What Have We Learned From Biden’s First 100 Days?

What Have We Learned From Biden’s First 100 Days?April 21, 2021

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’re closing in on the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency (Wednesday marks Day 92). As such, it’s time for us to take a step back — along with the rest of the political media — to evaluate what we’ve learned so far.

Yes, the 100-day mark of a presidency is arbitrary and not necessarily indicative of how a presidency will be remembered. But, at the same time, it can offer a window into a president’s priorities and governing strategy or underscore possible problems. And for Biden, the circumstances have been particularly high-stakes given the unprecedented problems posed by COVID-19.

This has meant that much of his first 100 days has focused on getting Americans relief and trying to stimulate the economy through a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package, in addition to ramping up vaccination efforts. But Biden has also shown that he’s willing to push for big, ambitious proposals that show just how far to the left the Democratic Party moved during Donald Trump’s presidency.

At the same time, there are real questions about what Biden will be able to achieve given Democrats’ slim majority in Congress — how big a roadblock will someone like Sen. Joe Manchin be? — and whether his strategy of passing legislation without trying to win Republican lawmakers’ support will backfire. And, of course, our country remains very divided, making Biden’s campaign promise of unity a hard one to achieve.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far from Biden’s first 100 days?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): At the risk of annoying everyone in the entire world, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is actually about Trump’s legacy, something I’ve thought quite a bit about.

I wasn’t sure what the presidency would look like after Trump, and I’m not sure if a relatively quiet leader like Biden — who’s been quite restrained in his public communications — was it.

sarah: But what has Biden helped you understand better about Trump, Julia?

julia_azari: It’s less to do with Trump and more about the nature of the presidency.

I was somewhat surprised (though, in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been) by how clearly the pendulum swung back and by how uneventful and unchaotic this presidency has been so far. According to The Washington Post, which has been tracking political appointments in this administration, Biden is the first president in decades to not have a single failed nominee, despite the Senate being divided. Yes, the White House withdrew its nomination of Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget because of her past comments on Twitter, but even still, this wasn’t an all-consuming fight in the way that nominations were during Trump’s presidency.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): One thing I’ve taken from these first 100 days is that Biden didn’t believe — or wasn’t committed to — his rhetoric about how the Republicans were going to work with him. 

He is moving forward on his goals aggressively and not desperately chasing Republican votes that aren’t likely to come anyway.  

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): For me, I’ve gotten a better sense for what the potential ceiling might be on a president’s approval rating when a president isn’t constantly courting controversy. 

Trump quickly fell into the mid-to-low 40s in his early days, and while Biden’s approval rating is not that low — he’s hung out mostly in the mid-to-low 50s — it does seem as if the honeymoon effect, or the period at the start of a president’s term when he has a higher-than-average approval rating, is fading given how polarized our politics are.

Every president going back to Jimmy Carter had an approval rating of around 58 percent or higher on Day 100 before Trump, who was at 42 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker, whereas Biden looks headed for 53 percent or so.

sarah: There’s certainly been a lot of discussion around whether we can actually “go back to normal” after Trump, as Julia pointed out. And I think there’s a real question still of what the long-term fallout of the insurrection at the Capitol will be when it’s apparent that there is so much partisan animosity in our politics. Trump might be out of the White House, but Trumpism is very much still with us.

I agree with Perry, though, in that I’ve been struck by how the administration has chosen to frame bipartisanship — to pass popular legislation without really trying to court Republican lawmakers. I’ve also been surprised by just how much more liberal and populist the Democratic Party is under Biden, the quintessential median Democrat.

What do you think is the biggest thing the Biden administration has done so far?  

geoffrey.skelley: Unquestionably, it’s passing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. It’s massive, more than twice the size of the stimulus bill passed in Barack Obama’s early days amidst the Great Recession in 2009.

perry: The federal government’s distribution of COVID-19 vaccines at such an accelerated pace and moving to expand eligibility as quickly as it has is probably the most important thing any president has done since George W. Bush’s actions in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s just hugely important because of the scale of COVID-19, in terms of the number of people who have died or been ill from the virus.

The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is big and important too, although I would not rank it as big as Obamacare or the Trump tax bill yet, because so many of the provisions are temporary and may not be renewed.  

julia_azari: I’d say the relief bill, although Perry and I disagreeing — even slightly — about something important is obviously the most important thing the Biden administration has done.

But I say the relief bill because it had a couple of important symbolic impacts in addition to what it actually does. For instance, there was a lot of discussion about the idea of government being able to do constructive things and shift away from the Reagan paradigm that “government is the problem.” If that turns out to be true, and politicians outside the left wing of the Democratic Party begin to more readily embrace the possibility that government can do good things, that’s a huge change. Even Democrats, at the presidential level, have been hesitant to talk like this for the past 40 years. There was also the fact that Biden’s proposal for the size of the bill was reflected in the final legislation. This is pure Neustadt (a classic theory of the presidency) — showing people you can get what you want creates a lasting advantage in negotiations. Again, I’m not sure how true that will turn out to be given the state of both parties. But that’s what it made me think of.

sarah: Agreed that it’s hard not to think about how Biden has handled the pandemic. His marks are just so much higher than Trump’s ever were: 62 percent, on average, approve of Biden’s leadership on the issue, whereas Trump never quite cracked 50 percent.

