Apr 28, 2021

SPECIAL EDITION: Biden's first 100 days.

SPECIAL EDITION: Biden's first 100 days.

Where do things stand?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here. Today’s newsletter is a special edition.


On Monday, in the numbers section, I had a statistic that 49,984,595 people did not vote in the 2020 election. In fact, this was the number of people who did vote in 2020 but did not vote in 2016. I’m not entirely sure how this mistake happened or got through, but cheers to Blake from Arkansas who caught the error.

This is the 38th Tangle correction in its 87-week existence and the first since March 30th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize my transparency with readers.

The first 100 days.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, he was facing a complete panic across the United States as one of the worst financial crises ever sunk in. To help calm tensions and fear, he began addressing the nation in his now famous “Fireside Chats.” Radio addresses became the norm for FDR, and on July 24th of 1933 he coined the term “first 100 days” by sharing what had been done between the opening and closing of a special session in Congress. That the span totaled 100 days — from March 9th to June 17th of that year — was pure coincidence. But since then, every president has made a similar “in the first 100 days” promise and been evaluated on it.

And President Biden is no different.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Wednesday night, Biden will address members of Congress in a nationally televised speech. It’ll be an odd sort of pseudo-State of the Union, with limited seating and many members not attending — or not interested in attending — in the coronavirus era. Thursday (tomorrow) will mark his 100th day in office if you’re counting from inauguration day. Friday will be his 100th full day as president.

As a result, the assessments have poured in. Yesterday, I wrote about how there were surprisingly few columns written about the census results — or at least not as much chatter as I was expecting. Part of that may be due to the deluge of reviews this week looking at President Biden’s first 100 days.

Much of his time has been focused on the transition from President Trump and his coronavirus response. With COVID-19 receding in the U.S., the vaccine rollout in full swing and many states and cities barreling toward a full reopening, Biden is beginning to move to the meat of his agenda: a massive infrastructure plan, spending on climate change, expanding voting rights and increasing the role the government plays in the economic life of everyday working Americans.

Today, I’m going to do my best to paint a picture of how the right and left are discussing this, then share my own views and evaluate whether Biden has kept or broken his 100 day promises. This should be the only evaluation of President Biden’s first 100 days that you need to read.

The left.

Responses from the left have largely focused on how drastic the change has been since Trump left office. It’s not just that Biden is doing his best to avoid the press, stay boring and overhaul the government’s role in everyday life — all polar opposites to his predecessor — it’s that he’s managed to pursue a far more progressive agenda than many of his liberal detractors had expected.

In The Nation, Robert L. Borosage tightly summarized what Biden has done and what he plans to do through the progressive lens.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed by Congress under the arcane reconciliation process with no Republican votes. Hailed by Bernie Sanders as the ‘most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country,’ the package provides $1,400 in direct payments, as well as extended unemployment benefits, support for rapid vaccination, resources to help open schools, aid for state and local governments, and a dramatic expansion of health insurance subsidies. It also creates a universal basic income for poor and middle-class families with children, which would cut child poverty in half. At about 9 percent of current GDP, it dwarfs FDR’s and Obama’s stimulus packages and will supercharge the recovery.

Next up for passage is the $2.25 trillion, eight-year American Jobs Plan, which Biden described as a ‘once-in-a-generation investment in America,’ with billions of dollars for electric vehicles, broadband, clean water, housing, and the largest investment in nondefense research and development ever. With interest rates low, infrastructure investment will more than pay for itself, but Biden’s plan also boosts the corporate tax rate and imposes a minimum global tax on multinationals. That will be paired (and is likely to be combined) with a $2 trillion American Families Plan to support the care economy, including childcare, eldercare, paid family leave, and more, which would also be accompanied by raising taxes on the rich.

Seeing the bulk of this spending — some six trillion dollars — laid out together may have been jarring six months ago. I think if you had shown it to any Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders voters, they would have been thrilled. But it all looks possible, and the agenda is garnering widespread support from moderate Democrats, too.

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait wrote one of the most widely shared reviews of Biden’s presidency so far, essentially arguing that his boringness has allowed him to push forward. Chait quoted right-wing radio hosts like Dan Bongino and Republican senators who expressed frustration about how difficult it was to attack Biden because he was too boring and too nice.

