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With 100 days behind him, Biden’s challenges mount and expectations rise as COVID-19 concerns ease

Joey Garrison, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi  in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on April 28.
President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on April 28.

WASHINGTON – From the moment he took office, Joe Biden made combating a raging pandemic the central focus of his presidency, deploying a wartime effort to distribute vaccines and laying out attainable goals to assure the public of progress.

More than 100 days later, other challenges have moved to the forefront.

Eased concerns in the USA about the pandemic have led to heightened demands from key constituencies – particularly among liberals – for major action on gun control, policing changes to curb racial discrimination, overhauling President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies and more.

Biden is pushing the most dramatic expansion of the federal government's social safety net in decades. He won congressional approval in March of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue bill loaded with spending to help the poor. He proposed a $4 trillion transformation of the U.S. economy with plans to rebuild infrastructure, invest in green technology, expand caregiving for seniors, subsidize child care, make prekindergarten nationwide and institute a national policy for paid family leave.

Biden's American Families Plan in charts: What's in the plan with subsidized child care and free pre-K

Now that Americans are more optimistic the tide is turning on the pandemic, Biden faces added pressure from the left to deliver beyond his COVID-19 response and economic agenda. If he doesn't, he risks alienating those who helped put him in office, support that could be critical for Democrats' efforts to maintain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.

"Some people close to the Biden administration want to say he's already achieved the success of FDR and LBJ, and I would say we are nowhere close to achieving those aspirations," said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a left-leaning political organization.

Shahid applauded Biden's work to administer vaccines, his inclusion of climate efforts in his infrastructure package and the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But he said progressives expect more action on health care, such as lowering the age eligibility threshold for Medicare, transitioning to clean renewable energy, adopting a $15 minimum wage, overhauling policing, expanding voting rights and passing comprehensive immigration reform.

"The administration's focus – and the whole country's focus – has been on getting through this pandemic," Shahid said. "As more and more people get vaccinated, as the pandemic hopefully subsides, there's more urgency to touch these issues that there's been no action on for several years."

'The unfinished business is longer than the finished business'

That urgency is fueled further by the looming 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats will defend their slim control in Congress.

Biden used his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night to push for several liberal causes. He set an ambitious goal of May 25 – the anniversary of George Floyd's death – for the Senate to pass policing legislation named in the Minnesota man's honor that would bolster police accountability and prevent problem officers from moving from one department to another.

Students from Roosevelt High School participate in a statewide walkout April 19 in Minneapolis. Students gathered at the U.S. Bank Stadium to protest racial injustice and honor the lives of George Floyd and Daunte Wright.
Students from Roosevelt High School participate in a statewide walkout April 19 in Minneapolis. Students gathered at the U.S. Bank Stadium to protest racial injustice and honor the lives of George Floyd and Daunte Wright.

The bill, which cleared the House in March, would end certain police practices that have been under scrutiny amid high-profile shootings of Black Americans by officers.

"We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America," Biden said Wednesday. "Now is our opportunity to make some real progress."

'It can't stop here': Biden, after Chauvin verdict, calls for passage of George Floyd bill

Biden is set to meet with House and Senate leaders from both parties May 12, giving the president an opportunity to discuss the infrastructure and families plans and negotiate police changes. White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden plans to invite Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C, who leads Republicans' negotiations on police changes, to the White House.

"I think he’s going to push more on policing in the future, but we have to hold him accountable,’’ said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s a lot more left to do. The unfinished business is longer than the finished business.”

For more than 30 years, Biden said in his speech, politicians have talked about immigration reform. "It's time to fix it," he said, calling for members of Congress to pass legislation to secure the border and establish a pathway to citizenship.

A sign calls for gun control at a memorial outside King Soopers for the victims of a mass shooting at the market in Boulder, Colo., in March.
A sign calls for gun control at a memorial outside King Soopers for the victims of a mass shooting at the market in Boulder, Colo., in March.

After a series of deadly mass shootings since he entered office, Biden called for the Senate to pass legislation to strengthen gun background checks and reinstate a ban on certain weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"I don't want to become confrontational," Biden said, "but we need more Senate Republicans to join with the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues" to pass gun control.

Filibuster threatens much of Biden's agenda

Republican lawmakers have shown no willingness to support gun control or immigration changes and drew a hard line against H.R. 1, slamming the Democratic-backed voting rights bill as a power grab.

Unless unlikely compromise is reached, Biden faces a seemingly impossible legislative path to pass these measures because of the threat of the filibuster from Republicans that would require 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate to overcome.

“The president of the United States is not is not a dictator. He can't just wave a wand and achieve things,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., adding that Biden still continues to push efforts to address voting rights and health disparities. “But it's hard. You need to get Congress to act.”

More: Biden holds out for bipartisan support for immigration measures, White House says

These bills face a tougher climb than Biden's COVID-19 rescue plan, which Democrats in Congress approved through a process called budget reconciliation without any Republican support. Biden could seek passage via the same legislative route with his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan – as long as all Democrats stick together in support.

If Democratic-backed legislation is blocked by Senate Republicans, it could fuel more outcries from the left urging Biden to support getting rid of the filibuster. Though he called the filibuster a "relic of the Jim Crow era," Biden has stopped short of saying the tactic should be eliminated. He did express support for bringing back the "talking filibuster" that is more difficult to execute.

"Over time, it's only going to get more difficult for him," said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

He said the COVID-19 relief package had the best chance for success. Biden's infrastructure and families plans are a harder lift. "Then when you look down the pike: Comprehensive immigration reform? Gun control legislation?"

More: The House passed a sweeping voting rights act. What's in it?

Howell said the big question is whether Biden will consider "democracy reform," such as overhauling the filibuster. "There's just not a world," he argued, where Biden would pick up 10 Republican votes needed to achieve the progressive agenda.

"If he wants to make headway on those, he's going to have to start talking about reforms to the legislative process itself," Howell said. "That would be a game changer."

Can Biden's communication strategy continue to work?

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said Biden has "reaped the benefits" of his response to COVID-19. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found 64% of Americans approve of his handling of the pandemic, higher than his overall approval rating of 52%.

As the country moves past the pandemic, she said, activists will "be less patient with the administration" on issues they care about. Liberals viewed Biden's early executive actions on racial equity, for example, as the beginning, not the end, of action.

"It's an important tonal shift. But I think – not just in the next 100 days but in the 1,000 days – the expectation will be that some of these initial steps were just the groundwork to large projects," Gillespie said, predicting protests by the end of the year if Biden doesn't deliver more.

Gillespie said progress doesn't hinge only on success in Congress. She said Black voters who backed Biden in the election want to see him and the Justice Department tackle racial discrimination in ways that don't require legislative action.

Flipping the page after four years of unpredictability under Trump, Biden brought rigid scheduling and routine back to the White House. He's made his presidency more defined by policy than personality, another sharp break from his predecessor.

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Biden has spoken less in public than past presidents, including Trump, according to Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential rhetoric. He's held few one-on-one interviews, waited 64 days to hold his first news conference and nearly 100 days to deliver his first joint address to Congress.

Beasley called the strategy an "intentional move" to put the spotlight on policies and Biden's push to restore faith in government – not Biden himself. It's been successful so far, she said.

"The most basic rule of political communication is that if something works, keep doing it," Beasley said.

But the political landscape will probably become thornier as expectations rise.

"In a way, it's the Reaganesque morning in America. Everybody's going back to work," Beasley said, referring to the progress made to fight the pandemic. "But what that does for expectations is huge. And a huge part of the presidency is managing those expectations."

Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With 100 days behind him, Joe Biden's challenges ahead mount