And, as you all say, the stimulus package was broadly popular, too.

One question I have tangentially related to the COVID-19 relief bill is, How many other laws have been signed into law during Biden’s first 100 days? We know that the number of major laws passed in the first 100 days has seriously declined since the 1950s given how Congress works, but do we have a sense of whether Biden is on pace with his recent predecessors?

geoffrey.skelley: So far, only seven laws have been enacted, according to GovTrack, which would certainly be on the smaller end of things historically. Many presidents have signed 10 or more laws in their first 100 days.

Of course, the complication here is that laws have been getting bigger over time, so a pure count doesn’t tell the whole story. 

sarah: What are some of the setbacks Biden’s administration has faced so far or potential roadblocks moving forward?

julia_azari: The administration faced one of its biggest setbacks on Nov. 3, when Democrats didn’t pick up some of the Senate seats they were hoping to win (North Carolina, Maine). They were never going to get a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority, but the slim majority they have now is not an advantage.

I also think that the controversy surrounding Biden’s initial decision to keep Trump’s low, 15,000 refugee cap (though Biden later recanted amid the backlash) and the new timetable for getting troops out of Afghanistan underscores that Democrats don’t really have a clear set of policies or principles to guide them on foreign policy and immigration. The party has gotten more liberal, but what does “more liberal” mean for Afghanistan? Biden is also clearly caught between the kind of pragmatic rhetoric of the ’80s and ’90s that Democrats had on immigration and the more human rights-based ideas that have guided the party more recently.

perry: The inability or unwillingness by the Democrats to change the filibuster rules combined with the GOP’s opposition to Biden’s goals means that Biden is likely to get nothing done on gun policy and voting rights, and maybe not even on climate change, health care and permanent economic policy. Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema basically decide the Democrats’ agenda because they are the 49th and 50th votes, and that is a huge roadblock to some of the things Biden wants to do. For instance, it’s really striking that Republicans at the state level passed a wave of voting restrictions while the leader of the Democrats (Biden) can do nothing but complain.

Finally, Biden’s not-quite-coherent immigration policies suggest that his administration is torn between breaking with the harsh policies of the Trump administration and not seeming too liberal on immigration (at the border and with refugees) and therefore turning off swing voters.

julia_azari: At the risk of getting too in the weeds, I want to expand on what Perry and I said for a second. Biden leads a more liberal party, as we’ve noted. But the policies that Biden and the Democrats have pledged to address are, in many cases, ones where there are already policies in place or ongoing situations (like U.S. involvement in Afghanistan) or that involve well-developed interest-group communities (like the NRA and gun control). 

You’re going to see a lot of Biden-FDR comparisons, and in some ways the crisis situation is comparable. But I would note that FDR was building some stuff from the ground up and trying new programs while Biden’s ambitions all require dealing with institutions, interests and entanglements that already exist.

sarah: I’m curious what you all think of the FDR-LBJ comparisons more broadly, because Julia’s right — we’re going to see a lot of them. Essentially, it seems as if both the size and scope of Biden’s agenda have earned him a number of comparisons to FDR and LBJ  — a comparison Biden doesn’t seem to mind — although not all are convinced the comparisons are warranted at this point. 

So, is it a fair comparison? Or, as Julia points out, is this not really a good comparison?

julia_azari: I think there are two answers to this question. Policy-wise, party dynamics and the weight of existing politics make it much harder for Biden to fundamentally change the system. Politically, though, I think Biden will get a lot of credit in some corners (notably, from journalists and historians) for not being Trump. For instance, Biden has shown empathy during the pandemic, something Trump famously lacked. Biden has also picked competent, qualified people for his Cabinet and top advisory positions. He doesn’t tweet insults, etc., but whether that merits a comparison to FDR is a good question.

perry: Biden has passed one big bill full of temporary provisions. He has a tiny majority in both chambers, and some of his own members are balking at his agenda. I would be surprised if Biden accomplishes as much as Obama (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the 2009 stimulus, appointing the first Latina Supreme Court justice), nevermind LBJ or FDR. And that’s in terms of raw policy. 

Now, in terms of rhetoric and messaging, Biden is pushing the Democrats further left on race (like Johnson) and economics (like FDR). If he got 62 Senate seats (so Manchin and Sinema could vote no on things), then yes, he could be those presidents.

But these comparisons to FDR and LBJ seem nuts right now. In reality, Biden is governing more to the left than I expected. But his real accomplishment is being a competent president — restoring the presidency to normal, as he promised he would do during the campaign. That’s what I think people are really looking for.

geoffrey.skelley: Nate Cohn at The New York Times made a good point earlier this week that having liberals debating whether Biden is akin to FDR, and conservatives claiming Biden’s actually not that different from Trump, is a pretty good indication that Biden has struck a successful political balance.