Biden’s strategy of boringness is a fascinating counterpoint to a career spent trying desperately to be interesting. Biden used to overshare, with frequently disastrous results that led him to accurately self-diagnose as a ‘gaffe machine.’ Whether his advanced age has slowed him down or made him wiser, he has finally given up his attention-seeking impulse and embraced the opposite objective. Biden’s success is a product of the crucial yet little-appreciated insight that substantive advances don’t require massive public fights. The drama of inspiration and conflict is not only unnecessary to promote change but even, in certain circumstances, outright counterproductive…

Obviously, Biden can’t stop Republicans from trying to rile up their constituents. But Republicans and their affiliated media organs have decided to devote more of their attention to decisions made by Major League Baseball, the estate of Theodor Geisel, and the makers of Mr. Potato Head than to anything being done by the federal government. One poll last month found Republicans had heard more about Dr. Seuss than the nearly $2 trillion spending bill Democrats had signed into law.

This mix of big policy and boringness that has disarmed some of his opponents has led to some positive reviews. Michelle Cottle wrote that Biden has underpromised and overdelivered, doubling his vaccine promises and undoing Trump’s “repugnant” Muslim ban and a host of his most divisive policies. E.J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post that Biden’s “kitchen table” politics are winning over populists and Republicans too, with a third of voting Republicans supporting how he is handling the coronavirus relief package. Columns hailing a transformational 100 days have been published everywhere from The Guardian to The Chicago Tribune.

That doesn’t mean there are no left-wing detractors, though. In Jacobin, Daniel Bessner argued that Biden’s foreign policy has been as bad as expected, “animated by the grotesque idea that now and forever, the US should call the shots around the world.”

Biden’s underlings will ensure that the US dollar remains the world’s global reserve currency; that the US Armed Forces retain access to the nation’s approximately seven hundred fifty overseas bases; and that the government continues to spend a grotesque amount on [the] military. We’re sure to hear about various tactical changes that Biden makes — and even see matter-of-fact statements that “his administration’s commitment to human rights [is] a pillar of its foreign policy” — but U.S. imperialism will remain the governing reality for most human beings on Earth.

Osita Nwanevu was more pointed, writing that Biden “isn’t close to being a historic president yet.”

As Jonthan Alter writes, The New Deal created, with the help of large-scale direct public employment, more than 20 million jobs and led to the construction of “39,000 new schools, 2,500 hospitals, 325 airports and tens of thousands of smaller projects that did not end the Depression but eventually helped power the postwar American boom.” The $2 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years Biden has laid out in the Jobs Plan, while significant, obviously isn’t going to have a comparable impact on the American landscape. On Sunday, Lindsay Koshgarian offered some valuable perspective at Truthout: The annual cost of Biden’s infrastructure plan will be dwarfed by the amount the government spends each year on military contractors alone.

Naturally, another factor that should complicate comparisons between the New Deal and Biden’s infrastructure plan is the fact that Biden’s infrastructure plan hasn’t passed yet and will surely be pruned and trimmed before it’s sent to the White House for Biden’s signature—an outcome that, while likely, still isn’t assured even through the reconciliation process Democrats will use to avoid a filibuster. The idea that Biden merits comparison to FDR anyway illustrates the liminal space Biden has started to occupy in Democratic hopes: as both a president just on the cusp of implementing a transformative agenda and a president who should be credited for already having done so. It shouldn’t take a cynic to recognize that he’s clearly neither.

Others, like Catherine Rampell, have pointed out that Biden’s agenda is still fleeting. Things like the Child Tax Credit are, right now, only law for the next year. And if Biden truly wants to harness the moment and be a transformative president, he needs to make some of those covid-era changes permanent.

The right.

Responses from the right have been both harder to parse and spread more widely across the spectrum. Many conservative commentators have framed his handling of the border crisis as the defining issue of his presidency thus far, while others believe he is slowly eroding American individualism with an all out expansion of government.

On top of that, there’s one consistent theme: the most important issue right now is COVID-19, and Biden is benefitting from a vaccine that he inherited from the Trump administration. Once that honeymoon ends, the political perceptions will change, too. The Wall Street Journal editorial board touched on these themes at length, and I think summed it up better in this piece than anywhere else:

[Joe Biden] has also been lucky in timing, as he took the oath of office as the Covid-19 vaccines were coming online. The White House pretense that it inherited a Covid mess is nonsense. The vaccine production was pre-planned. While some state rollouts were bumpy when there was more vaccine demand than supply, the main job of the Administration was to accelerate the distribution that was already underway.

The same goes for the economy, which has been growing since last July, and its acceleration was inevitable as people returned to normal commercial and social life. As New York, Michigan and California have followed the leadership of Texas and Florida in lifting their lockdowns, the inevitable post-pandemic boom has arrived. The same would have happened if Mr. Trump had won. This is not to begrudge Mr. Biden his good political fortune. Any successful President needs some luck, and any politician will take credit for it. With so much wind at his back, Mr. Biden could be fulfilling his campaign pledge to unify the country and govern in a bipartisan fashion.

