Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 29
April 29, 2021
Today marks the hundredth day of the Biden-Harris administration. In many ways, the hundred-day mark is arbitrary, a holdover from the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who worked with Congress to pass 76 new laws by the end of his first 100 days, setting a high bar for a consequential presidency. A hundred days is not an entirely useless metric, though, because by that time, a modern president has generally set the tone of the administration. Crucial to the success of that tone is having scored a major win. That, in turn, sets the tone for public reaction to a presidency, which then feeds the administration’s momentum.
When President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office on January 20, 2021, they were facing crises that rivaled the ones faced by FDR and even by President Abraham Lincoln, who took office after a number of southern states had declared they were leaving the United States to form their own confederacy.
Biden and Harris took office after the former president had supported an insurrection to overturn the results of the election and seize power. Trump denied the legitimacy of their election (and continues to deny it) despite more than 60 lawsuit outcomes that upheld it, while 147 members of Congress sided with the former president, challenging at least one of the official state-certified ballots that made Biden president. The actions of the former president were unprecedented, breaking our previous history of peaceful transitions of power, and on January 20, Washington, D.C., was patrolled by troops stationed there to protect the incoming government.
When Biden took office, the novel coronavirus was ravaging the country. More than 24 million of us had been infected with the virus, and more than 400,000 Americans had died of Covid-19, including 2727 deaths the day before Biden was sworn in. New variants were spreading, and while the previous administration had begun vaccinations, reaching about 4% of the population, it had not arranged for distribution of them, planning simply to get them to states and let the states handle the process from there.
The economy was under water. More than ten million people were out of work and another 3.9 million had stopped even looking. Economic growth before the pandemic was modest—2.2%—but the economy contracted during the crisis. Biden also inherited the biggest federal debt since World War II, standing at over $21.6 trillion. That debt was not simply a product of the coronavirus recession: Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, passed without a single Democratic vote, cost almost $230 billion, helping to create a federal deficit of $984 billion even before the pandemic hit.
The first tweet Biden sent as president made a marked contrast from what Americans had seen for the previous four years. “There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face,” Biden wrote. “That’s why today, I am heading to the Oval Office to get right to work delivering bold action and immediate relief for American families.”
And he did.
After he was sworn in and the ceremonies were over, Biden went to the Oval Office and began the process of signing more than a dozen executive actions that either addressed the pandemic or rolled back some of the policies of the previous administration.
During the campaign, Biden had promised to hit 100 million vaccine doses delivered in his first 100 days; on January 25, he increased that number to 200 million. By February, the administration had bought enough vaccines to inoculate all Americans and had begun to open mass vaccination sites. By April 22, the United States had met Biden’s goal of 200 million vaccinations, a week ahead of time.
On January 20, Biden announced the American Rescue Plan to rebuild the nation after the ravages of the pandemic. It appropriated $1.9 trillion to expand unemployment benefits, make direct payments to individuals, increase food security, fund housing, move children out of poverty, support small businesses, and fund support for healthcare and Covid vaccines. The plan passed Congress, and Biden signed it into law on March 11, less than two months after he took office, a major win.
The job market is rebounding. For the third straight week, initial jobless claims—which are a way to look at layoffs– have dropped below 600,000, the lowest they’ve been in a year. At the same time, U.S. employers added more than 900,000 jobs in March, and economists expect to see more than a half a million new jobs a month for the next year. That will not end the economic crisis of the past year—we are still down 8.4 million jobs from the beginning of the pandemic—but numbers are moving in the right direction. In the first quarter of 2021, the economy grew at an annual rate of 6.4%
A problem for the administration that did not show up in the media last January was the budding crisis at our southern border, where numbers of refugees were about to surge both with seasonal migration and with those held at the border by the former administration. The administration adhered to Covid protocols, turning away from admission all but unaccompanied children. This initially created a surge of children in Border Patrol and Health and Human Services facilities, but the administration has worked to get the situation under control. The number of children in the custody of Border Patrol has dropped 82% in the past month, leaving fewer than 1000 still in custody. The problem is not solved—the children still need to be moved out of Health and Human Services facilities—but it seems to be getting into order.
But Biden has done more than address the coronavirus crisis, the economy, or the refugee crisis. He is reclaiming the nation from the policies of the Reagan Revolution, rejecting the idea central to that revolution, that government is bad by nature and that the country works best when we turn it over to individual actors. He is doing so by working around the Republican lawmakers who are determined to obstruct him at every turn, appealing instead to ordinary Republican voters, who actually want many of the same things ordinary Democratic voters do. The American Rescue Plan, for example, was popular with 77% of Americans, although it received not a single Republican vote.
Biden is reasserting the idea that government can address problems that can only be fixed at a national scale—problems like a pandemic and the economy—but he is not resurrecting the idea of using the government to protect the ability of men to support their families, as FDR did. He is adapting the idea of an active government to the civil rights movements after World War II, defending the rights of Americans as individuals, rather than as members of nuclear families. His administration is centering children and those who take care of them, rather than shoring up any particular family structure.
His revision of the American dream shows in his appointment of the most diverse cabinet in American history: 58% of his political appointees are women while half identify as non-white, 15% were the first in their families to go to college, and 32% are naturalized citizens or first-generation Americans. He chose the first female vice president, the first female Treasury Secretary, the first Indigenous American to lead the Interior Department, and the first Black head of the Pentagon.
One thing, though, about what sure seems to be a very strong start from the Biden administration…. Never forget that what made the American Rescue Plan possible was the election of Democratic Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Had the Democrats not held 50 seats in the Senate, enabling them to enact the American Rescue Plan through reconciliation, Biden would be able to maneuver only through executive orders, since Republicans in the Senate would have stopped all legislation.
Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, traveled today to Plains, Georgia, to visit former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. “We owe a special thanks to the people of Georgia. Because of you, the rest of America was able to get help,” Biden said to reporters while he was there. “If you ever wonder if elections make a difference, just remember what you did here in Georgia…. You changed America.”