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With 100 days behind him, Biden's challenges mount and expectations rise as COVID concerns ease

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President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol, on April 28, 2021.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi look on in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol, on April 28, 2021.
Pool, Getty Images

WASHINGTON — From the moment he took office, Joe Biden made combatting a raging pandemic the central focus of his presidency, deploying a wartime effort to distribute vaccines and laying out attainable goals to assure the public of progress.

Just over 100 days later, other challenges have moved to the forefront. 

Eased concerns in the U.S. about the pandemic have led to heightened demands from key constituencies – particularly among progressives – for major action on gun control, policing changes to curb racial discrimination, overhauling former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies and more. 

Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive-aligned political organization.
Some people close to the Biden administration want to say he’s already achieved the success of FDR and LBJ, and I would say we are nowhere close to achieving those aspirations.

Biden is pushing the most dramatic expansion of the federal government’s social safety-net in decades. He won Congressional approval in March of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue bill loaded with spending to help the poor. He’s now proposed a $4 trillion transformation of the U.S. economy with plans to rebuild infrastructure, invest in green technology, expand caregiving for seniors, subsidize child care, make prekindergarten universal and institute a national policy for paid family leave. 

More: Biden’s American Families Plan in charts: What’s in the plan with subsidized child care and free pre-K

But with Americans more optimistic the tide is turning on the pandemic, Biden faces added pressure from the left to deliver beyond his COVID-19 response and economic agenda. If he can’t, he risks alienating key constituencies who helped put him in office and will be critical for Democrats’ efforts to maintain control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.

Biden’s immigration plan, George Floyd policing act and more linger after 100 days

Biden’s immigration plan, police reform bill and gun reform agenda did not pass the finish line in his first 100 days and face an uphill climb ahead.

Staff video, USA TODAY

“Some people close to the Biden administration want to say he’s already achieved the success of FDR and LBJ, and I would say we are nowhere close to achieving those aspirations,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a progressive-aligned political organization. 

Shahid applauded Biden’s work to administer vaccines, his inclusion of climate efforts in his infrastructure package and the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But he said progressives expect more action on health care, such as lowering the age eligibility threshold for Medicare, transitioning to clean renewable energy, adopting a $15 minimum wage, overhauling policing, expanding voting rights and passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“The administration’s focus – and the whole country’s focus – has been on getting through this pandemic,” Shahid said. “As more and more people get vaccinated, as the pandemic hopefully subsides, there’s more urgency to touch these issues that there’s been no action on for several years.” 

Biden urges Congress to make reform in law enforcement a priority in George Floyd’s name

President Biden urges Congress to do this by George Floyd’s birthday.

Associated Press, USA TODAY

'The unfinished business is longer than the finished business'

That urgency is fueled further by the looming 2022 midterm elections, when Democrats will be in jeopardy of losing their slim control in Congress. 

Biden used his first address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night to push for several progressive causes. He set an ambitious goal of May 25 – the anniversary of George Floyd’s death – for the Senate to pass policing reform legislation named in the Minnesota man’s honor that would bolster police accountability and prevent problem officers from moving from one department to another.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 19: Students from Roosevelt high school participate in a statewide walkout on April 19, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Students from high schools across Minneapolis gathered at the U.S. Bank Stadium to stand in solidarity against racial injustice and honor the lives of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. Closing statements are scheduled for today in the Derek Chauvin trial. Chauvin is charged with multiple counts of murder in the death of George Floyd. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The bill, which cleared the House in March, would also end certain police practices that have been under scrutiny amid high-profile shootings of Black Americans by police.

“We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America,” Biden said Wednesday. “Now is our opportunity to make some real progress.”

More: ‘It can’t stop here’: Biden, after Chauvin verdict, calls for passage of George Floyd bill

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League
I think he’s going to push more on policing in the future, but we have to hold him accountable. There’s a lot more left to do. The unfinished business is longer than the finished business.

Biden is set to meet with House and Senate leaders from both parties May 12, giving the president an opportunity to discuss the infrastructure and families plans and negotiate police reform. White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden plans to invite Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C, who is leading Republicans’ negotiations on police reform, to the White House.

“I think he’s going to push more on policing in the future, but we have to hold him accountable,’’ said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s a lot more left to do. The unfinished business is longer than the finished business.”

For more than 30 years, Biden said in his speech, politicians have talked about immigration reform. “It’s time to fix it,” he said, calling for members of Congress who support a secure border and pathway to citizenship to “pass it.