Yet the striking fact of his first three months is that he has done the opposite. He has sought to govern from the left, pressing the most progressive domestic agenda in decades with the narrowest Democratic majorities in Congress. He’s governed like Bernie Sanders in a hurry despite a 36-year Senate career with no notable causes or ideas. No less than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says Mr. Biden has “definitely exceeded expectations that progressives had.” …

Democrats have passed the easy part of their program—handing out money and sloganeering about justice. Now comes the price in higher taxes and cultural diktats. As the practical reality of wokism and economic “transformation” make their way into everyone’s lives, Americans may decide this is more ideology than they thought they were getting as the price of being rid of Donald Trump.

Another consistent theme on the right has been Biden’s federal overreach. Many conservatives were hoping for a moderate presidency — one that shot toward the center — and feel that Biden has so far abandoned a more centrist campaign in order to slam through a leftist agenda. In The National Review, Carrie Campbell Severino wrote about Biden’s relationship with the rule of law — and how his presidency has so far bucked it.

The Biden administration’s greatest potential blow to the rule of law, however, comes in the form of its commission to study structural changes to the Supreme Court. The commission’s membership is ideologically skewed and expected to offer a veneer of legitimacy to court packing. Nothing else proposed by this or any other administration going back to the last serious court-packing effort in 1937 would do more damage to the Court’s independence.

Not that tampering with other branches of government ends there. This week, the Biden administration endorsed legislation to carve the 51st state out of Washington, D.C. — a move clearly calculated to add Democratic seats to the House and Senate. Yesterday the measure passed the House on a party-line vote. Neither Biden nor the House Democrats seem to care that every Justice Department that has addressed the constitutionality of altering the District of Columbia’s status legislatively since 1963 has come out against it . . . with one exception: In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder rejected the Office of Legal Counsel’s similar conclusion and cited as his thin pretext the willingness of the solicitor general’s office to defend a D.C. voting-rights bill.

And while Jonathan Chait cheered on the successful boringness of Biden’s presidency, columnists like Henry Olsen have argued Biden’s popularity is being grossly overstated by a measly and obedient press, and that comparisons to FDR are not tied to reality.

Biden’s job approval ratings also have much more in common with his predecessors than with FDR. As of Friday morning, Biden has a 52.7 percent approval rating on the RealClearPolitics polling average. That’s a lot higher than Donald Trump’s rating was at this point of his presidency, but it’s lower than every other one of Biden’s predecessors since 1980 at this stage of their presidencies except Clinton, whose approval rating at this point was statistically identical to Biden’s. Some of this is surely due to the country’s polarized politics, but it also reflects that Biden might not be pulling new voters into his coalition. His 52.7 percent rating is only 1.4 percentage points higher than the 51.3 percent of the vote he received last November. That’s the smallest improvement over a president’s prior share of the vote of any president in decades, again with the exception of the terminally unpopular Trump.

History suggests the political outlook for Democrats is grim, should they stay on this track. Clinton’s job approval rating hovered around the 50-percent mark until the summer of 1994, with one dramatic dip in the summer of 1993. As the public focused on his priorities, however, they started to sour on him. By mid-October, the Gallup poll gave him only a 41 percent approval rating. Obama’s approval rating also stayed above 50 percent for a long time, dipping below it in May 2010. It bottomed out at a higher level than Clinton’s, about 46 percent, but that still did not prevent Republicans from gaining 63 House seats and the lion’s share of gubernatorial and state legislative races. This should be ringing Democratic alarm bells, but instead it seems to be having the opposite effect. Biden is trying to do more legislatively, apparently on the theory that if enough change happens fast enough, Republicans can’t undo it even if they tried. It’s the political version of throwing everything on the wall and seeing what sticks.

Others have said Biden could use tonight’s address to reverse course on what has so far been another divisive presidency. Marc Thiessen, who has been the lead writer on two State of the Union addresses, wrote his own suggested version of Biden’s address to Congress. In it, Biden thanks Trump for “his leadership in launching Operation Warp Speed,” announces his plan to “meet in the middle and pass a bipartisan” infrastructure bill, “reopen our nation’s public schools for summer learning so that our kids can make up lost ground” and calls on Congress to embrace Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform bill.

In Fox News, Liz Peek wrote that Biden’s “divisive agenda” has threatened the nation’s recovery.

In just three months, under Biden’s presumed leadership, Democrats have threatened to pack the Supreme Court, eliminate the filibuster, abolish the Electoral College, grant statehood to Washington, D.C., federalize voting laws, and enact a labor bill that would overturn right-to-work statutes in 27 states...

