A President’s first 100 days are an arbitrary benchmark. Journalists and other commentators in the traditional media, comments in social media and standard polling entities use them as a point of measurement to draw comparisons between the current officeholder and Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the last chief executive whose first three months were truly momentous. FDR passed 15 major pieces of legislation in his first 100 days and his New Deal Laws lasted for generations.
A Conventional Benchmark
The 100-day trope has also been taken seriously by Presidents including both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The assessments of Biden’s 100 days are generally favourable, more so than four of the last Presidents. The most pervasive reasons for this relative success are that he ‘under promised and over delivered’ and his communications with stakeholders were for the most part substantiated by empirical information, ‘truthful’ and credible. His rollout numbers of the vaccine for example, originally promised at 100, 000 for the first 100 days and revised to 200,000 have been exceeded.
Stark contrast in Style and Substance
Several commentators have referred to Biden’s attempt at the restoration of the New Deal-style of FDR. But in essence, only one piece of legislation has been passed within his 100-days and his promises are circumscribed by four overlapping compounding crises —the pandemic, the economy, climate change and race relations. Biden’s relief bill at $2.9Trillion passed without a single Republican vote, is an enormous achievement. According to Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution scholar of the presidency, “these have been emergency measures, justified by the pandemic.” Her view is that a better comparison with the FDR ‘s success can be made on the basis of the fate and durability of Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill, the family tax credit that promises to cut child poverty in half and a $15 minimum wage. The President's returning the US to the Paris Agreement in January 2021, enhances the hitherto waning standing of the country among major allies and will be the subject of a separate blog. Biden’s 54% approval rating after 100 days stands in stark contrast to Trump’s whose ratings never broke the 50% barrier throughout his Presidency.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised that in his first 100 days he would repeal Obamacare, build a wall on the border with Mexico and persuade Congress to pass term limits. None of those things happened, but he did out do former holders of the office in one regard: “producing unshirted chaos". Among them, the imposed bans on immigrants and travelers from Muslim countries that were quickly reversed by federal courts; his stripping federal funding from sanctuary cities, also quickly challenged; and his national security advisor resigned amid a scandal over secret contacts with Russian officials. Even Trump himself disavowed his own self-proclaimed three-month deadlines while at the same time insisting, “I have done more than any other president in the first 100 days"
Polarization and Partisanship
Despite his high ratings on personal qualities and honesty the polls show that President Biden has made no new friends or new enemies. They reveal the greatest gap ever with his disapproval ratings at 6 % by Democrats and 80 percent by Republicans and approval ratings 86% democrats and 10 percent by Republicans.
The polls also show that Americans under the age of 36 years would not have experienced a landslide government majority. FDR's Democrats in 1932 received an average of 18% increase in each of the House of Representatives, Senate and Governorships. Linden Bain Johnson’s Democrats in 1968 achieved a 23% increase in the House and a 2:1 control of the Senate.
Ronald Regan campaigned on a platform of ‘Government as a problem’ and secured a biggest landslide victory in American history in 1984 winning 49 of the 50 states. His message has pervaded the electoral campaigns and the political mantra of Republican leadership ever since. Biden on the other hand, empowered by the exigencies of the pandemic has promoted the default setting, “government as the solution.” Lacking the majorities of FDR, LBJ and Ronald Regan, the question remains whether the multi legislative victories required by Biden to advance his agenda, can be achieved. However that he is the first President with so much governmental experience and given his current favorable ratings, the possibilities hang in the balance. They depend on how he is able to use the reconciliation process rather than the destabilization process that characterized the Trump era illustrated by the slow pace of staffing executive positions and the national disruption caused by a government shutdown within his 100 Days.
Shadows of Success Looming
President Biden chances of successful implementation are enhanced as he seems to operate from the playbook of William Galston, a former Clinton advisor, whose Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy Anti-Pluralism shows the populist backlash that sustained Trumpism can be eroded by inclusive economic growth and frank discussion of pressing social and cultural issues. He also advocates for the survival of liberal democracy, despite its permanent tensions so long as citizens fight for it . That fight must be embedded in the aspirational goal of equity and the struggle to overturn systemic racism. The link, demonstrated by the pursuit of racial equity in the Kennedy era had a disastrous 100 days, upended by the ill-conceived Bay of Pigs (Cuba) debacle. But he managed to initiate a process that broke the Southern control of the rules committee on which LBJ with majority support both in the House and Senate could capitalize to pass radical civil rights legislation.
