The week's big question: Biden's 100 days

The Week Staff
Joe Biden.
Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

This week, President-elect Joe Biden announced three objectives for the first 100 days of his presidency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan coincided with the U.S. passing the grim milestone of 3,000 COVID deaths in a single day. It was also a recognition that Biden's first 100 days, usually a time for new presidents to deliver on campaign promises and pursue aggressive policy priorities, will be largely judged on his ability to contain the damage from the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

Yet that won't be the sum of the fledgling Biden administration's task. They will need to juggle those twin crises with numerous other responsibilities, both foreign and domestic, and the president-elect will undoubtedly hope to start work on his own agenda. This week's big question is: What is the most underrated challenge facing Biden in his first 100 days? — Bryan Maygers, deputy editor

His future 2024 challengers can't say he's a legitimate president

Congress always has potential challengers to an incumbent president. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris served in the Senate during Trump's presidency along with six other presidential candidates. Paul Ryan ran for vice president in 2012 as he often clashed with Barack Obama in the House. The ambition of presidential and vice presidential hopefuls often means they don't want to give their potential opponent any kind of "win."

The big change this time is that plenty of Republicans who are angling to run in 2024 — barring another Trump run — can't even admit Joe Biden is an elected president. Ted Cruz, who ran against Trump and could likely run again, offered to argue a lawsuit to overturn election results if it went to the Supreme Court. So far, only 27 Congressional Republicans acknowledge that Biden has won and even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Biden considered a friend, has avoided answering questions about Trump's claims of fraud.

In the Senate, Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio will all be inclined to vote against any legislation Biden supports and to oppose all nominees. It is likely that future Republican debate moderators ask if Biden was legitimately elected, and nobody wants to be on record saying that. Furthermore, House Republicans risk facing primary challenges if they help Biden in any way.

During his victory speech last month, Joe Biden asked Americans to "give each other a chance,” and insisted he'd be a president for all states, not just the ones that voted for him. But plenty of Republicans don't think that the votes from states that voted for Biden are legitimate, and they can't be seen as accommodating someone who their supporters think stole the election. The president-elect also said on the campaign trail that if Trump lost, then "the fever may break." As long as Trump is poisoning Republican politics, he might have to bypass the infected party altogether.

A rush of demands from foreign leaders

When Biden takes office, foreign leaders frustrated with the Trump administration and eager to shift their relationship with the United States will be eager to talk.

Some of these calls will be friendlier than others, but most will be demanding. From Europe, where President Trump has attempted (rightly, though for wrong reasons) to shift the defense burden to local powers, Biden will probably get requests for the U.S. to increase its subsidy of European security. While French President Emmanuel Macron has called for using Trump's slight move away from military partnerships with European allies — "We cannot be the United States' junior partner," he said earlier this year, "I'm impatient for European solutions" — it's unlikely other European powers agree (nor is it clear Macron himself will want to maintain this distance if Biden offers a return to the post-war norm).

From North Korea, some new provocation is likely. A missile test, perhaps, or even a new nuclear demonstration if dictator Kim Jong Un is feeling particularly impatient for a Biden-authorized shift in U.S.-North Korea relations. Kim has a habit of attempting to coerce Washington to the negotiating table with these fits of pique, and an early provocation would give him valuable information about Biden's stance toward his regime.

Other demands will undoubtedly come too. From Latin American countries, especially Mexico, I'd anticipate applications for swift reversals of the Trump administration's harshest anti-immigration measures. From Iran, of course, a push for the U.S. to promptly re-enter the nuclear deal Trump left. From China, a request for tariff revocations. And from any number of nations, as the U.S. COVID-19 vaccines roll out, pleas for those immunizations to be shared.

Can Biden safeguard his most powerful ally?

One difficulty I expect Biden to feel acutely in his first term as president will be that of ensuring that his most powerful ally, Nancy Pelosi, remains speaker of the House of Representatives.

I am not suggesting that Democrats will necessarily lose the lower chamber in the next midterm elections, though such a reversal would be in keeping with recent trends. Even if her party manages to narrowly retain control, it would be very difficult to justify re-electing a speaker who had presided over two consecutive losses, including one in which Democrats otherwise retook the White House.

But even this will only be a useful pretext for the more serious resentments felt by members of her caucus. Pelosi has been too clever by half, alternately mocking and paying lip service to earnest young progressives while occasionally alienating her mostly centrist base of support in the lower chamber by allowing the former group to become the party's public face.

The center cannot hold. Pelosi and other centrists did not really mean it when they spent four years suggesting that (for example) Trump's tax cuts were "the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress." But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others did. Sooner or later they will want to know why the law isn't being repealed, why the party is not pursuing single-payer health care, why there is no Green New Deal, why fracking is not being banned, why Israel is not on the receiving end of financial sanctions, and goodness knows what else.

I do not believe that the so-called "squad" has nearly enough votes to select its preferred speaker. But like the Tea Party before it, this upstart faction might be powerful enough to unseat an otherwise skilled political operator.

Biden without Pelosi would be a deer in the headlights.

Focus on the Middle East

President-elect Biden will certainly have his hands full with domestic issues in his first 100 days, from the pandemic and vaccination campaign to the economy and (hopefully) starting to bring the country back together. But on the international scene, the Middle East should be at the top of his list. One reason is obvious: It's a region of vital significance to the stability of the world, involving key United States alliances. The other is surprising: It's one area where the Trump administration has some tangible achievements on which the Biden administration can build.

This assessment does not come from a Trump partisan but from former Obama State Department adviser Ray Takeyh, writing in the very mainstream Foreign Policy magazine. Trump's norm-busting disregard for conventional wisdom (such as the conviction that the Palestinian issue must be addressed for progress to happen in Arab-Israeli relations) helped broker normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab countries: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and most recently Morocco. This isn't the end of Mideast hostilities, but it's important.

Biden, a longtime friend of Israel, should meet with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternating Prime Minister Benny Gantz at the earliest opportunity, affirming both the endurance of the "special relationship" and openness to changes in Israeli leadership. He should also reach out to Palestinian leaders (by contrast with Trump's "bad cop" stance) while making clear that peace requires meaningful acceptance of Israel's security. And he should send a clear signal that the U.S. will continue to seek further normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

Such moves will also have the added bonus of showing that the Biden administration isn't determined to reverse or reject everything done under Trump. Let the healing begin!

The tyranny of the minority

The most underrated challenge for the first 100 days of a Biden administration will be repairing America's threadbare democracy. The U.S. is currently caught in a ratchet of accelerating conservative authoritarianism, where the inherent bias of the Electoral College, the Senate, gerrymandered state legislatures, and various voter suppression measures allow Republicans to win power even with a minority of the vote, which they can use to further rig the system.

A few more turns of that cycle and democracy will be dead. At a minimum, this country desperately needs a national popular vote for president, a new voting rights bill to ensure Americans are not robbed of the franchise, and new states in the Senate to rebalance the absurd Republican bias in that chamber. To even have a prayer of doing this, Democrats need to sweep both runoff elections in Georgia next month, and probably engage in a grinding political battle even then. Frankly, I suspect President Biden will not do anything on any one of these priorities, no matter how the runoffs go. But if he wants Democrats to ever be able to win national power again, he would be well-advised to do so.