As president, Biden has worsened race relations by frequently denouncing the United States as "systemically racist" and insulting the citizens of Georgia by foolishly declaring their legislators’ voting bill as "Jim Crow on steroids." He has also larded his Cabinet with people like U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who claimed the "original sin of slavery weaved White supremacy into our founding documents and principles."

It’s not just a massive expansion of government, a soft media or potential power grabs that have conservatives up in arms about Biden. Some are also focused on critical, classic base issues like abortion. In Newsweek, Mary Forr Szoch wrote that Biden’s position on abortion has changed and is no longer recognizable. She points to his executive orders repealing the Trump administration Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy and “radical pro-abortion” agenda that has changed policy at the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health all in staunchly pro-choice directions.

Meanwhile, in The Washington Examiner, Paul Bedard wrote about the list of 100 Biden failures in his first 100 days. In the list, which was put together by Kentucky Rep. James Comer, Bedard touches on every aspect of the Biden presidency. Bedard says the list shows “how left Biden has gone, especially in raising taxes, spending, expanding abortion, endorsing making the city of Washington, D.C. a state, adding regulations, broadening Obamacare, and even providing ‘$570 million for additional paid leave to federal employees so they can watch their kids Zoom into school.’”

My take.

The standard question after four years of a presidency is “how has your life changed? Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

On a personal note, I think that question can apply here. We’re only 100 days in, but for me — Isaac — I can reflect on how my life has changed already. One of the biggest concerns I had was my wedding, scheduled for late June, with so much uncertainty around the pandemic. Every single member of my family now has at least one dose of the vaccine and most are fully vaccinated. Same goes for nearly all of my friends. I’m two weeks out from my first shot, with my second dose scheduled a clear six weeks before my wedding. This has been a huge win.

And it’s not just me: over 140 million U.S. adults have at least one shot in their arm. As I’ve written before, the Trump administration deserves credit for the vaccine availability. Some vaccines were developed without government funding, some vaccines were developed with it, but Operation Warp Speed was a resounding success no matter how you angle it. The Trump administration pushed government agencies to fast-track approval, cut red tape, and his own predictions about the timeline of the rollout were much closer to what we got than the predictions of the experts, epidemiologists and fact-checkers who assured us we’d never be here by now.

If he had won re-election, it did look as though the Trump administration was planning to leave the vaccine rollout mostly to the states. Biden rightly recognized it needed federal oversight, and under his stewardship the vaccine rollout is on fire. Consider me happy and impressed.

My fiancée was furloughed a couple months ago. She fell into a social safety net that both the Biden and Trump administration signed off on, receiving her $1,400 stimulus check and an enhanced unemployment check that kept us afloat. Then a PPP loan came through for her company and she got rehired.

As I announced last week, I’m leaving my day job on May 5th to pursue Tangle full-time. One big scary part of doing that is finding health insurance outside of employment, and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) that has been expanded and extended under both Trump and Biden should help reduce the cost of what has historically been a very expensive program. There’s a good chance these changes give me more (and cheaper) options for health insurance when I go solo.

The government, again, pulled through for me. And in many ways I’m reaping the benefits not just of the Biden presidency, but the Biden-Trump combo, and the legislation they both have signed and pushed for. I’ve seen these policies benefit not just me but friends, family and other entrepreneurs.

My one big Covid-related beef that I’ve been complaining about privately (and sometimes publicly) is my view that the Biden administration should be encouraging fully vaccinated people to go maskless outdoors and do more to show the non-vaccinated world that a “return to normal” is on the other side of the shot. That line of thinking is gaining traction, and the CDC seems to be moving that way, but I still feel like we are underselling the efficacy of the vaccines as well as the risks of delaying normalcy from the top down by being this cautious.

Mostly, though, up to this point, the ways the Biden administration has changed my life have been positive. I don’t have kids so I haven’t felt the burden of remote schooling. Many parents feel the Biden administration is failing in that regard, and I think they make a strong argument that the costs of keeping kids in remote learning have outweighed the risks. I don’t live on the border and, here in New York City, have not felt any changes in my life based on the crisis or the influx of migrants, which is perhaps the top critique from the right.

Policing is an issue I care deeply about and have written a lot about recently, but the Biden administration hasn’t done much of anything to address it yet — which is perhaps a top critique from the left. I think it’s fair to note, though, that the Biden administration exists within the limits of time. The House passed a police reform bill named after George Floyd over a month ago and Republicans in the Senate look like they’re going to introduce their response soon — which will open the door for Biden to expend political capital in this space.