In these different political and social times, President Biden is fortunate that unemployment has dropped from 14% to 6 % between January and April 2021. This is largely associated with the improving health conditions. Over 50 % of Americans have received at least one vaccination. Still 4.2m remain unemployed including 12% of Black Community compared with 5.2% of the White population. Hence Biden’s emphasis on creating the possibilities for racial equity through whole of government policies, roll out of vaccinations for low income communities, tackling policing and police brutality in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the introduction universal paid leave are all in line with the FDR syndrome of success. They are in addition, not only prerequisites for reducing systemic racism but also the stimulus to the strategy deployed by Biden to fight COVID 19 which mirrors FDR's philosophy.
Dark Clouds on the Horizon
Despite optimism for the Democratic Party stimulated by Biden's performance in the first 100 days, dark clouds hover. Among the immediate ones to be lifted are sustainable economic growth linked to arresting the coronavirus, improving democratic standing at the mid-terms, immigration and border controls, among others.
Mid-terms are in 2022 and must take into account that in the normal electoral apportionment, the President’s party tends to lose votes. At the same time, indications are that polarization that characterized the 2020 elections is likely carry over. With respect to improving democratic political standing, while Trump never tried to expand his base, Biden can do so by increasing for example, the approval ratings among Whites without college degrees and Latinos which now stand at 36% and 38% respectively. Accordingly, Biden must take into consideration the view that the essence of working class resistance is less about economics than it is cultural.
Immigration, a perennial issue is at breaking point aggravated by what has been inherited from the previous administration. To deal with the border issue within the wider ambit of immigration reform, President Biden has placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of what has become a most significant humanitarian issue. This can make or break her future political fortunes. The current unplanned immigration crisis with a massive number of children at the border has already sparked an expanded refugee proclamation by President Biden. This issue for which Biden has received a 37% approval rating, bucks the positive trends.
Conclusion: So What's the Deal!
Major dark clouds hover around the nexus between economic and health policies driven by sustainable economic development which depends on getting COVID-19 under control, reducing unemployment and moving forward with the ambitious infra structure programme. Others include stabilizing the democratic process which from President Biden's perspective means making the Democratic Party a viable administration with working majorities in Congress, and reforming immigration with border control as the immediate target. But meaningful sustainability also requires extinguishing those dark clouds of institutional racism by placing emphasis on the pursuit of equity and inclusion. Impediments to remedial action have been flagged. The filibuster and partisan cleavages in Congress are only part of the problem. Important too, is the need for the Democratic party to grow its numbers in Congress to deliver on a partisan agenda in view of Republicans' resolve on non-cooperation..
Yet bipartisan accomplishments are still possible. Despite the polarized environment, the 116th Congress passed the CARES Act (March 2020), the most effective antipoverty law passed in the USA in more than a generation. Congress also enacted almost $4 trillion in pandemic relief. During the President's Obama's tenure some major pieces of bipartisan legislation were achieved. Among them: the expansion of the Violence against women Act, the K-12 Education Policy and the 21st Century Cures Act which among other things according to Francis Lee and James Curry The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era. Atlantic (April 23, 2021) may have helped speed up the release of the COVID-19 vaccines.
In the final analysis, the deal is to explore the available options to forestall economic and social fatalities from dark clouds. For Lee and Curry from their empirical examination of political history, the lessons from FDR to the present time are clear. " Congressional majority parties today are neither more nor less successful at enacting their partisan agendas. They are not more likely to ram though partisan laws or become mired in stalemate". In other words a sustainable political culture requires that "parties continue to build bipartisan coalitions for their legislative priorities and typically compromise on their original visions for legislation in order to achieve legislative success". This seems a reason path to removing authoritarian dark clouds that obscure the vision to liberal democracy.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.