Global Affairs

Biden’s First Hundred Days

The 30th of April will be the 100th day since Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. No president since Harry Truman in 1945 has inherited such a chaotic and dangerous world from their predecessor, with Biden having to deal with the extra detail of his predecessor refusing to acknowledge defeat. In this article the Oxford Blue Global Affairs editors explore the challenges Biden has faced in his first hundred days, how he has worked to overcome them, and what problems may be in store for him in the future.

EUROPE, NATO & RUSSIA — Duarte Amaro

“America is back. Diplomacy is back. That’s the centre of our foreign policy”, remarked President Biden during his first foreign policy speech as President on February 4th. He echoed this fifteen days later, when he spoke at the Munich Security Conference (the first US president to do so), repeating that “America is back”. While this clearly implies an emphatic break with the Trump Administration’s “America First” mantra, it goes beyond that. It stresses, above all, a stronger, underlying continuity with a longer, revered tradition of “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values”, as Biden put it. More than dissociating himself with Trump, Biden is associating himself with earlier American statesmen; his tone was distinctly Wilsonian in saying that “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it”.

The Biden Administration has put its preaching into practice: the US have re-joined the Paris climate accord, re-engaged with the WHO and extended the New START nuclear non-proliferation treaty. But most of these are not novel initiatives – only reversals of Trump Administration decisions or, as is the case with the New START, renewals of Obama-era policies.

The Biden Administration will clearly prioritise multilateralism: in two months, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has twice visited Brussels, which also houses NATO headquarters. But the Europe Blinken visited is not the same as four years ago. Many Europeans have become convinced of the importance of “strategic autonomy”, and some NATO member states have fulfilled Trump’s demands for increased defence expenditure (though arguably of their own volition), spending at least 2 percent of GDP. Last year, France and Norway joined eight other nations in reaching that threshold. Even though Biden has reversed the withdrawal of US troops from Germany, a distinctly European sphere of influence is widening on certain fronts, like North Africa and the Sahel, or the Eastern Mediterranean. But the EU, despite some tentative spearheading by France, is still plagued by indecisiveness over, for instance, Russia. To a significant extent, the US will still have to lead.

On Russia, Biden also marked a clear shift away from Trump’s placative stance. In his first call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden addressed election interference, cyberattacks, bounties on US troops and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This month, Blinken expressed “real concerns” with Russia’s troop build-up on the Ukrainian border, but he was vague in detailing an American response. Nevertheless, Biden has authorised additional aid to Ukraine worth $125 million, including two armed patrol boats and counter-artillery radar. Ukraine will no doubt be a centrepiece of Biden’s foreign policy:as vice-president, he was the Obama Administration’s primary emissary to Kiev, visiting the country six times. 

CHINA — Guy Ward Jackson 

Biden’s China policy thus far has largely signalled continuity with Trump, taking a “get tough” stance. He has described China as the “most serious competitor” that poses challenges on the “prosperity, security, and democratic values” of the U.S. The administration has applied Magnitsky-style sanctions on over 20 Chinese officials: both as a result of the Uighur genocide and Hong Kong’s ever decreasing autonomy — the latter of which involved the Communist Party’s blatant undermining of democracy in the form of ensuring that only people whom they consider ‘patriots’ would be able to govern. 

 Antony Blinken was nominated as Secretary of State in January 2021. Crucially, Blinken has officially labelled the horrific Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang as a genocide: “Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect re-educate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party — all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide”. 

There has even been talk of either a full-blown or a diplomatic boycott from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Indeed the last time America boycotted an Olympics was Moscow in 1980 following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Such an act might perhaps put an end to any doubt that this is increasingly feeling like a new Cold War. 

What is unassailable though is that the increasing theme of ‘Chimerican’ relations is one of American values coming into conflict with American economic interests: a classic Cold War narrative. 

FISCAL STIMULUS — Jacob Grech 

Joe Biden built his campaign, once out of the gruelling Democratic Party primaries, on a promise to be a safe pair of hands and allow himself to be led by science in dealing with the crisis (in stark contrast to his incumbent opponent). He was therefore expected to waste no time once in office in orchestrating major legislation to provide much-needed stimulus to the U.S. economy and provide relief to the millions of Americans facing financial hardship. 

Such an act would build on the CARES Act, passed in a bipartisan vote and signed into law by President Trump in late March 2020. This record $2.2 billion piece of legislation, providing direct payments to Americans and loans to small and major businesses, secured rare bipartisan support. 

