In his first 100 days in office, President Biden met the moment.
And in his first address to Congress, President Biden laid out an agenda for the next 100 days that would make history, matching the historic achievements of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Setting such a high bar may seem unrealistic, but most of what Biden and his team need to do to meet it is stay true to the course and the principles that have guided them through the transition and first 100 days.
Biden took office amid a pandemic, a protracted recession, and a violent, right-wing attempt to block his peaceful acceptance of the presidency. He has responded with a national mobilization effort to vaccinate every American and a legislative victory that provided desperately needed economic relief to families, cities, and businesses.
The vaccination program is ahead of schedule. The American Rescue Plan sparked a hiring surge last month and included new tax credits and food programs that could cut child poverty in half. In addition, Biden has launched a racial-equity audit and action plan of the entire federal government, restored our diplomatic leadership, and brought a modicum of comity back to political Washington.
Biden has thus paved the way for a second 100 days that shifts from immediate relief to lasting transformation. Not just getting the country through COVID but curing the pre-existing conditions that made our economy and society so vulnerable to pandemics and repeated market crashes. He has proposed an agenda that effectively rebuilds a more inclusive American dream and, in essence, makes America affordable again for millions of families.
Biden has succeeded beyond expectations so far by keeping his proposals simple but bold, and restoring professionalism and competence to the government. That approach served him perfectly as he responded to the emergency he inherited; it will serve him just as well as he builds a legacy that will outlast his first hundred days.
That’s not to downplay the accomplishments he’s lodged so far. History will already remember Biden for controlling a virus the prior administration allowed to spread uncontrolled for a year, and giving Americans the support they need to emerge from the pandemic into a hopeful future.
But he could be remembered for so much more than that, if he continues to implement a governing agenda that makes the country resilient to pandemics and many other challenges, for decades to come. That means following three basic principles.
- Continue to keep it simple: President Biden is fully aware his agenda requires at least 50 votes in the Senate, but he has chosen to win those votes by making his case directly to the American people. He and his team understood that this is not just about passing good policy, but making sure the people understand what policy just passed and what it means at the kitchen table. That entailed crafting straightforward legislation the public didn’t need masters degrees to understand. His jobs and family plans build on the same foundation.
- Bold is the new political mainstream: In earlier decades, passage of a $1.9 trillion relief bill might have left legislators gun shy about spending trillions more to repair and expand the social compact. Pundits frequently miscast Biden’s proposals as a lurch to the left instead of a deliberate effort to unite the country through bold, high-impact ideas with broad support. Traditional beltway voices fixate on a bill’s price tag and the process of passing it. But in truth, what makes Biden’s agenda extraordinary (and popular!) is its scale more than its ideology. Biden’s desire to go big comes not from leftist principles but rather from his endless reservoir of empathy. American workers are not a small tax credit away from economic security. They need a massive shift in the fundamentals of our economy to make America affordable again. They need our public education system to shift form K-12 to P-14. They need not just short-term stimulus but public investments that rebuild American competitiveness. Those who want him to succeed should follow his lead, and Biden should marshal his formidable political skills to convince them to advance that agenda unified and with purpose, even if it means going it alone.
- Elevate Competence: Passing landmark legislation will be an historic political achievement. Implementing reforms this vast amidst a pandemic, polarization, and propaganda would be an historic achievement of good governance. Biden filled key posts with a diverse set of highly experienced people prepared to lead on day one. Perhaps even more importantly, they have shown the wisdom and maturity to quickly correct inevitable missteps, such as “clarifying” that they did not plan to maintain Trump’s inhumane cap on refugees. They listened to advocates, changed course quickly, and moved forward. In an administration populated with novices, these course corrections could have become paralyzing process stories about an administration in disarray. In the hands of an experienced crew, they reflect a capacity to adapt to good advice and facts. Pushback from the Hill may make it seem like the party is fracturing, but it actually means the party is working; congressional Democrats should understand that unifying behind Biden doesn’t mean remaining silent when he or his cabinet make mistakes.
These principles did not materialize from thin air. They reflect lessons of the successes and setbacks of the Obama Administration’s early years. In 2009, as a freshman representative from a red district, I voted for some bold reforms that were politically controversial but promised to get the country on a better course. During the 2010 election, our best sales pitch was on reforms that were simple but bold, especially those that had passed early enough for voters to have seen the results. Voters did not care that the auto bailout was, in purely ideological terms, the most leftwing policy of the early Obama years—they cared that it was bold and simple, and that it worked. [I contend that passing Obamacare in the first 100 days with negotiated drug rates and a public option would have meant victory for many of us in 2010.] President Biden has focused on early results that working families can feel and gets that cutting a good idea in half does not make it more appealing to most Americans who think it is not enough to build back but rather to build back better.
Few Americans who knew of Lyndon Johnson before he became president would have pegged him to be one of the most transformative in American history; but an historic convergence of tragedy and wisdom brought Johnson’s unique experiences together with a period of great national need, and Johnson rose to meet it.
Joe Biden reminds me of that in a lot of ways. If Johnson had won the presidential nomination as he expected to do in 1960, he might have governed as a more moderate, incremental president.
We cannot know what kind of President Biden might have become after one of his earlier runs, but he became president at a moment of both economic peril and political violence—for four years, Trump and his allies leveled attacks on America’s ideals, which culminated with a violent mob storming the Capitol and seeking to undo a free and fair election.
Under these circumstances, and with extraordinary experience and empathy, Biden has laid the foundation for an historic presidency that builds back a better, more inclusive and secure American dream and middle class. If he stays the course, his second 100 days could produce an historic set of legislative accomplishments that empower a team of true public servants to spend the remainder of the term making real the American ideals in which Joe Biden has never lost faith.
Tom Perriello is the executive director of Open Society-U.S.