Tuesday morning began easily enough. I just wanted to ask President Biden or his staff about his first 100 days—not what they had accomplished, but what they had wanted to accomplish that they did not.
The list for what the president has accomplished is extensive. The ship of state had capsized under the misdirection of the previous president; Biden has righted it and set it on course again.
At the start of the year, the United States trailed the world in the response to the COVID pandemic, with far more people dying of the disease each day than in any other country. As we cross the 100-day benchmark later this week, more than 140 million Americans have been at least partly vaccinated. The daily death toll is now less than a quarter of what it was when Biden took office. We are winning the battle against the pandemic.
The administration has started moving on other daunting problems as well. Congress passed and Biden signed into law a massive relief and stimulus bill. Discussions on Biden’s proposed new infrastructure-on-steroids bill have begun, though they are still in early stages. The Biden administration has started to pay real attention to the problem of climate change, hosting an unprecedented (virtual) summit of world leaders last week and announcing intended benchmarks for U.S. carbon emissions. While there is much more still to be done to clean up the immigration mess created during the last 40 years, Biden has started to address the problems along the border—including welcoming refugees. The administration has also explicitly called out China for “genocide” against the Uighurs—something the previous administration did only on its way out the door—and has also coordinated efforts with our allies to impose sanctions on key perpetrators. While Russia continues to act aggressively, Biden has made clear he won’t treat Vladimir Putin with the uncritical, cuddly warmth Trump did.
But it’s not just policy. When Biden tells us what a great job he’s done, he shouldn’t skip on bragging about how he isn’t sending out tweets at all hours of the night—thereby sparing people like me angina and dyspepsia. He has been adult-like, pleasantly quiet and refreshingly normal. On Tuesday, when he wore his aviator sunglasses as he spoke on the North Portico, he projected a coolness factor that Trump never could muster. As Biden told us if we were fully vaxxed we could go outside without wearing a mask—unless we were in large crowds—you could almost hear a national sigh of relief that the long COVID nightmare is coming to an end. In a word, Biden acts “presidential”—something that Trump could never muster.
But the question of what Biden and his team haven’t yet accomplished is far more telling. Any fool in the White House, or for that matter anyone heading any organization, can rattle off accomplishments real and imagined at the drop of a hat—but when you ask them what they haven’t done that they wish they had, and you get a real answer, you gain valuable insight into their quality of leadership. In today’s political climate it also takes political courage to candidly admit you haven’t done what you’ve wanted to do, since your political opponents will be ready to pounce at any sign of weakness or a mistake.
Beyond accomplishments, actual or hoped for, there is another question we might ask about the president’s first 100 days: How effective has he been in framing the public debate?
Here the Biden administration is showing signs of blindness, or at least deafness and muteness. One senior staffer confided to me that the administration feels fairly confident with its achievements—and the quelling of the radical screams from the far right. But there is little reason, either anecdotally or in the polls, to feel such confidence.
Donald Trump is not on social media. But I still get his emails and what passes for press releases almost daily. True, comparing a Trump press release to a professional release—like those produced by the current administration—is like comparing a crayon-scrawling third-grader to an adult, but Trump still has followers who like to read the crayon scratches.
Banning Trump from social media has given only the appearance of normalcy. His fervent true believers go to great pains to see that his word still gets out. Underestimate his ability to reach a huge audience and you run the risk of having the 2022 midterm and the 2024 general election resemble the 2016 election. Between the GOP push for restrictive new voting laws and the results of the decennial reapportionment—the new census figures give House seats to Texas, a red state, and takes them from California and other blue states—the Trump Republicans aren’t going away. They’re entrenched and confident.
But the Biden team thinks they have things under control. Some in the White House press office have even talked about the inconsequential nature of the opposition and have tried to corral and diminish members of the far-right media by minimizing their contact with them. This is wrong in a number of ways. Treating the opposition—no matter how odious it is— like mushrooms by keeping them in the dark and out of sight does no one any good. It angers and strengthens the resolve of those who don’t like you—and gives them cause to believe you really do have something to hide. You come across smug without being effective, and more importantly you undercut your own arguments.
The president knows this. His staff may not.
James Carville said something related when evaluating Biden’s first 100 days. He said the Democrats had to stop being so polite and call out the GOP for being a bunch of pedophile-harboring insurrectionists. But he also said you had to speak to people in a language they understand if you want to reach them.
That is where the Biden administration has failed so far. Biden’s communication staff is not part of the inner circle and that effectively causes problems in communicating the president’s message. They’re also a bit elitist and smug—and it comes across whenever Jennifer Psaki sneers or patronizes someone who asks a question she finds beneath her or finds stupid. On the latter, I have to confess I would, too. God knows, in these first 100 days—with reduced numbers of reporters in the briefing room because of the pandemic—we’ve had some really silly questions.
But ultimately, it comes down to Joe Biden. He has been far more effective than Trump at leading the nation—but that was a low bar to clear. His critics have, if anything, grown in energy as they falsely accuse him of wanting to take away your hamburgers and limit you to “plant-based beer” as he confiscates all your guns.
When I left the White House on Tuesday I still hadn’t received an answer to my question about what Biden hasn’t done in his first 100 days that he wished he had done. “That’s a good question,” several staffers replied—without an answer.
When I got home, I tried one more time to reach out. I got no reply. That’s telling too.
Notwithstanding Biden’s accomplishments in his first 100 days, his team needs to get better at communication. Not for the sake of the press—but for the sake of the crazies who are lying in wait for the next election cycle.
“They’re going to think whatever they want no matter what we do,” one staffer told me. That may be true—and it most certainly will be true if the Biden administration doesn’t learn to communicate better.