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Biden's fast start: Do his first 100 days really matter?

Biden's fast start: Do his first 100 days really matter?
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We are a little over halfway through the first 100 days of Joe BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE’s presidency. During this time, our new president has produced a flurry of executive orders and a significant ($1.9 trillion) piece of recovery legislation, in addition to the usual appointments made by incoming presidents. Biden seems to be making the best use of his first 100 days, with striking actions and bold proposals on a number of issues. Is it really important that he act so quickly on these issues? Or is the idea of the importance of a presidency's first 100 days a relic from days preceding our hyper-partisan modern politics?

Presidency scholars often refer to the first 100 days of a president’s term in office as the “honeymoon period,” a time of exceeding goodwill for the nation’s newly-elected president. The president’s party is firmly behind him (fragmentation over policy disputes is likely to happen later). The opposition party is in disarray following its losses. The press is willing to give the new guy a chance, and there are no scandals yet to probe.

It is also at this time that the president can claim a mandate for his agenda — that the result of the election signals that the American people have elevated him to office for the purpose of implementing specific reforms. And importantly, this is the time during which the president’s popularity is usually the highest. Research shows that these beneficial factors help a president to be more successful in dealing with Congress than at other times during his term. 

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There are other factors at work that give Biden significantly more opportunity than his predecessors to accomplish his policy goals. As counter intuitive as it may sound, presidents have more opportunity to take action when the economy is poor rather than when it is doing well. During a time of economic crisis, people look to the president for leadership that promises a way out, and this gives the president significant leverage in enacting his economic agenda.

Other crises, particularly foreign ones, can result in a “rally-around-the flag” phenomenon that also benefits the president’s position. While the coronavirus pandemic was certainly politicized by former President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE and other Republicans, the fact remains that the president is the singular symbol of leadership for a nation in crisis, and deference is paid to his agenda for responding to it, which can help with other initiatives. (See the various policies embedded in the recent American Rescue Plan.)

Biden has indicated that he learned his lesson from the response to the Great Recession of 2008. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was insufficient to the task of stimulating a quick recovery, and the economy continued to lag years after it was enacted. Certainly, Biden is concerned about the course he is charting for the nation. Just recently, Biden hosted a group of historians at the White House to get perspective on the crises facing the nation and his place in its recovery.

So, what will it be? The president has signaled that he is interested in moving expeditiously on other pieces of landmark legislation, including infrastructure (particularly costly), gun control and immigration. Should he move boldly and decisively, or should he be concerned about risking a backlash by moving too fast? 

The first 100 days is often seen as a time when a president could garner some help from the opposing party (especially before the opposition becomes emboldened by its usual gains in mid-term elections). But, with the exception of some appointments, Republicans in Congress have been unified in their resistance to Biden. It will likely not get any better as these members turn their concerns to potential primary challenges in 2022. These hyper-partisan divisions mean that Biden’s first 100 days matter even more for him than for previous presidents.

Overwhelmingly, presidential opportunity declines over the course of a term in office. History shows that a backlash is coming whether Biden moves boldly or not, and our hyper-partisan climate will only make it worse. The 100-day clock is ticking, and the time for action is now, because Biden will likely not get such an opportunity in the future.

Todd Belt is a professor and director of the Political Management Master’s Program at the George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @todd_belt.