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Bill Clinton said he was ending big government. Biden wants to bring it back.

Five takeaways from Biden’s speech on his first 99 (or 98?) days in office.

- April 29, 2021

On Wednesday, President Biden celebrated his first 100 days in office, partly by miscounting them, delivering his first address to a socially distanced sampling of a joint session of Congress on Day 99. Or possibly Day 98. For what it’s worth, rounding the count up or down is itself presidential. Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his July 1933 Fireside Chat about “the crowding events of the hundred days … devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal” some weeks after Congress had adjourned after 102 days in session.

Either way, Biden’s 100 days have spawned rather more than 100 pieces of punditry on the topic. But luckily, the Internet’s infinite size means there’s always room for one more. In that spirit, a fistful of thoughts on Biden’s speech and the opening months of his administration:

1. Biden’s address was not, technically, a “State of the Union,” but it certainly had a State of the Union laundry list vibe. Biden aired some very expensive laundry, though. He plugged about $4 trillion in infrastructure and families programs, including road repair, “ending cancer as we know it,” tuition-free community colleges and paid medical leave. Keep in mind that in pre-pandemic fiscal 2019, federal spending totaled $4.45 trillion. Biden’s plan comes on top of an additional $5 trillion in covid-19 relief measures (not counting the Fed’s lending programs) already appropriated from the spring of 2020 through last month’s American Rescue Plan.

2. The ghost of Walter Mondale may have been smiling at the immense price tag, the accompanying cry for increased taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations (“trickle-down economics has never worked”), and the far bolder defense of government’s role in society than even Democratic presidents have made over recent decades. “The era of big government is over,” Bill Clinton pronounced in 1996; if Biden’s legislative program passes, that era is back.

Here’s what Kamala Harris owes to Walter Mondale

3. That’s a big “if,” of course, given razor-thin Democratic majorities and such truncated overlap across party lines that Biden has redefined the “unity” he stressed during the 2020 campaign as something that Republicans who don’t hold seats in Congress might like.

Biden, though, made an intriguing rhetorical choice in his address, culminating with the hard stuff — things people might not be united in liking. Presidents often conclude such speeches with a paean to the military: troops are good tropes, guaranteeing a bipartisan, telegenic standing ovation. But Biden followed discussion of his Afghanistan withdrawal by endorsing various legislative measures about some of the toughest questions in American politics: race and civil rights, sex and gender orientation, domestic violence, school shootings, immigration, voting rights. Biden portrayed these as “reasonable” and noncontroversial: “The country supports it, and Congress should act now!” But while Biden may not “want to be confrontational,” grappling with such issues does require confronting not just present-day politics but the complexities and contradictions embedded in America’s historical trajectory.

Biden’s considering reforming the Supreme Court. That’s happened during every crisis in U.S. democracy.

4. In the face of those complexities, a president’s fond gaze might well turn to executive action — which constitutes much of what Biden has done so far. Back in 2017, a White House news release announced: “In office, President Trump has accomplished more in his first 100 days than any other President since Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The proof was that Trump had issued 30 executive orders during that time, more than any newly elected president since FDR.

That being so, we can presumably expect a missive from Mar-a-Lago praising Biden for being at least a third more accomplished than his predecessor: Biden has issued 42 executive orders so far. To this, add a dozen or so presidential memorandums; at least five substantive proclamations (on tariffs and international travel, for instance); various “determinations”; and old-fashioned letters rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris climate accords.

Like Trump’s, these administrative directives are a mix of actual execution and “planning to make plans.” By my count, 16 deal significantly with reorganization, such as creating new advisory mechanisms or “czar” posts. Another dozen require quick, tangible action, such as new ethics rules or guidelines protecting workers from covid-19’s spread. But the bulk fall into a broad “review and/or report” category, with the president directing departments and agencies to go through existing policies and rules and consider issuing updates or replacements. (In most cases, the ability to promulgate regulations is vested in departments — not in the president directly.) While those changes will not happen immediately — if at all — these orders do give Biden the chance to lay down clear markers on the hard issues noted above.

Interestingly, the new administration has intermittently retained the Trumpian innovation of including flowery “policy” sections at the start of executive orders, detailing the president’s feelings on a given issue. Biden’s are shorter than Trump’s, but with the same aim of expressing solidarity with a particular constituency or desired policy outcome. One Biden example is his stated desire to “lift up, low-income and other underserved persons and communities, notably including persons of color.”

Those new policies are to be built on a foundation cleared of administrative underbrush. About a third of the EOs, along with several proclamations and memos, revoke Trump administration directives — more than 60 of them, according to NPR. Indeed, to those criticizing the scale of his executive action, Biden has stressed “I’m not making new law — I’m eliminating bad policy.” Even if bad policy is in the eye of the beholder, that may be as much as Biden can do administratively in the short term.

Professors, check out TMC’s classroom topic guide on Biden’s first 100 days.

5. Which leaves the long term, of course. Biden’s ambitions are clear, but he may lack the resources to put those into practice, even with March’s $1.9 trillion in “rescue” funds available. The “100 Days” have not always correlated well with overall success: Clinton’s, for instance, were chaotic, but he would bounce back to become the first Democrat since FDR to win two terms in the White House. Biden will be hoping that a strong start builds its own momentum.

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