Having secured a narrow Senate majority, by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote and Democratic victories in the two Senate runoff races in Georgia, Biden found himself with a path to a promised recovery act – or, indeed, any consequential piece of legislation – that was narrow and difficult. For all the divisions in their party after their defeat in November, the Republicans swiftly united behind a policy of blanket opposition to virtually all Democratic proposals.

This compelled the new administration, despite initial hopes – played up by Biden – that some kind of bipartisan spirit could be fostered, at least on the question of a new relief bill, to make use of the budget reconciliation process. This provides a path round the filibuster procedure, which requires a 60-vote supermajority for the passage of most legislation through the Senate. Some, such as Bernie Sanders, the new chairman of the budget committee, made plain from the get-go their lack of illusions regarding the possibility for bipartisanship.

And yet, in piecing together the American Rescue Plan over the course of his first month in office, President Biden had to face opposition from within his party as well as from the congressional Republicans. That Senate majority now rests on the votes of a number of ‘moderate Democrats’, of whom the most prominent in this new congress are Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – although several more have expressed reservations with various tenets of so-called ‘progressive agendas’, notably Medicare-for-All. Both Manchin and Sinema have come out in opposition to the abolition of the filibuster – something which would allow major legislation to bypass the steep 60-vote requirement and enable more decisive implementation of the majority’s policy priorities. Their objections rest on grounds of respect for long-standing procedural norms. McConnell himself warned Democrats that he would not hold back from pushing ahead with Republican priorities, on questions ranging from reproductive rights to gun ownership, should a “scorched earth” Senate emerge. 

The final, amended American Rescue Plan was eventually signed into law by Biden on 11th March. It has been lauded by Democrats, including prominent members of the left wing of the party, such as Representative Ilhan Omar, as the most progressive piece of legislation in years. It includes such measures as increased child tax benefits, $1,400 stimulus checks for individual Americans earning less than $75,000 in gross income annually and emergency funding for state, local, tribal and territorial governments. 

These measures are an essential lifeline for millions of American families and small businesses. However, few of the gains of this package will be enduring. For the first months of the Biden administration, progressives in the Democratic Party – but also an increasingly large coalition – placed themselves behind the fight for a $15 federal minimum wage. Efforts were made to include this in the reconciliation bill, but both Senate bureaucracy and a definitive floor vote rendered them unsuccessful. A dispute has emerged within corners of the U.S. left as a result. Could more have been done? Are elected progressives more generally just too willing to trust Biden and party leadership to do the right thing? These questions look set to be enduring over the next months and years. 

The focus now shifts to Biden’s promised infrastructure bill. Can his administration render ‘Infrastructure Week’ more than an empty slogan? A lot depends on the White House’s strategy. Is Biden prepared to risk aggravating moderates in his own party by pushing ahead with a more vigorous, progressive agenda – or will he stick closer to the relatively cautious approach of the Obama era? 

IMMIGRATION — Daniel Hubbard

Perhaps the most enduring symbol of Donald Trump’s presidency will be that of the “wall”. While never completed, the “big, beautiful border wall’‘ encapsulated what many viewed as the extremist nationalism at the centre of the Trump presidency. However, the political and social issue of mass migration from Latin America has not gone away for Joe Biden.

The total number of undocumented migrants arriving at the US’ southern border is the highest its been since 2018 and has presented a particularly fraught challenge to Biden in his first 100 Days. Republicans have attacked the administration for its perceived leniency. In particular GOP (“Grand Old Party”, a nickname for the Republicans) leaders like Lindsey Graham have condemned Biden for scrapping Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy which required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their requests were processed. Republicans undoubtedly view the issue of immigration as a way to regain control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, as Democratic power in both chambers is razor-thin. In contrast, progressive Democrats are anxious that Biden has not gone further to loosen Trump-era restrictions, with Vice-President Kamala Harris having previously campaigned on a platform of decriminalising illegal border crossings. So far Biden seems stuck between a rock and a hard place.

While the president has proposed major immigration reform, its chances of passing the Senate without reform to the filibuster is small, and as such it will undoubtedly prove a toxic issue for the administration well beyond the first 100 Days. 

GUN CONTROL — Lily Shanagher

This past month Biden called gun violence in the USA an “international embarrassment” and took an initial set of steps this month to address the problem.  His first intended step is to begin cracking down on the amount of available ‘ghost guns’, firearms assembled from kits that do not require background checks and do not have serial numbers, making them untraceable. 