In other words, liberals are pleased with him, and conservatives are making a case that could make Biden look … moderate.

sarah: We sort of touched on this when discussing the biggest thing the Biden administration has done so far, but in evaluating his first 100 days, I thought we’d return to a memo White House chief of staff Ron Klain circulated prior to Biden’s inauguration that laid out four main focuses for the administration: “the COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis.”

How has Biden fared on these four priorities so far? And is this a fair way to assess his administration?

julia_azari: On those four crises, this is actually an area where the FDR framework is helpful: Start with the immediate emergencies, then deal with structural issues, then procedural/democracy reforms. But as Perry pointed out, that may not make much sense in the legislative context of a divided Senate and the current norms around filibuster use.

I’m not really sure of a fair way to assess presidential administrations, though.

perry: Voters, Democrats who don’t work for Biden, the Republicans and the media should come up with their own criteria to judge Biden on. But I think it’s useful to measure Biden against his own metrics. 

On COVID-19, they have implemented a vaccine program, helped get schools open and done a lot of real work in calming down the country. Feels like an A there. The economy — lots of good data there, too. People spent the stimulus checks and liked them. Another A. 

They just haven’t done much on climate policy at all — so incomplete, or a C. Racial issues are hard. I credit the administration for doing some real work in terms of improving vaccine access and confidence among Black people. But the GOP-passed voting laws are likely to make it harder for people of color, in particular, to vote, and Biden and the Democrats are doing basically nothing. The racial climate looks terrible in terms of policing — Minnesota, a blue state, looks like a war zone given how militarized their police force has been in response to the Derek Chauvin trial and protests around Daunte Wright’s death. Do Black people feel better about the issue of police mistreatment of them? I doubt it. C on race equity.  

geoffrey.skelley: I think you have to give an incomplete grade on all of these, although addressing COVID-19 is the most obvious place where the administration has made progress on its goals. 

For instance, the U.S. has rejoined the Paris Agreement, and Biden has issued executive orders to help address the climate crisis, but part of whether the Biden administration succeeds on that front will come down to whether they’re able to pass a sizable infrastructure package that invests in green industry and technology. And even then, it’ll matter for what it does to the economy and if it’s popular.

sarah: What do Americans think of Biden so far? Republicans? Democrats?

perry: His approval is basically the reverse of Trump’s — Biden is in the mid-50s in terms of approval, high 30s/low 40s in terms of disapproval. 

So, I can’t tell if voters like what Biden is doing or basically the people who hated Trump’s governing style like Biden’s, and the people who liked Trump’s governing hate Biden’s (and the pro-Biden/anti-Trump group is bigger). 

geoffrey.skelley: On that point, public opinion about Biden does appear to be even more polarized than early opinion was about Trump, according to Gallup. There are stark splits by education, but the most obvious split is by party identification: Democratic approval is in the mid-90s, while approval among Republicans is at or below 10 percent. 

On the one hand, that isn’t that surprising. Presidents get more support from those in their party. Take Trump, who attracted very high levels of Republican support — and still does. But the fact that Biden’s approval among Democrats is so high is indicative of just how polarized things are: It’s actually slightly higher than Obama’s was in the early days of his presidency despite the fact that Obama’s overall approval was higher than Biden’s is right now. So Biden derives more of his overall support from his party base while also having a lower ceiling of potential backing from Republicans.

perry: It does look that Biden is doing better among independents than Trump did and hence overall. His policies certainly have more support among Republicans than Trump’s did among Democrats.

I’d argue that 54/40 in this very polarized era is pretty good. You could imagine President Hillary Clinton in 2017 being at 47/47 at the start and then declining.

julia_azari: The question I’m interested in is whether Biden’s approval rating will be as completely unresponsive to events as Obama’s and Trump’s were.

geoffrey.skelley: Ha, I wouldn’t say it was “completely” unresponsive, just notably less responsive. We did see Trump’s approval slide more than it ever had before in response to the insurrection at the Capitol, for instance. 

But it’s true that Trump did seem to have a much tighter approval range than previous presidents, suggesting that there isn’t as much room for presidents to change their approval ratings.

sarah: OK, so as I said at the outset, the 100-day mark is arbitrary and, as a result, a hard barometer to really measure a president’s success (or lack thereof). That said, what are you keeping an eye on for the rest of Biden’s term?

julia_azari: I think whether the administration takes positions that would really alter the status quo in some important way, possibly disrupting business and corporate interests and addressing systemic issues. Also, whether Biden can solve the issue of Democrats’ having a coherent position on immigration that’s not just “Not Trump.”

geoffrey.skelley: I’m interested to see how Biden and his administration push on voting rights issues with a 50-50 Senate and needing 60 votes for cloture. Is there going to be some sort of new Voting Rights Act? What parts of H.R. 1 might actually have a chance of passing in the Senate? 

I don’t know how they’ll play it, especially considering that Manchin and Sinema have said they won’t weaken the filibuster.

perry: I am really curious what Biden will say in his State of the Union-like joint session of Congress speech on April 28. How does Biden himself describe his administration’s successes, challenges and aspirations? 

How will he explain his policies on immigration, the one issue where I would argue he has not been particularly clear about his broader vision?

How does he talk about these issues of race and policing? His views and comments have to go beyond “The police should not choke Black people to death.”  

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