President Biden’s first 100 days have proven to be the most politically progressive presidency since former President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Biden’s time in office has been marked by efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s racial justice reckoning to call for democratic renewal, civic activism and robust government intervention.
The $1.9 trillion pandemic bill alone stands out as a major first-term achievement. The legislation includes $5 billion in aid to Black farmers facing a long history of racist practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Biden, alongside Vice President Harris, has publicly called for the end of systemic racism in American society. Biden’s thoughtful words in the aftermath of the Derek Chauvin trial, and his promise to sign the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, exemplify both the arduous road ahead and the steps toward progress that are being made.
The politics of racial, economic and environmental crisis that are fast shaping his presidency have made Biden publicly advocate for government intervention backed by science, empathy and a soaring moral imagination. Biden’s plain-spoken honesty about the state of the nation has been, so far, matched by federal policy bold enough to meet this critical moment. Beyond whatever “honeymoon” period remains of his first term, Biden must continue to turn soaring words into tangible policy deeds, all the while navigating Republican obstinance over voting rights, environmental justice, racial integration of neighborhoods and public schools and criminal justice reform.
At first blush, Biden seems an unusual champion of racial justice. Similar to Johnson’s rough road toward political enlightenment on race matters, Biden’s political evolution have been shaped by crisis. An economic recession; massive racial justice movements; and the politically divisive, racially inflammatory, and violent rhetoric of Former President Donald Trump and Trumpism helped to usher in the Biden presidency.
Biden’s inaugural address, when he mentioned “white supremacy” as an existential threat to American democracy, set the tone for the first 100 days. Biden warned against the dangers of systemic racism, voter suppression and anti-democracy that have become the hallmarks of the Republican Party. He vowed to put his “whole soul” into strengthening democratic institutions weakened by a president whose untruthfulness and disrespect for the nation knew no bounds. Biden’s words aimed for hearts and minds. In a very real sense, his efforts to heal the nation begin in earnest after this “honeymoon” period ends.
He faces seemingly intractable political divides between Democrats and Republicans, and splits within his own party over the pace, size and ambition of his legislative agenda. High marks on his handling of the pandemic have given way to criticism about his immigration policies and grumbling that his commitment to bipartisanship is more symbolic than substantive.
Biden’s presidential legacy remains in its infancy less than four months into his first term. The future of American democracy remains fraught, but his deft handling of a painfully divided nation offers a glimmer of hope that our brighter days remain ahead.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.