines, it meant the Trump administration had done little to facilitate their distribution before Biden took office, prompting his complaint in late February about “the mess we inherited.”
A distribution mess, perhaps, but the Trump administration and Congress had made a huge investment in the development of vaccines. Not only that, but the administration took action to lock in early supplies for the U.S. while many other developed countries still face crucial shortages of doses.
As the number of vaccines manufactured swelled, so did the number that reached Americans’ arms, with more than 4 million shots administered one day in mid-April. The president became fond of the political trope of underpromising but overdelivering, repeatedly blowing past benchmarks and timelines.
The improved vaccine deployment was a significant early achievement, in part made possible by Biden’s first legislative success: passing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill into law within two months.
Not a single Republican lawmaker voted for the measure, though the White House was quick to claim that it was a bipartisan bill because it polled well with GOP voters.
Republican opposition to Biden’s next cornerstone legislation, a $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs program, also initially seemed firm. Yet some Republicans worry they will be left defending politically unpopular decisions — like opposing a corporate tax rate increase — while the Democrats may be able to simply pass the mega-package along party lines.
UP IN POLLS
To this point, Republican criticism of Biden has failed to land, as he enjoys healthy poll numbers. A Pew Research approval rating of 59% this month put him in league with Obama (61%) and President George W. Bush (55%). Trump trailed all modern presidents at 39% at this point.
In large measure Republicans have tried to score points by focusing on wedge issues of the kind that mostly interest Twitter users who argue over racial stereotypes in Dr. Seuss books, gender issues raised by Mr. Potato Head and excesses of cancel culture.
Meanwhile a longtime Republican argument — we’re spending way too much on government programs — has lost much of its potency, at least for now, thanks to cheap borrowing costs and low inflation.
Biden press secretary Jen Psaki looked back at the Obama stimulus package that helped lift the U.S. from the Great Recession and said it wasn’t so big that “people would be talking about it at their dinner tables.” This one got everyone’s attention.
Biden’s package featured $1,400 payments to most people, on top of $1,800 from Trump’s two waves of pandemic relief, which steered nearly $3 trillion to the economy.
But Biden’s package was much more geared to lower-income Americans and broader in its sweep. It focused on barriers to returning to work and sustaining people as they look for jobs, instead of subsidizing employers. It offers the prospect of slashing poverty by one-third with the stroke of his pen. The aid is to expire; Democrats will try to extend it.
Few people have tried longer to be president than Biden, who also had formed a clear vision of the job. “He really knew how he saw the presidency before he got here,” said White House senior adviser Steve Ricchetti.
Biden talks more quietly now, moves a little slower and has lost weight. Mindful of his age, and his own life touched by immense tragedy, Biden has told confidants that he knows tomorrow is never a given.
He speaks of all he wants to do, “God willing.”
“I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come,” he said at his only formal news conference. “I’m a great respecter of fate.”
The schedule on his card is full. The virus death tally inches up, more slowly now. So far, he’s played golf once.
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