Nonetheless, Biden acknowledged that more extensive actions such as banning assault weapons or closing background check loopholes would require approval from Congress. However, Biden realises how crucial it is to confront what he described as an “epidemic” which kills around 100 Americans daily.

His move to regulate arm braces which help make firing a pistol more accurate comes after the March shooting in Boulder Colorado, where this device was used. 

Biden also wants to publish model “red flag” legislation for states, which would allow police officers and family members to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from people who may present a danger to themselves or others. However, such a move would be dependent on Congress and so for now remains mere speculation.

The House of Representatives passed two gun control bills in March but they remain unpopular with Republicans.

While so far his moves are limited and fall short of the action he vowed to put pressure on Congress to take, Biden has acknowledged the problem with gun violence and proved he will do what he can do solve it. Ultimately though, experts remain unconvinced that there are enough supporters in Congress to enact gun laws, with the Senate currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. 

VOTING RIGHTS RESTRICTIONS — Guy Ward Jackson

Over the past month Republican State Legislators in Georgia have been attempting to enact suppressive voting laws which will significantly reduce the ability for certain demographics of voters — specifically those likely to be Democrats — to leave their mark on the ballot box. These democratically-undermining policies represent a continuation of false Republican claims that the 2020 Presidential Election was rigged in Biden’s favour. Therefore Georgia, being one of the key swing states which Biden won in November, has become a battleground in Republican attempts to shave off Biden’s marginal 12,000 vote victory. 

The policies include restricting absentee voting, preventing in-person early voting on Sundays, and even prohibiting the supply of water and food for those queuing for hours outside ballot boxes; all of which either diminish or deter voting both inside and outside of Election Day. Democrats have been outraged by what they perceive as racially-targeted restrictions. Sean Eldridge, founder of Stand Up America, has remarked that “The voter suppression efforts we are seeing are racist, and they are clearly a calculation by Republicans that the only way that they feel like they can win elections is to make it more difficult for Americans to vote”. 

Voting restrictions in the United States are by no means a new issue, though. And its history has been historically tainted by the sinister politics of race. From the 1868 Presidential election won by Ulysses Grant, to the 1875 election scandal — in which Republicans were accused of rigging the election, in turn leading to the tragic end of Reconstruction — and to the infamous Jim Crow Laws which perpetuated nearly a century of racial segregation. Thus the toxic issue of voting rights is not a new weapon but an old fault line in American politics; one that has recently been re-drawn in the sand.

The result is that — if these policies of voting restrictions spread beyond Georgia — Democrats chances of winning both the 2022 mid-terms and even the 2024 Presidential Election could be in serious jeopardy. Calls amongst Democrats for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a seminal bill passed during the Civil Rights Movement to prevent racially-targeted voting — might be a possible way out for Biden. But, as Nancy Pelosi,the Democrat Speaker of the House,urged: “Everything is at stake. We must win this race, this fight for this bill”. 

Whatever the successes or failures of Biden’s first hundred days, ultimately little of it will matter if this internal problem is not dealt with. 

CLIMATE — Clara Malling Stromsted

Just hours after being sworn in as president, Biden made his first move to improve the US’s efforts in reducing climate change, as he signed an executive order to reinstate the US to the Paris climate agreement. This was a significant symbolic moment for the Biden administration, but it has been questioned how effective a  difference it will make in the effort against climate change

The Biden administration has, however, been clear about its aim to transition the US economy towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which includes an intermediate goal of decarbonising the US power sector by 2035. This was reflected in one of his first acts as President as he cancelled the permit for the Keystone XL crude pipeline, which was considered a major symbol of the US’s energy future.

In addition to reversing the actions of the Trump administration, Biden has made the case for tackling climate change by investing in clean energy infrastructure, thus also aiding economic recovery. Merging economic and climate interests is essential to achieve long-term, sustainable change in climate policies. In line with this, President Biden on March 31st revealed a plan that aims to invest about $1trn on climate-related projects over the next eight years. It is ambitious, yet it can be questioned whether it is enough to reverse the failure of America’s climate policies in the past. It will especially be interesting to see whether Biden will be able to get the necessary support in Congress to pass the plans to invest in green energy.

Concluding ThoughtsGuy Ward Jackson

The overriding theme of his first hundred days has been a resurgence of multilateralism and involvement abroad, but at the same time increasing difficulties at home with voting rights, immigration and gun control in particular. Could Biden’s presidency be yet another classic case of progress internationally and stagnation domestically: the inexorable curse of American politics?