A sign hangs on a fence at a memorial outside King Soopers for the victims of the recent mass shooting at King Soopers in Boulder, Colo. on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

A sign hangs on a fence at a memorial outside King Soopers for the victims of the recent mass shooting at King Soopers in Boulder, Colo. on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.
Bethany Baker, The Coloradoan/USA TODAY Network

And after a series of deadly mass shoots since he entered office, Biden called for the Senate to finally pass legislation to strengthen gun background checks and reinstate a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“I don’t want to become confrontational,” Biden said, “but we need more Senate Republicans to join with the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues” to pass gun control reforms.

Filibuster threatens much of Biden's agenda

Republicans lawmakers, however, have shown no willingness to support gun control or immigration reform and have drawn a hard line against H.R. 1, slamming the Democratic-backed voting rights bill as a power grab. 

Unless unlikely compromise is reached, Biden faces a seemingly impossible legislative path to pass these measures because of the threat of the filibuster from Republicans that would require 60 votes in the evenly divided Senate.

“The president of the United States is not is not a dictator. He can’t just wave a wand and achieve things,’’ said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., adding that Biden has still continued to push efforts to address voting rights and health disparities. “But it’s hard. You need to get Congress to act.’’

More: Biden holding out for bipartisan support for immigration measures, White House says

These bills face a tougher climb than Biden’s COVID-19 rescue plan, which Democrats in Congress approved through a process called budget reconciliation without any Republican support. Biden could seek passage via the same legislative route with his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan – as long as all Democrats stick together in support. 

If Democratic-backed legislation is blocked by Senate Republicans, it could fuel more outcries from the left urging Biden to support getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate. Despite agreeing the filibuster a “relic of the Jim Crow era,” Biden has stopped short of saying the tactic should be eliminated, though he’s offered support for bringing back the “talking filibuster” that is more difficult to execute. 

William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy
If he wants to make headway on those, he’s going to have to start talking about reforms to the legislative process itself. That would be a game-changer.

“Over time, it’s only going to get more difficult for him,” said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

He said the COVID relief package – while an achievement for Biden – also had the best chance for success. His infrastructure and families plans are a harder lift. “Then when you look down the pike: Comprehensive immigration reform? Gun control legislation?” 

More: The House passed a sweeping voting rights act. What’s in it?

Howell said the big question is whether Biden will ever consider “democracy reform,” such as overhauling the filibuster, arguing “there’s just not a world” where Biden will pick up 10 Republican votes needed to achieve the agenda progressive want.

“If he wants to make headway on those, he’s going to have to start talking about reforms to the legislative process itself,” Howell said. “That would be a game-changer.”

Can Biden's communication strategy continue to work?

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said Biden has “reaped the benefits” of his response to COVID-19. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found 64% of Americans approve of his handling of the pandemic, higher than his overall approval rating of 52%.

As the U.S. moves on past the pandemic she said it will incentivize activists “to be less patient with the administration” on issues they care about. Progressives viewed Biden’s early executive actions on racial equity, for example, as the beginning, not the end, of action.

“It’s an important tonal shift. But I think – not just in the next 100 days, but in the 1,000 days – the expectation will be that some of these initial steps were just the groundwork to large projects,” Gillespie said, predicting possible protests by the end of the year if Biden doesn’t deliver more.

Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University
In a way, it’s the Reagan-esque morning in America. Everybody’s going back to work. But what that does for expectations is huge. And a huge part of the presidency is managing those expectations.

But Gillespie said progress doesn’t only hinge on success in Congress. She said Black voters who backed Biden in the election want to see Biden use his office and Justice Department to tackle racial discrimination in ways that don’t require legislative action.

Flipping the page after four years of unpredictability under Trump, Biden brought rigid scheduling and routine back to the White House. He’s made his presidency more defined by policy than personality, another sharp break from his predecessor.  

Biden has spoken less in public than past presidents, including Trump, according to Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential rhetoric. He’s held few one-on-one interviews, waited 64 days to hold his first press conference and nearly 100 days to deliver his first joint address to Congress.

Beasley called the strategy an “intentional move” to put the spotlight on policies and Biden’s push to restore faith in government – not Biden himself. It’s proven successful so far.

“The most basic rule of political communication is that if something works, keep doing it,” Beasley said. 

But the political landscape will likely become thornier as the expectations rise.

“In a way, it’s the Reagan-esque morning in America. Everybody’s going back to work,” Beasley said, referring to the progress made to fight the pandemic. “But what that does for expectations is huge. And a huge part of the presidency is managing those expectations.”

Contributing: Staff reporter Deborah Barfield Berry. Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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