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 Joe Biden’s first 100 days are coming to a close. This benchmark was set by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a wildly productive start to his presidency in 1933, and it has been used to judge new Presidents ever since.
Although skeptics predicted Biden might be a hesitant leader who would focus too much on elusive bipartisan deals out of fear of rocking the boat, he has proven himself to be anything but. Biden, it turns out, has hit the ground running and started crafting a robust record.
To be sure, this is not another New Deal. Biden has not matched the frenzied pace of FDR’s first 100 days in office, when more than a dozen laws were passed to provide relief, create jobs and introduce reforms to jolt the country out of a recession. It is also unclear whether Biden will have the same kind of long-term impact as President Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in shifting political debate to the right.
Biden made his mark with the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion package offering a sweeping combination of relief, stimulus and longer-term assistance. The legislation provided aid to state and local governments, direct checks for American families, an expanded child tax credit, assistance to small businesses and homeowners, expanded unemployment compensation and more. In our era of polarized politics, and with a Republican Party hell-bent on obstruction, Biden used the budget reconciliation process to sidestep the chances of a filibuster, and the bill was passed on party lines. Unlike the New Deal programs, much of the relief is short-term assistance. But the American Rescue Plan is impressive in its breadth and it remains a substantial piece of legislation.
And Biden isn’t stopping with this legislation. He has already started work on the American Jobs Plan, a sweeping infrastructure package that would inject $2 trillion into the foundation of our economy. The legislation would fund traditional infrastructure programs like bridges and roads, while improving broadband service, drinking water and the electric grid. Biden has also promised to fight climate change through electric vehicles and cleaner energy sources, while promoting racial equality. The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Democrats can use the reconciliation process at least one more time, which could potentially pave the way for the bill’s passage.
Biden will also receive high marks for his handling of the vaccine rollout in his first 100 days. Scientists – sometimes with funding help from Operation Warp Speed – had already developed highly effective vaccines before Biden entered office. But the previous administration was planning to take a hands-off approach that would leave vaccine distribution largely to the states.
Biden focused much of his attention on the logistical challenge of distributing the vaccines and overseeing supplies. The nation celebrated his goal of administering 200 million doses on Wednesday, well ahead of schedule. As we see in other countries, such has Israel, widespread vaccination can tamp down infections and usher in stability and normality. The next 200 million doses will be much harder to deliver, however, considering the millions of Americans who are still hesitant about getting vaccinated.
President Biden has also put himself on the map in his use of executive power. He has moved at a fervid pace to undo some of the key decisions from the Trump years. He reentered the Paris Climate Agreement, established a White House Gender Policy Council and revoked executive orders that limited immigration and justified separating families at the border.
Throughout all of this, the President’s approval and favorability ratings have been strong. His appearances before the public, though not nearly as extensive as the former President, seem to be landing well. He has also made a compelling case for the vital role of government in American life, offering a rebuttal to Reagan, who famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Biden’s presidency has not been problem free. There has been an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border and the number of unaccompanied minors has reached new highs since at least October 2009. When the Biden administration announced the President would keep the fiscal year’s refugee cap at 15,000 – a record-low limit set by his predecessor – it prompted a backlash among Democrats. The White House then backtracked, announcing Biden would set a new, increased refugee cap next month. Meanwhile, Republican support for the President remains low and it seems unlikely that Biden will persuade many in the GOP to join him on anything. And while the vaccine rollout has been largely successful, Covid-19 infections remain high in states like Michigan, and the return to recovery promises many bumps along the way.
It’s also important to remember that the first 100 days doesn’t necessarily determine the course of the rest of a President’s four years. Some, such as Jimmy Carter, were very successful during this period only to face political downfall later on. Others, like John F. Kennedy, start slow but end up strong.
Regardless of what the future holds, Biden’s presidency thus far has energized Democrats, many of whom have been pleasantly surprised by his willingness to push forward and deliver on big promises. His continued popularity will strengthen his standing within the party. Meanwhile, Democrats may be feeling better at the prospect of going into the 2022 midterms strengthened by Biden’s successes – and solidifying a political coalition that could potentially launch a new era in American liberalism.