Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President-elect Joe Biden is trying to get out of the gate running. Even before his Jan. 20 inauguration, Biden has announced a $1.9. trillion stimulus plan, a massive list of executive orders that will undo President Donald Trump’s most controversial decisions, and an immigration reform proposal to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million people. Whereas Trump was most interested in building a wall, Biden hopes to build new communities of citizens.
As a veteran of national politics, Biden understands that the most valuable commodity for any new President is time. His sense of urgency is reminiscent of another highly experienced President with a deep resume on the Hill: Lyndon B. Johnson.
Upon taking over the presidency in November 1963 following the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson mapped out a schedule to his closest advisers, including Bill Moyers, to impress upon them just how quickly their window for making progress would be open. Johnson clutched a notepad with a truncated scheduling filled with handwritten columns of months going from November until 1968. Johnson’s message was that he had about a year and a half before the politics of the midterms kicked in and his chances for legislating started to dwindle. “Bill, I’ve just been figuring out how much time we would have to do what we want to do,” Moyers recalled Johnson saying. “I really intend to finish Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution … In an ideal world … we would have about 110 months to his 144 months … I’ll never make it that far, of course, so let’s assume that we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we’ll lose our big margin in Congress. That means in 1967 and 1968 there will be a hell of a fight.”
Biden hopes to convey the same message at a moment of even greater urgency. Even with many Democrats wondering how he will make any progress as the Senate deals with the articles of impeachment and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell relies on the filibuster to obstruct, the President-elect won’t be locked down.
Biden’s goal is to reverse the damage that Democrats believe has been inflicted by Trump. Through executive action, he plans to end the travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries and rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in office. He will also do what Trump refused to do to fight the pandemic, including a mask mandate on federal property and interstate travel and working to reunite families separated at the US-Mexico border. Biden’s stimulus plan would provide the kind of economic assistance to states and localities, $350 billion worth, that Republicans have blocked and move toward a bold immigration plan that undoes the era of restrictionism.
Unlike some other famous first 100 days, like FDR in 1933, Biden’s plan primarily aims to reverse the direction of policy under his predecessor and stabilize society from the pandemic rather than setting out on a fundamentally new path that remakes public policy. Nonetheless, given the circumstances, the plan is extremely ambitious.
Besides executive orders and legislation, the biggest issue in the coming months is an implementation issue. There Biden has also shown he will not be passive. His incoming administration has promised to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days. He is working to open new vaccine centers and has said he will use the Defense Production Act to ramp up the distribution of shots.
If Biden works on getting this agenda going, the Senate impeachment trial of Trump would not stifle Biden’s first 100 days. With the Senate doing the heavy lifting, the trial and the vote will allow Democrats to achieve some measure of accountability. There is even some chance that a sufficient number of Republicans could break toward conviction.
The strategy won’t be easy. Biden will inevitably come under fire for using the same kind of executive action that Trump was criticized for using. Though Republicans have lost control of the Senate, Senator Mitch McConnell still holds immense power if his caucus remains united and the Democrats don’t abandon the filibuster. The fury and anger of Trump’s loyal base, part of the GOP, will loom large. And Biden must lead in a world where the conservative media continues to pump out conspiracy theories and smears as he moves forward.
But Biden’s effort to start fresh could work. The nation might be in crisis, but he won’t act like a trapped President. The most important power of the President in the early days is to set the agenda – to lay out the issues that will be debated and to push Congress toward the issues that he wants examined.
While President Gerald Ford tried to end “our long national nightmare” by pardoning President Richard Nixon for crimes that he might have committed, Biden is taking a different path. He is trying to reset the policy agenda, to lift us out of our national lockdown and move back to the period when we had ambitions to make this a more welcoming and engaged nation, one working to curb climate change, to open improved world markets and to get us out of the world that Covid-19 has created.