In a few days, political commentators will offer their assessments of US President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, as per the custom in the US with every new administration. When Franklin Roosevelt, the 33rd American president, came to power, he wanted to reassure the American people that he would be able to win their confidence through measures taken within his first 100 days of office to steer the country out of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt was the first and last president to remain in office for four successive terms (1933-1945), by which time he had not only led the US to economic recovery but, also, to victory in World War II. His was a hard record to beat, but subsequent newly elected presidents have followed the tradition he set. After settling into the White House, they outline a series of action they will take in their first 100 days to address the nation’s foremost concerns and inspire public confidence in their administration. This time round, the attendant circumstances are unique in many ways.
When the election took place, Biden had been in the public eye as a politician for nearly half a century. He had served in both houses of Congress and in the executive wing of government as vice president under Obama. After such a long career of battling for various causes, what more could this veteran politician add to the record? One answer he offered to this question is that he would not walk in Obama’s shadow and that his administration would not be a “third term” of an Obama administration. Biden believes that it was destiny more than other factors that ushered him into the White House.
After all, electoral prospects did not look good at first as, initially, he performed poorly in the Democratic primaries. But then he emerged as the party’s “savior” and Democrats from across that party’s political spectrum rallied round him. In November, he prevailed over the incumbent, Donald Trump, who, four years previously, had been that extraordinary outsider who entered the American political arena with no political background and proceeded to turn that arena upside-down. Then followed that tense and uncertain period in which Trump refused to recognise the results of the polls and used every conceivable means to contest them, culminating in the storming of Congress on 6 January this year.
In light of that unprecedented and turbulent transition, Biden set himself two main goals when he took office, and the main test of his performance during his first 100 days will be the extent to which he has achieved them. The first was to reunify a society that had grown starkly polarised along partisan lines, in large measure because of the nature of Trump’s grip over the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party was, itself, divided between progressives, moderates and conservatives. Another fault line was the ethnic divide, epitomised by the Black Lives Matter movement, the emergence of its reactionary White counterpart, followed by a third camp that sought to transcend the divide beneath the rubric “All American Lives Matter.” Biden’s plan to reunify US society was, firstly, to steer the country out of the Covid-19 crisis, starting with a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan and, secondly, to rally the public around a nationwide infrastructural reconstruction programme for which the government earmarked another $2.3 trillion.
The Republicans grew nervous because of the Democrats’ tendency towards big public spending. They argue that while such spending might please the Americans in the short run, it could be disastrous in the long run because it means tax hikes targeting the rich who are the investors and owners of major businesses.
During the first 100 days, the White House appeared to give its blessing to other divisive subjects, such as the proposal to offer reparations to African Americans for the injustices of slavery. The subject raises other thorny issues, such as how to trace lineages in order to determine the identities and numbers of recipients. More importantly, in the context of the partisan divide, the vast majority of Blacks vote Democratic.
Another cause the Democrats are suddenly enthusiastic about is granting Washington D.C. statehood. The bill that would make the US capital the nation’s 51st state just passed the House of Representatives last week. It is well known that D.C. consistently votes Democratic because it is home to the largest community of Federal employees who always favour higher government spending.
A third issue, relevant to the former, is filibuster, the tendency of a parliamentarian to keep speaking in order to prolong the debate over a bill of law so as to delay or obstruct its passage. Some have described it as an instrument to prevent the tyranny of the majority. On another front, the Democrats are considering expanding the Supreme Court which the Trump administration has left packed with six conservatives and only three liberals.
There are no constitutional impediments to increasing the number of seats on the US’s highest court. However, to do so would break with the long tradition of nine members. Obviously, all such measures would favour the Democrats and shift the electoral balance of power, perhaps for decades to come. If we add to this Biden’s approach to immigrants amassing at the Mexican-American border, we can conclude that the Democrats not only want to change the rules of the game but to engineer a coup in electoral demographics.
As for foreign policy, Biden’s first 100 days have been filled with contradictions. During his electoral campaign he pledged to support the Western camp and US allies. Yet he took the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan unilaterally and notified allies afterwards. Among these are allies who fear the exit is precipitous and could threaten international security, especially now that the Taliban has begun to act as though it is about to advance on Kabul.
The Taliban did not attend the scheduled negotiations in Ankara and have demanded the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Equally contradictory is that, just as Biden is moving to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, he is playing tactical games with two partners in that agreement, Russia and China.
He has called Putin a killer and accused Beijing of committing human rights abuses in Hong Kong. While offering sanctions relief to Iran, he has also lifted the terrorist designation from the Houthis who are attacking civilians in the region. Such contradictions have sown confusion in Washington’s relations, not just with its allies in NATO but also with those countries in the Middle East that have been historically close to Washington and that have reasons to worry about Iranian behaviour.
In sum, Biden’s record in his first 100 days is far from shining.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly