President Biden Not Alone in Facing First-Year Challenges

President Biden Not Alone in Facing First-Year Challenges

While it appears that President Biden has reached a deal with Republicans on infrastructure, other priorities, like gun control, voting rights, climate change, and immigration, will likely prove more challenging...

President Joe Biden has accomplished several goals in his first six months in office, most of which relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. In his first 100 days, more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccine shots were administered, and vaccine eligibility expanded to Americans 16 and over. In March, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

Despite these successes, President Biden has struggled to obtain bipartisan support for his legislative agenda. While it appears that the President has reached a deal with Republicans on infrastructure, other priorities, like gun control, voting rights, climate change, and immigration, will likely prove more challenging. So how does President Biden stack up against his predecessors so far?

Challenges of First-Year Presidents

For most Presidents, the first year in office is among the most challenging. Presidents have to select the members of their administration, including appointing cabinet members and foreign diplomats. First-year presidents must also establish their priorities and begin working towards making them a reality. To do so, they must also establish an effective working relationship with Congressional leadership.

All of these early decisions can make or break a presidency. As described by William J. Antholis, director and CEO of the nonpartisan Miller Center at the University of Virginia:

The decisions taken during those intensive 12 months usually shape the entire arc of an administration, for better or worse. Presidential history is full of first-year legislative successes (the New Deal and the Great Society, to name just two) and costly first-year missteps—from George H.W. Bush’s failed appointment of John Tower for secretary of defense to John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle. It’s also full of first-year crises: The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center and the massive attacks on 9/11/2001 all occurred during the first year of a new presidency.

FDR Set an Unfair Bar

First-year presidents must also contend with the pressure to demonstrate success in the first 100 days. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s extraordinary first 100 days were unique and have become a marker (unfairly) against which his successors have been judged.

When FDR took office in 1933, the country was buckling under the weight of the Great Depression. With the banking system failing and unemployment reaching 25%, the President was under pressure to act quickly. Bolstered by popular support and a large Democratic majority, President Roosevelt secured the passage of 15 major bills in his first 100 days in office. “Congress doesn't pass legislation anymore—they just wave at the bills as they go by," humorist Will Rogers remarked.

While FDR’s first 100 days have become an unofficial benchmark, historians largely view them as an outlier. “Some of FDR’s initiatives were submitted to Congress in the morning and back on his desk that very same day for signatures,” said Max Skidmore, a political science professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. “Hardly anything other than the most extreme of emergencies could bring that about.”

President Biden Faces Strong Political Opposition

While COVID-19 is one of the most significant crises to face our nation, we are thankfully moving forward, both in terms of combating the virus and economic recovery. As a result, President Biden does not have the same political capital FDR yielded and will need to work harder to advance his policy goals.

Additionally, it will be easy for a President’s proposed agenda to get bogged down in the political process, given today’s hyper-partisan political landscape. Much like President Bill Clinton’s efforts to reform the healthcare system were derailed in the face of opposition from Republicans, the healthcare industry, and even critics in his own party. President Biden’s ambitious climate change proposals may face a similar fate in a divided Congress.

Much like President Jimmy Carter, President Biden’s ambitious plan to tackle a wide range of important (and controversial) issues, including immigration, climate change, racial discrimination, and gun control, may result in the Administration spreading itself too thin and accomplishing very little.

Ultimately, the fate of President Biden’s agenda, both in his first year and throughout his term, may hinge on his ability to act decisively, move quickly, and secure compromises. Should the bipartisan deal on infrastructure result in a signed bill, it may serve as the footprint for future initiatives.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Teddy Eynon, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.


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AboutEdward "Teddy" Eynon

Edward “Teddy” Eynon is Managing Partner of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Washington, D.C. office. Teddy regularly represents clients in numerous government-related matters, including public policy, energy and environment, budget, defense, healthcare, financial services, transportation & infrastructure, congressional investigations, and oversight issues.Full Biography

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