President Joe Biden (Trevor Bexon via Shutterstock)
JONATHAN L. WHARTON AND THOMAS J. BALCERSKI

Last week, President Joe Biden marked his first 100 days in office by offering a robust agenda during a joint address to Congress. What may have stood out most, however, was that only a couple hundred lawmakers attended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The relatively empty hall served as a stark reminder that the United States still faces a major health crisis.

The diminished audience did not lessen the usual partisan divisions, with Democrats largely supporting the president’s agenda through vigorous applause and Republicans mostly staying mute. Notably, both parties clapped wholeheartedly for the need for Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Yet when Biden sought bipartisan support of the American Rescue Plan, not a single Republican in Congress voted for the bill.

Going forward, the political parties are hardly in agreement with one another on the president’s policy proposals. Some congressional officials, especially Republican centrists, viewed the president’s speech as an expanding wish list of pricey programs. Others, especially congressional Democratic leaders, have grown concerned about passing large bills as a bloc as opposed to pursuing less grand legislation just to gain some Republican support. 

As for Biden, he faces an additional pressure as he tries to rebuild an economy, address immigration reform and offer gun control measures: time. The experience of recent presidential administrations suggests that a “summer curse” – in which the course of events overtakes carefully laid policy agendas – may soon affect his administration’s progress.

Realistically, we need to understand that 100 days is an imperfect barometer of a presidential administration. Some recognize that 100 days to be merely a honeymoon, while others see a year or even two years as being a more realistic way of measuring the success of a presidential administration. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his history of the thousand days of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, suggested judging presidential administrations by their comparative performance during economic and political crises. 

Indeed, historical reappraisals were at the heart of Biden’s speech before the joint session of Congress. One of us previously wrote that Biden should draw from his predecessors in striking the right tone for the speech. In his topical address, Biden did just that, at times by direct reference but mostly through subtle references. In fact, his remarks gestured in one way or another toward nearly every president under whom Biden, born in 1942, has lived.

Biden quoted just one prior president in his speech: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “In America: we do our part,” Biden said, a reference to the slogan of the National Recovery Act championed by FDR in 1933. Biden also championed the right to unionize, making him arguably the most pro-union president since Roosevelt. All the same, some critics maintain that the comparisons to the New Deal have not yet been earned.

Although Biden did not invoke his name, another president functioned as a strawman during the address: Ronald Reagan. President Biden challenged the decades-old economic orthodoxy of trickle-down economics, declaring: “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked.” By contrast, Biden’s medley of domestic priorities echoed those of the “Great Society” proposed by Lyndon Johnson.

Other presidents’ hallmark policies were variously promoted or sidelined. Biden committed to a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific, a policy favored by both Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Following the roadmap of Ike’s interstate highways of the 1950s, Biden outlined his $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan. Biden also stressed energy efficiency — a particular interest of Jimmy Carter — and promoted expanded access to education, a priority of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He dared to end the war in Afghanistan started in October 2001 by George W. Bush. And, of course, much of Biden’s own record implicitly rests on his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama, including his commitment to expanding the Affordable Care Act.

Biden also looks to rebalance the moral calculus of the presidency. By promising a “more perfect” Union, Biden implicitly challenged the cyniscim of Presidents Donald Trump and Richard Nixon before him. In that same vein, Biden has invoked continuity by calling all but one of his living predecessors. He recently visited with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, the first sitting president to do so. When the pandemic lifts, the nation can look once more forward to a photograph of the “ex-presidents club” in the Oval Office. Like Biden’s presidency to date, it will be, well, historic.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR.

Thomas J. Balcerski, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is a frequent contributor to CNN and other media outlets. Twitter: @tbalcerski