Upon Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th U.S. president, his administration has begun to lead in an America ravaged by COVID-19 and reeling from political divisiveness and violence.
And one sliver of time will be used as a benchmark of how successful Biden’s team is at the outset: the first 100 days.
For nearly 90 years, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1933 radio address specifically mentioned his first 100 days as being critical, and then backed it up by helping pass several bills which began to comprise “The New Deal,” new presidents’ terms have been judged based on that span.
“What happens is that it provides an instant narrative for the new administration, and they’ll put their full energy behind that,” said Ray Haberski, professor of history and director of the American Studies program in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. “And media can help the sense of an imperative to get things done.”
Indeed, outlets have created dedicated webpages for tracking Biden’s first 100 days and his stated goals, which include 100 million vaccines distributed, increased mask-wearing nationwide and a reopening of most schools. How the president sells his initiatives through the media will be part of the story.
“Six decades ago, a political scientist famously argued that ‘the power of the president is the power to persuade.’ One way that a president engages in persuasion – of both politicians and the mass public – is through his use of the media,” said Steven Webster, an assistant professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. “Biden’s ability to push his message and frame it properly will be important – however, the fragmentation of our media landscape will make this difficult.”
While FDR set the standard for all presidents when it comes to accomplishments during the first 100 days (he also had a strong majority in Congress and a Great Depression-ridden nation ready for help), political scientists cite Ronald Reagan as perhaps having the most successful first 100 days since.
“He had a team that focused on studying other presidents’ first 100 days in office. He decided to focus on only two or three things during those first 100 days, and he was a master at stagecraft,” said Marie Eisenstein, associate professor of political science at IU Northwest.
Reagan also survived an assassination attempt 69 days into his term.
“It showed a certain strength to take a bullet – not just to survive, but to be graceful under pressure while going through it. It certainly solidified a certain perception of Reagan in the public eye,” Eisenstein said.
Reagan was also credited as beginning the narrative of government as an enemy of sorts, though by the time he was president, “he was one of the elites and a career politician,” Haberski said.
Biden has also spent decades in public service, and he will have to work inside a political arena that has arguably never been more divided.
“The polarized nature of American politics, combined with razor-thin Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, will make it difficult for Biden to enact significant pieces of legislation,” Webster said. “However, he should be able to take unilateral action that makes progress on the issue of vaccine distribution.
“Biden has already signified that the vaccination process, along with the economic recovery required due to the coronavirus, will be the primary focus of his presidency.”