Administration

Biden faces 100 days of crisis

President Biden’s incoming administration has planned an early blitz of executive and legislative actions meant to build momentum in his first days in office, conscious of both the scale of the crises facing the nation and the limited window in which he must deliver results.

Biden has set out several markers for his first 100 days in office: He has said his administration will deliver 100 million doses of vaccines against the coronavirus over that term, and that he will ask the American public to renew their commitment to wearing masks, in service of further battling the virus.

But the scale and scope of the crises Biden faces — an unchecked virus, a flagging recovery, racial and civil strife and a rapidly warming planet, each a five-alarm fire in and of itself — are challenging enough that the new administration has acknowledged none will be solved anytime soon.

“We’re going to attack them all in the first 100 days, but 100 days from now we will still have COVID, we will still have economic problems, we will still have climate change problems and we will still have racism in the United States,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain told The Hill in an interview. “I think it’s important to just be honest with people about the fact that there’s a lot of urgency in us attacking all these things.”

“I don’t think anyone envisions us solving these problems in 100 days, not by a long shot,” he said.

The 100-day window is an arbitrary, and artificial, legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, when he called Congress into a special session in 1933 to pass a raft of emergency measures to combat the Great Depression. Every president since has been judged on their achievements over that window, a legacy that historians say assumes too much of a president and not enough of the Congress that must act on his agenda.

“This kind of legend of the first 100 days that puts a president-centric view of American history is unhealthy,” said Patrick Maney, a political scientist at Boston College who wrote biographies of Roosevelt and the progressive Sen. Robert La Follette Jr. “It is assumed that they are supposed to take the lead and produce an agenda in the first 100 days, and they have tried to do it, and no one has really succeeded at it.”

In the hours after he is sworn in, Biden will sign orders rescinding some of the decisions of former President Trump and setting in motion his early priorities. He will act to rejoin the Paris climate accords and halt the Trump administration’s move to exit the World Health Organization. He will require the use of masks in federal buildings and on interstate transport. He will revoke a permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline and place a moratorium on new fossil fuel leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And he will take steps to reverse many of Trump’s immigration measures.

Veterans of previous administrations said the Biden administration must use his early days in office to notch a series of victories, and that the team has likely put together goals they hope to achieve over several different time horizons. 

“We had a one month, a hundred days and a one year [plan],” said Rahm Emanuel, former President Obama’s first chief of staff, who took office in the face of an economic cataclysm. “I guarantee you Ron [Klain]’s thinking a month in, a hundred days in and one year in.”

Just as Obama had to rescue the economy before he could move on to anything else, so too does Biden face a fierce urgency: The coronavirus pandemic.

“We walked into an economy that was in free fall, a financial system that was broken and an auto industry that was on its last legs and two of the longest wars in American history. There was nowhere you could turn that wasn’t a challenge, and you have that in spades with Biden,” Emanuel said. “Their No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 goal is getting COVID under control. Everything falls into place if they get it under control, nothing can move forward if they don’t.”

Klain acknowledged the importance of bending the curve and wrestling the virus under control.

“If we can deliver 100 million shots in 100 days, I think we’ll show progress on COVID. But this disease is wildly out of control and it’s going to take more than 100 days to get it under control, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Making matters more difficult — and the historical comparison to Roosevelt even less achievable — is that Biden faces a narrowly divided Congress riven by partisan distrust of historic proportions. Roosevelt had massive legislative majorities, and much of the legislation he signed into law in those first 100 days had been debated for years before they finally passed.

“It wasn’t a one-person operation, but an incredible collaborative effort between Roosevelt and Congress, and within Congress between Republicans and Democrats. In the greatest crisis since the Civil War, Congress responded in an inspiring way,” Maney said. “This is a time when we are going to need an agenda from the president, because Congress is more dysfunctional and inert than at any time since I think the late 19th century.”

The crises facing Biden are sufficiently threatening that any one of them would define a normal administration. That they confront the nation at the same time make Biden’s drive for momentum in the first 100 days all the more crucial to the final chapter of his half-century in public life.

“Lincoln had the Civil War. Wilson had the Spanish flu. Roosevelt had the Great Depression. Kennedy had the Cold War. Johnson had civil and racial unrest,” Emanuel said. “Biden, D, all of the above.”

Tags 100 days Barack Obama Biden transition Capitol breach Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Inauguration Joe Biden Ron Klain

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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