Joe Biden has, as he once put it, “an incredibly high regard for fate.”
It’s no wonder. In Jules Witcover’s 2010 biography of him, Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, the story is told of what happened the night before the tragedy in 1972 that took the lives of his wife and infant daughter.
Things were going so wonderfully for the newly elected senator and Neilia. But she was fearful it couldn’t last. “What’s going to happen, Joey,” she said to him that night while they sat by the fireplace. “Things are too good.”
The next day, the car crash.
From then on, Mr. Biden, who seriously considered going into the priesthood instead of politics, put a lot of weight in forces beyond his control.
He lost one presidential bid in 1988 and another in 2008. On the second, he felt he’d run a good campaign. It just wasn’t his time. Not yet. Maybe the stars would align one day.
Have they ever. Fate has carried him to the point where he could become one of the most consequential of presidents. It wasn’t the 78-year-old Biden that changed. Circumstances did. A public-health calamity, an economic crisis, the reckless demagoguery of Donald Trump and, in the midst of it all, the Democratic Party handing Mr. Biden its nomination despite his decidedly lacklustre primaries’ campaign.
Lacklustre is the counter opposite of his work as president thus far. Many observers are crediting the Democrat with the most successful opening act of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days in 1933.
The record – a blizzard of government activism – substantiates that view. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden introduced an US$1.8-trillion American families subsidies plan on education, child care and health insurance. This followed separate trillion-dollar-plus packages on economic relief and infrastructure.
Mr. Biden is refashioning the very role of government, harnessing it to priorities demanded by the pandemic, the climate crisis and inequality. His expansion of federal power is at the expense of the rich, who will pay for it with taxation they have avoided for too long.
Mr. Biden has been effective on vaccine distribution. He’s a force for racial justice, he’s vowing an end to the Afghan war this year, attacking climate change, restoring relationships with allies, returning respect to the office of the presidency.
The early work of other presidents cannot compare. They either didn’t have great challenges to address or they fell victim to their own early blunders.
Dwight Eisenhower arrived in the Oval Office during postwar good times. John F. Kennedy soured his first 100 days with the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Lyndon Johnson’s initial work was impressive but a continuance of the Kennedy agenda.
Gerald Ford was crippled by his pardon of Richard Nixon, rookie Jimmy Carter bushwhacked by Congress and Bill Clinton set back by a controversy over gay people in the military. Both Bush presidencies started off, like Ike’s, in good times.
Momentous events did mark presidencies like Harry Truman’s. His first 100 days or so included the conclusion of the Second World War, the birthing of the United Nations but, more contentiously, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and negotiating the construct of postwar Europe at Potsdam.
In 1969, Richard Nixon faced the convulsions of race riots and Vietnam. In his inaugural address he spoke wisely, saying, “The greatest honour that history can bestow is that of peacemaker.” He showed promise in his first 100 days but his secret plan to end the Vietnam war never materialized.
Ronald Reagan had a successful beginning in introducing a sweeping overhaul of the tax code while changing the tone of governance to sunny ways. But he didn’t act on a scale of Mr. Biden. Nor did Barack Obama in response to the global financial crisis. As for Mr. Trump, his first 100 days were marred by administrative chaos and failure on his big promise to replace Obamacare.
Mr. Biden has obviously been aided by Mr. Trump setting the bar so low. An area where he has stumbled is on immigration at his southern border, an intractable file he has slyly handed off to his Vice-President, Kamala Harris. He has razor thin majorities in Congress, making passage of his programs perilous.
While he attempts to forge an American renaissance, he exhibits a sense of calm and reassurance, qualities that his broad perspective brings and that his country needs.
A hundred days is only a small fraction of a presidency. But his hundred, coming at a moment in history that is fateful, holds out great hope.
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