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Biden’s first 100 days: Speak softly and deliver a big pitch

A steady, workmanlike persona has enabled him to press major, dramatic policy ambitions without the backlash that confronted his two predecessors.

President Joe Biden arrives to speak to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden arrives to speak to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.Read moreMelina Mara / AP

WASHINGTON — To many, President Joe Biden signaled a return to normalcy. But he’s pushing for transformation.

Having campaigned as the candidate of stability for a country battered by a pandemic and toxic politics, Biden has used his first 100 days in office to wrap a sweeping agenda inside a workmanlike and familiar persona.

That combination has, at least so far, enabled him to press dramatic policy ambitions without the backlash that confronted his two predecessors.

”He’s taking very big swings, but he’s doing all of this very quietly,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University in central Pennsylvania.

His national address Wednesday, his first formal speech to Congress, illustrated the combination. Biden’s sober, often soft, and plainspoken delivery lacked the flash of Barack Obama’s soaring notes or Donald Trump’s bombast. But within the direct, declarative sentences came references to a “once-in-a-generation investment in America itself,” the “largest jobs plan since World War II,” and an “inflection point in history.”

And on Friday in Philadelphia, he visited an Amtrak railyard to both promote the possibilities of a vast expansion of rail travel and offer folksy memories about his time riding between Wilmington and Washington as a senator from Delaware.

Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, and then rolled out proposals to spend $2 trillion rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and reshaping the economy around clean energy, and an additional $1.8 trillion centered on what Democrats call “human infrastructure” such as education, child care, and family leave.

Taken together, Biden — who marked his 100th day in office this week — presents his plans as a generational effort that would remake America’s economy and social safety net. Woven throughout are policies to address racial and economic inequities, fight climate change, and make it easier for people to work, commute, and educate their children.

Biden allies say his plans have grown to match the challenges exposed and worsened by the pandemic.

“He is, at his core, an FDR Democrat,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), a fellow Scranton native. “He knows and knew at the beginning of his administration that this is a big moment and a big moment requires a big response.”

A critic, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), similarly pointed to “the really breathtaking scale of his transformative ambition,” blasting Biden’s plans as a radical expansion of government and “the social welfare state.”

But Republicans have struggled to rally opposition to a president who, unlike his last two predecessors, inspires relatively muted emotional responses. He has proven difficult to vilify.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans go big on culture wars while Biden pushes big spending

While Trump kept supporters and opponents inflamed round the clock, Biden is content to avoid daily conflagrations. He might not win many Republican votes, Dagnes said, but he’s also not openly antagonizing them.

“He does come across as more moderate because he’s less combative,” Toomey said. “It’s probably a relief to a lot of people to have a president who’s not in the news every day fighting with somebody.”

It’s now possible to log on to a major news website, scan the headlines, then check back hours later and find that nothing much new has happened. There are no international crises launched by tweet.

Washington is (mostly) boring again, with debates over spending, inflationary risk, and the definition of infrastructure.

More broadly, as vaccinations spread and weather warms, fans are back at baseball games, children are visiting their grandparents, and going out for dinner comes with a little less dread. An economic recovery, in motion before Biden took office, has accelerated, putting 1.3 million people back to work, though nearly 10 million remain unemployed. The vaccination effort he inherited has been amplified, now reaching about 100 million people.

“What I feel is a sense of calm, where I sort of feel as though there’s a plan, and the plan may not be 100% what everybody wants, but there is a plan,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D., Pa.). “And every day I wake up feeling as though not only is something happening, but there’s something coming next.”

Biden’s agenda still faces significant stumbling blocks, though, given Democrats’ narrow control of Congress. And Republicans argue that voters will reject the spending and liberal agenda items as the details sink in.

“Incumbents always get into trouble in their first term by trying to overreach,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said this month.

Toomey said Biden’s approach contradicts his promises to promote unity and bipartisan agreement. ”He has governed from the far left, and that was not what he led us to believe we should expect,” he said.

So far, polls show that while the public has questioned his handling of immigration, many have embraced Biden’s core proposals, including a sizable minority of GOP voters, if not elected officials. The stimulus bill proved widely popular, and the new plans on infrastructure, jobs, and family care open with support from about two-thirds of Americans, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday.

» READ MORE: At schools, airports, and mushroom farms, Democrats sell voters on Biden’s stimulus

Biden allies have long said his history in the public spotlight, his aura of empathy and decency — born of personal tragedies — and his genial style make it hard for rivals to paint him as a radical.

Democrats also argue that Biden’s policies were there to see in his platform but that he was underestimated by pundits and overshadowed by others who offered even bigger proposals and more confrontational styles. And Biden may have more leeway than Obama, the country’s first Black president, who was attacked as an extremist despite offering more modest proposals.

About 54% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance overall, according to an average of polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight, better than Trump managed but worse than other presidents, including Obama and George W. Bush, at this stage of their terms.

But if Biden’s first 100 days showed the breadth of his goals, they also illustrated constraints. His proposals still hinge on either winning the GOP votes he has lacked, or keeping near-complete unity in Congress’ narrow Democratic majorities — majorities under threat in next year’s elections.

Even as he passed his recovery bill, Biden had to discard plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He has taken executive action on guns, but the biggest goals — universal background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons — face nearly impossible odds.

The Senate, and its filibuster rule requiring 60 votes for almost all major legislation, stands in the way of pledges to reform immigration and policing, impose national voting standards, and strengthen labor unions. Biden’s jobs and families plans could run into the same obstacle, because even if Senate Democrats can again work around the filibuster — using a tactic known as reconciliation, as they did for the stimulus — it would require holding together their 50-strong caucus and fitting the sweeping plans into arcane rules about tax and spending bills.

Houlahan said that after a recent White House meeting with top Biden aides, she urged them to seek out Republican votes.

“He’s got an opportunity to work with Republicans if he’s willing to scale back his ambitions to something that we think is more appropriate,” said Toomey, part of a group of GOP senators who offered a more modest infrastructure plan.

At the same time, liberals have called for eliminating the filibuster (though Democrats don’t appear to have the votes for it) and are pledging to keep pushing Biden to go for more. A group led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) plans to add a Medicare expansion to Biden’s families plan, layering on another politically sensitive issue.

“We need to think bigger,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) said in a response to Biden’s speech on behalf of the progressive Working Families Party.

After more than an hour laying out his goals Wednesday, Biden summed it up as a call to arms for the next century. Then, with the unassuming style that got him there, he concluded, “Thank you for your patience.”