Biden's 3 biggest challenges for the next 100 days

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·8-min read

WASHINGTON — President Biden got the biggest break of his young administration about two weeks before taking the oath of office, when Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock won both of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate, which had previously been occupied by Republicans. That effectively turned the upper chamber blue, since the Democrats had the coveted 51st vote in Kamala Harris, the incoming vice president, who as a rule serves as president of the Senate.

Taking back the Senate ensured that Biden could form a Cabinet without worrying about bruising confirmation hearings. Except for the controversy over budget director nominee Neera Tanden’s tweets which led to her nomination being pulled, Biden got the Cabinet he wanted.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 response and the state of vaccinations at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Biden speaks on the COVID-19 response and the state of vaccinations on April 21. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

More important, it meant that he could pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package without having to worry about whipping Republican votes. There were, of course, the requisite overtures to bipartisanship. Those overtures came to naught, as the White House knew they would, and the president got the coronavirus bill he wanted.

Biden got another break in early April, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the Democrats could pass the president’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package with only 51 votes, by using the same budget reconciliation process they’d used to push through the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill (that’s a lot of trillions flying around). Once again, there would not have to be the usual scrounging for Republican votes.

These developments have made Biden’s first 100 days a relatively smooth enterprise. And with the coronavirus pandemic in a seeming ebb, there is a feeling of optimism across the country, one that has been reflected in generally (if not overwhelmingly) favorable views of the 46th president’s job performance.

But all that could change, and rather quickly at that. Here are the biggest challenges Biden will face in the days ahead.

The social agenda

US President Joe Biden speaks about the American Rescue Plan from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 27, 2021. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

So about those trillions. On top of the coronavirus relief bill already passed and the infrastructure plan now getting hammered out, however slowly, on Capitol Hill, Biden is set to propose another gigantic spending package, which is to constitute the second half of the overall infrastructure plan, despite having even less to do with infrastructure, as traditionally defined, than the first, $2.3 trillion plan.

Set to be introduced by the president during a speech to Congress on Wednesday, the American Families Plan will include $1.8 trillion in spending on domestic programs like free community college and paid family leave.

Biden will argue that these programs will also bolster the nation’s infrastructure by focusing on people as opposed to just roads and bridges. And many of his proposals are, on their own, popular with the public. Free community college, for example, was pioneered by not-exactly-socialist Tennessee.

But the reality is that Biden is proposing a new plan costing trillions while the original infrastructure plan costing trillions remains very much on the runway. So much government spending could expose the president to accusations that he is trying to throw money at every problem that progressives have identified, and that behind the talk of regaining global supremacy is just the big-spending liberalism that defined the Democratic Party (whether fairly or not) for the last decades of the 20th century.

For now, the president’s plans are broadly popular, but they will continue to run into a determined Republican resistance as well as doubts from some centrist Democrats. And in a country as profoundly polarized as the United States, it would be a mistake to discount the political effect of those attacks. Not all that many people need to be convinced by the likes of Fox News for views of Biden’s spending to lapse into unfavorable territory.

Biden’s challenge will be twofold: to pass the two infrastructure bills, then to make sure they are implemented in efficient and equitable ways.

All that will be remarkably fraught as far as both policy and politics are concerned. The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s was a reaction to the perceived profligacy of the Great Society programs of the late 1960s. Biden has courted comparison to the Great Society’s architect, Lyndon B. Johnson, but must avoid the mistakes that turned Johnson’s genuinely ambitious and well-intentioned domestic agenda (one that was effective in many ways) into a conservative punching bag for a generation.

Iran

People wearing face masks as preventive measure against the coronavirus (COVID-19), walk at a street as daily life continues in the country amid COVID-19 pandemic in Tehran, Iran, on April 27, 2021. (Muhammet Kursun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Daily life continues in Tehran amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Muhammet Kursun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Speaking of LBJ, remember that what made him a one-term president had nothing to do with the Great Society or with the groundbreaking civil rights legislation he signed into law. Rather, what undid him was Vietnam, a conflict thousands of miles away.

Biden, who has announced his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, does not have a Vietnam of his own. Nor does he have the foreign-policy insecurity that led LBJ to rely on the disastrous counsel of “the best and the brightest,” advisers like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, who deceptively led the nation into war and couldn’t find a way back out.

But he does have Iran, which not only is a problem of its own but represents a nexus of problems in the region. There are, above all, its nuclear ambitions, which Biden is trying to tame by reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accord that former President Donald Trump left in 2018. Some believe that the Biden administration is making too many concessions in trying to bring Iran back into the diplomatic fold.

Even if the U.S. does reenter the deal, Tehran will likely continue to pose a problem for the Biden administration. Much as the president does not want to get embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s audacious operations within Iran’s borders are clearly intended, among other objectives, to put the Biden administration into an immensely uncomfortable position.

Iran has been working to enhance its influence in Afghanistan, which is set to be free of U.S. forces come September. The relationship between Tehran and Kabul isn’t new, but it could take new shape absent U.S. presence in the region. If terrorist networks emerge in Afghanistan, as al-Qaida did in the years before 9/11, Biden will almost certainly take the blame.

To make matters worse, Iran is embroiled in a domestic political drama ahead of its June presidential election, which only adds to the unpredictability of the situation, since it’s hard to know just who will be in charge and how much credibility that leader will have.

A confrontation with Iran does not have to turn into an outright shooting war to pose political peril. Jimmy Carter discovered that the hard way, when Iran took 52 Americans hostage in 1979. Carter attempted a military rescue of the hostages, but Operation Eagle Claw, as that effort was known, ended in failure, further eroding the president’s standing just as the nation was about to decide whether he should stay in Washington for four more years.

“We just lost the election,” one of Carter’s advisers said after the botched rescue mission.

The congressional midterms

Election workers perform a manual recount of ballots on November 16, 2018 at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office in Orlando, Florida. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Election workers in Orlando perform a manual recount of ballots in November 2018. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

That break Biden caught on Jan. 5 with the Senate seats in Georgia? It’s not indefinite. Both parties are already gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections, which in political time are already upon us. The president usually loses seats in both chambers after his first two years in office, and the Democrats’ margins are so narrow that they will have to buck historical trends if they want to govern beyond Jan. 3, 2023, when the next Congress convenes.

Biden has two things going his way. The first is “shots and checks,” as some of his advisers call his domestic programs. The rapid distribution of the coronavirus vaccine, and of relief checks, would seem to argue that the party in power is doing a decent job of governing. The disarray in the Republican Party doesn’t help, with the GOP as divided on the issue of Trumpism as it was in the run-up to the 2016 election.

According to CNN pollster Harry Enten, though, 2022 is looking good for the Republicans so far. That’s probably why Biden and Harris, as well as their spouses, have been traveling to states like Pennsylvania and Colorado, where congressional battles are likely to be especially pitched.

The most fail-safe strategy to win an election is by doing things people like. If the infrastructure packages pass and people see their lives improve — cheaper childcare, better roads, cleaner air — the Democrats will retain power. Even then, the GOP will continue its relentless messaging on cancel culture, socialism and civic disorder, in hopes that even shots and checks don’t prove enough.

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