The fact President-elect Joe Biden faces so many massive, complicated problems means he has an opportunity to become one of America’s greatest presidents, presidential historians say.
Biden has placed great emphasis on his first 100 days, a period of time used to take the temperature of a new presidential administration since the days of FDR.
But as Biden sets an ambitious early agenda, experts caution against placing too much stock in the 100-day standard.
The nature of the challenges President-elect Joe Biden will face from the moment he’s sworn-in offer him a unique opportunity in the context of American history, but experts caution against putting too much stock in the concept of his “first 100 days.”
When Biden is inaugurated in January, he will inherit a slew of crises on a scale not seen by the vast majority of his modern predecessors. He’ll enter the White House with the country deeply divided after four chaotic years under President Donald Trump, and during a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands alongside an economic crisis that’s left millions unemployed.
“Biden has the chance to go down as one of the great presidents in American history, simply because he’s got a whole hell of a lot of problems to solve,” Jeffrey A. Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, told Insider. “You can’t be a great unless you have great obstacles to overcome.”
“Nobody in their right mind would want to take on Washington or Roosevelt or Lincoln’s problems, right? But the fact that they succeeded is why we revere them so much and Biden is as close to that opportunity as I think we’ve seen since 1932,” Engel said.
Biden has placed great emphasis on what he hopes to accomplish in his first 100 days and established an ambitious agenda, ranging from vaccinating 100 million Americans to sending legislation to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. If he fails to deliver, it doesn’t necessarily set the tone for the rest of his presidency.
Engel said that a president’s first 100 days is essentially “useless” in terms of trying to measure how successful they’ll be at the end of four years because “priorities can change dramatically overnight.”
“The first 100 days are very revealing about the true character and priorities of an administration,” Engel said, but adding that they “tell us absolutely nothing about the ultimate success of an administration.”
‘A sense of urgency’
For decades, Americans have used a president’s first 100 days in office as a barometer for how they’ll fare as commander-in-chief. The 100-day standard dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the blistering speed at which he signed legislation and enacted reforms during the early days of his presidency in an effort to revive the country during the Great Depression.
Biden has looked to the model set by Roosevelt in terms of how he’ll approach the early days of his presidency.
“The first 100 days is definitely linked to a sense of urgency and also to the idea that a new administration, usually from a new party, means change. It’s also an arbitrary period of time, of course. But it’s tied to real ideas in both policy and politics,” Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, told Insider.
“Presidents sometimes come to office at times when there are pressing problems to resolve and with a sense that they were elected to tackle specific things and reverse what happened under their predecessor,” Azari added. “On the politics side, this is partly performative – to look like they are doing something and responding to the people who elected them.”
The concept of a president’s first 100 days is also a product of the notion that the White House has “limited political capital” during what’s often referred to as a presidential “honeymoon” period in which there’s seemingly strong public support and “enthusiasm for the new agenda,” Azari went on to say.
Though there’s evidence that the so-called “honeymoon” period used to exist, Azari highly doubts that it still does.
“Obama enjoyed higher approval early on in 2009, but Trump didn’t seem to get much of a honeymoon period and I doubt Biden will either,” Azari said. “Instead, making policy will reflect carefully assembling coalitions and finding buy-in among different legislators, or crafting policy out of the executive branch that satisfies relevant constituencies and makes few legal waves.”
Biden’s biggest challenges are also his greatest opportunities
Biden has his work cut out for him with a historically obstinate group of congressional Republicans, many of whom have not recognized him as president-elect. He also faces a fairly divided Democratic party, in which the left-leaning progressive wing often finds itself at odds with the more moderate or centrist elements of the party, including its leaders in both chambers.
Meanwhile, polling suggests that millions of Americans have bought into Trump’s baseless claims of mass voter fraud and do not see Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.
The Trump era has been extremely damaging to the American psyche and drastically altered the tone of US politics. Far right extremist groups have been emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, unabashed conspiracy theorists have been elected to Congress, and hyper-partisanship has made it difficult for lawmakers to work together on virtually any issue – including providing economic relief to Americans amid a devastating pandemic.
But with this convoluted compilation of problems converging before him, Biden has the opportunity to recalibrate American politics and its vision of itself.
Biden, who has presented himself as a leader who can unify and heal the country, could establish a new model for the presidency in the post-Trump era, Sidney Milkis, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, told Politico last month.
The greatest presidents are “at the center of developing a new political order,” Milkis said. “Trump has shown us how dangerous this cult of personality is, and Biden can be looked at as an antidote to that. Enough of the country is looking for leadership that would be normal, would be focused on building a coalition.”
No modern US president since Harry Truman has faced such a variety of major obstacles, Engel said, and Biden will also have to contend with the “structural problems of American power” and the fact US influence in the world has been on the decline for years.
The US is perhaps not “the most hegemonic power anymore,” Engel said, but what Biden recognizes is that much of the world “really wants Americans to lead, but they don’t want the America that they’ve seen of late leading.”
“In fact, you could argue – no pun intended – what the rest of the world really wants is to see America great again,” Engel added.
Read the original article on Business Insider