In general, 100 days is not a lot of time to call balls and strikes on the Biden campaign. Another way to measure the Biden presidency so far is a rundown of the campaign promises he made for his first 100 days — and whether they’ve been broken or kept.

Promises broken: He promised to raise the refugee cap to 125,000 and hasn’t come close. In fact, he attempted to not change it at all before blowback made the administration reverse course. He said he’d reform the asylum system by now (which was never going to happen this quickly) but he’s only reversed some Trump-era policies. He said he’d freeze deportations but got blocked in court. He said he’d end family separation but it’s still a work in progress. He said he’d protect Dreamers but is, again, mired in court battles. He said the FBI would issue a report on delays in background checks but they haven’t. He said he’d send a bill to repeal protections for gun manufacturers and close background check loopholes but hasn’t. He said he’d establish a police oversight board but hasn’t. He said we’d have rejoined the Iran Nuclear Deal but negotiations are ongoing. He said he’d make protections for LGTBQ Americans a top legislative priority but he hasn’t spent any political capital on it. He said we’d be centering human rights in foreign policy and the results there have been quite mixed, with a very notable failure to hold the Saudi Crown Prince responsible for killing a journalist.

Promises kept: He promised to stop funding the border wall and he did. He said he’d deliver a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress and he did. He said he’d reverse the transgender military ban and he did. He said he’d rejoin the World Health Organization and he did. He said he’d administer 100 million vaccines and then 200 million vaccines and he’s done both. He said he’d issue a mask mandate on federal property and he did. He said he’d pause student loan payments and did. He said he’d re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and he did. He has safely opened a majority of K-8 schools (62%) and passed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package, both of which he promised to do. He’s also rescinded the Keystone XL pipeline, completed the $2,000 direct payments to Americans and convened a global summit on climate change — all first 100 day promises.

Historically, it’s true that his popularity has been pretty overstated by many establishment media outlets. His approval ratings are the third-worst since Truman. And his “strongly disapprove” ratings outweigh his “strongly approve.” They look great compared to Trump, but most presidents have fared far better than Biden in their first 100 days. He’s also failed to win over Republican support, which was a key campaign focus. Barack Obama had just 43% of Republicans strongly disapprove of his presidency 100 days in — Biden has nearly eight in 10. Yes, this is in part due to our increasingly extreme polarization, but the numbers are the numbers.

So, how do we put a wrap on this?

It’s still very early. The Biden presidency, for my personal life, has so far been mostly positive. Biden was dealt a very difficult hand — a raging pandemic, historically high numbers of people claiming unemployment, and the most divisive political moment in decades. None of that is a recipe for success. I’ve griped about everything from his foreign policy to his immigration policies to the media’s kid gloves with him in the pages of this newsletter, and all those critiques still stand. But we’re only 100 days in, and it’s far too early for me to be calling any more balls or strikes than I already have (Remember: I waited until Biden took office to review Trump’s presidency). To put it in context, 100 days into Donald Trump’s leadership we were talking about FBI Director James Comey, the Russia investigation, the so-called Muslim ban, and efforts to repeal Obamacare. Those things feel like millennia ago now, and these 100 first days will feel that way too once the Biden presidency concludes.

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Quick hits.

  1. The White House is unveiling a new $1.8 trillion spending package aimed at dramatically expanding access to education and social safety nets, with an increase in taxes for wealthy Americans. The plan will need Republican support, and has been dubbed the American Families Plan. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  2. The Centers for Disease Control issued updated guidelines on activities vaccinated people can resume, including attending small outdoor gatherings without wearing a mask. (CBS News)
  3. A New York Post reporter publicly quit her job, saying the paper “ordered” her to write an “incorrect story” about Vice President Kamala Harris that she failed to push back on. (The Hill)
  4. The Biden administration is planning to ban menthol cigarettes. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  5. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, will deliver the party’s rebuttal to Joe Biden tonight after his national address. (The Associated Press)

Have a nice day.

Alabama is embracing second chances. This week, the Alabama legislature passed a law — which was then signed by Gov. Kay Ivey — that will allow people who have past convictions for certain low-level crimes to apply to have their records wiped clean. The Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment and Eliminate Recidivism Act (REDEEMER Act) lets people with nonviolent misdemeanors, minor traffic offenses and municipal ordinances get their records expunged if they have completed probation or paid fines related to the crimes. Advocates estimate the bill will open the door for thousands of people to clear their records. People who were convicted of felonies but later pardoned can also apply, as can people who committed felonies while being victims of human trafficking. (Associated Press)

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