December 2 2022 10:05 AM E-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Biden underpromises, overdelivers

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(Photo: NYTimes)
Like any employee, President Joe Biden has to suffer through periodic performance reviews. Thursday marks his 100th day in office — a time-honored if vaguely arbitrary milestone at which a president’s early moves are sliced, diced and spun for all the world to judge. How many bills has he gotten passed? Whom has he appointed? How many executive orders has he signed? Which promises has he broken? Which constituencies has he ticked off?اضافة اعلان

Biden took office under extraordinary circumstances, with the nation confronting what he has called a quartet of “converging crises”: a lethal pandemic, economic uncertainty, climate change, and racial injustice. Bold policy action was needed. So, too, was an effort to neutralize the toxic politics of the Trump era — which, among other damage, spawned a large reality-free zone in which the bulk of Republicans buy the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

All of which feels like a lot for one mild-mannered 78-year-old to tackle in his first three or so months. Then again, Biden is built to keep chugging along in the face of adversity, tragedy, and lousy odds. That’s how he rolls. And while his first 100 days have been far from flawless, they reflect a clear understanding of why he was elected and what the American people now expect of him.

The president moved fast and went big on his signature challenge: confronting the one-two public-health-and-economic punch of the pandemic. He asked Congress for a $1.9 trillion relief package, and Congress basically gave him a $1.9 trillion relief package. Did Republican lawmakers sign on? No, they did not. But the ambitious bill — which went so far as to establish a (temporary) guaranteed income for families with children — drew strong bipartisan support from the public. That was good enough for the White House.

Biden also showed that he knows how to play the expectations game: underpromise, then overdeliver. He initially pledged to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in arms by his 100th day in office. The nation crushed that target in mid-March, prompting Biden to up the goal to 200 million shots by Day 100. That hurdle was cleared last week.

He has fulfilled a range of more targeted promises, largely through executive action. He jettisoned Donald Trump’s repugnant Muslim ban and established a task force to reunite migrant families separated at the southwestern border. He put the United States back in the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord. He directed federal agencies to conduct internal audits, with an eye toward advancing racial equity, and he rescinded the Trump ban on transgender troops in the military. He hasn’t persuaded Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, but he is upping it for federal contractors.

With foreign policy, Biden has surprised some with his announcement that all US combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11. Depending on your perspective, this decision is either long overdue or a disaster in the making. Either way, the president wanted to show that he can make the tough calls.

Biden has had his share of early flubs, most notably on immigration. The White House was clearly unprepared to handle the influx of migrant children over the US-Mexico border and has been scrambling to deal with the record number of arrivals. Yes, he inherited a dysfunctional system. But even some congressional Democrats have complained that his administration failed early on to telegraph a clear message about its policy and plans. Republicans have rushed to exploit the tragedy, with some lawmakers touring the border sporting camo ensembles that made them look like “Duck Dynasty” rejects.

Border anxiety also led Biden to stumble on the issue of refugee admissions. In February he pledged to raise the ceiling to 62,500, from the record low of 15,000 set by Trump. But on April 16 the White House announced that the Trump cap would remain. Blowback ensued. Hours later, the White House claimed that there had been “confusion” about the directive and that a higher level would be set by mid-May — though probably not as high as the original pledge. Now the 62,500 level is back in discussion. Such flip-floppery does not inspire confidence.

For many voters, of course, Biden’s core appeal was not grounded in policy particulars. They were drawn to his message of unity, his pledge to defuse the division and rage fostered by Trump. This whole idea struck some as hokey, not to mention absurdly naive. But Biden does appear to be making a quirky sort of progress.

He’s making the presidency boring again. Mock if you will, but this is a major achievement — one welcomed by many exhausted Americans. Gone are the “executive time” Twitter rants, rambling call-ins to Fox News and near daily assaults on democracy that defined the Trump presidency. Biden likes to keep things low-key, doesn’t hog the spotlight and largely avoids the culture-war freak-outs roiling the other side. While the MAGA-verse spins itself into a tizzy over the supposed cancelation of Dr. Seuss and emasculation of Mr Potato Head, Biden keeps his head down and keeps pushing his policies.

He’s restoring humanity to the job. Whether the crisis is a police shooting, the enormous toll of the pandemic or the everyday economic challenges of so many Americans, Biden approaches the issue with compassion and decency. His aim is to comfort rather than to inflame. This may not seem as if it should be a big deal, but post-Trump, here we are.

He’s making bipartisanship cool again. No, Biden has not ushered in a new golden age of cross-aisle compromise — nor is he likely to. And even as he invites Republican lawmakers over for cozy White House chats, he has made clear he won’t get bogged down in trying to win their support. He and his people learned during the Obama years not to go down that rabbit hole. Biden has, in fact, sorely irritated some moderate Senate Republicans who think that he isn’t treating their outreach efforts with the proper respect.

Even so, the president’s political brand is so, well, avuncular that much of the public sees him as a nonradical, politically moderate kind of guy. This has some Republicans, especially Senate moderates, talking up their love of bipartisanship and compromise, lest they look like the unreasonable ones.

All of this is making it hard for his political opponents to vilify him — about which Republican lawmakers have expressed their dismay. Instead, more than three months in, they’re still trying to cast him as a puppet of “radicals”: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain. You know Republicans are having a rough time when Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is reduced to grumping about Biden’s lack of Twitter tantrums and speculating that the president’s low profile means he’s not really in charge.

At this point, polls show a slight majority of the American public approve of their new hire. Biden’s numbers are lower than what most of his non-Trumpian predecessors enjoyed at this point, but they’re none too shabby, considering these hyperpolarized, reality-challenged times.


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