By almost any measure, Joe Biden’s first 100 days have been hugely successful. Getting millions of Americans inoculated against Covid-19 and beginning to revive the economy are central to that success.
Two-thirds of Americans support Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus plan, already enacted. His infrastructure and family plans, which he outlined on Wednesday night at a joint session of Congress, also have broad backing. The $6tn price tag for all this would make it the largest expansion of the federal government since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But for most Americans, it doesn’t feel radical.
Rather than bet it all on a single large-scale program such as universal healthcare – which Bill Clinton failed to accomplish and which Barack Obama turned into a target of Republican fearmongering – Biden has picked an array of popular initiatives, such as preschool, public community college, paid family and medical leave, home care and infrastructure repairs, which are harder to vilify.
Economists talk about pent-up demand for private consumer goods, caused by the pandemic. Biden is responding to a pent-up demand for public goods. The demand has been there for years but the pandemic has starkly revealed it. Compared with workers in other developed nations, Americans enjoy few if any social benefits and safety nets. Biden is saying, in effect, it’s time we caught up.
Besides, it’s hard for Republicans to paint Biden as a radical. He doesn’t feel scary. He’s old, grandfatherly. He speaks haltingly. He’s humble. When he talks about the needs of average working people, it’s clear he knows them.
Biden has also been helped by the contrast to his immediate predecessor – the most divisive and authoritarian personality to occupy the Oval Office in modern memory. Had Biden been elected directly after Obama, regardless of the pandemic and economic crisis, it’s unlikely he and his ambitious plans would seem so benign.
In his address to Congress, Biden credited others for the achievements of his first 100 days. They had been accomplished “because of you”, he said, even giving a nod to Republicans. His predecessor was incapable of crediting anyone else for anything.
Meanwhile, the Republican party, still captive to its Trumpian base, has no message or policies to counter Biden’s proposals. Donald Trump left it with little more than a list of grievances irrelevant to the practical needs of most Americans: that Trump would have been re-elected but for fraudulent votes and a “deep state” conspiracy, that Democrats are “socialists” and that the “left” is intent on taking away American freedoms.
Biden has a razor-thin majority in Congress and must keep every Democratic senator in line if he is to get his plans enacted. But the vacuum on the right has allowed him to dominate the public conversation about his initiatives, which makes passage more likely.
Trump is aiding Biden in other ways. Trump’s yawning budget deficits help normalize Biden’s. When Trump sent $1,200 stimulus checks to most Americans last year regardless of whether they had a job, he cleared the way for Biden to deliver generous jobless benefits.
Trump’s giant $1.9tn tax cut for big corporations and the wealthy, none of which “trickled down”, make Biden’s proposals to increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for infrastructure and education seem even more reasonable.
Trump’s fierce economic nationalism has made Biden’s “buy American” initiative appear innocent by comparison. Trump’s angry populism has allowed Biden to criticize Wall Street and support unions without causing a ripple.
At the same time, Trumpian lawmakers’ refusal to concede the election and their efforts to suppress votes have alienated much of corporate America, pushing executives toward Biden by default.
Even on the fraught issue of race, the contrast with Trump has strengthened Biden’s hand. Most Americans were so repulsed by Trump’s overt racism and overtures to white supremacists, especially after the police murder of George Floyd, that Biden’s initiatives to end police brutality and “root out systemic racism”, as he said on Wednesday night, seem appropriate correctives.
The first 100 days of the Biden presidency were also the first 100 days of America without Trump, and the two cannot be separated.
With any luck, Biden’s plans might prove to be the antidote to Trumpism – creating enough decent-paying working-class jobs, along with benefits such as childcare and free community college, as to forestall some of the rightwing dyspepsia that Trump whipped into a fury.