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Biden’s First 100 Days Show How Partisan Things Have Become

Tonight, President Biden will give his first address to a joint session of Congress, outlining his administration’s accomplishments during its first 100 days and its priorities moving forward. And while that 100-day timeframe is seemingly arbitrary, it has long been used to measure the early performance of presidents, and could be particularly consequential for Biden given that he entered office amidst a global public health crisis and, as a consequence of it, a period of economic uncertainty.

So how has Biden done in his first 100 days? 

Unlike many past presidents, Biden has not really enjoyed a “honeymoon” period, despite having signed a popular COVID-19 relief bill and receiving positive marks from the public on his handling of the coronavirus crisis more generally. At the moment, his job approval rating sits at about 54 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. And while that’s notably higher than Donald Trump’s 42 percent approval rating on his 100th day as president, Biden’s approval is still lower than any other newly elected president’s going back to Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1953, according to FiveThirtyEight’s historical presidential approval data.

Why is Biden’s overall approval rating comparatively low if Americans are giving him such high marks for how he’s handled the pandemic? This is, in large part, thanks to how polarized our politics are. The honeymoon period has diminished given just how hard it is for presidents to attract support from outside their party base. Take Biden. His approval rating has the largest gap between Democrats and Republicans in Gallup’s presidential approval polling over the first 100 days of any recent president, as the table below shows.

Presidential approval ratings are more partisan

Average approval rating in polls conducted by Gallup during a president’s first 100 days in office, overall and by partisan affiliation, since 1993

President Overall Dem. Rep. Partisan Gap
Joe Biden 56% 96% 11% 85
Donald Trump 41 9 86 77
Barack Obama 63 90 30 60
George W. Bush 59 32 89 57
Bill Clinton 55 79 28 51

Data for Biden is as of April 27.

Source: Gallup

What this means is that presidents can no longer count on getting at least some meaningful crossover support from members of the opposite party early in their presidency. For instance, even though about 30 percent of Republicans approve of Biden’s response to COVID-19, only about 10 percent approve of him overall. In other words, even if a fair number of Republicans are positive about Biden’s handling of COVID-19, arguably the nation’s biggest problem, that still isn’t enough to convert many of them into Biden supporters — a sign of just how strong partisanship is.

Of course, Biden has enjoyed near-universal approval among Democrats, to the point that his standing is slightly higher than Barack Obama’s in 2009 — though Obama’s overall approval rating was notably higher than Biden’s. On the one hand, this could give Biden a cushion because he can probably count on continued approval from most Democrats, just as Trump always garnered strong support from Republicans. But on the other hand, the difficulty of winning over voters who aren’t Democrats probably limits how high Biden’s approval rating can go.

Still, nearly 100 days in, he has a much higher topline number than Trump did. For one thing, Biden has kept a lower public profile than Trump, and unlike his predecessor, Biden has not courted controversy, which has probably helped him earn higher ratings. Biden has also sought to implement policies that poll favorably with the public for the most part. Of course, there’s no guarantee that enacting popular items leads to overall popularity, but doing so obviously could help.

Based purely on the number of laws Congress has passed in his first 100 days, it might not seem as though Biden has actually done all that much. That’s because he has signed off on fewer laws than all but three elected presidents since the 1930s, and only about one-third the number of laws passed during Trump’s first 100 days.

Biden has signed fewer laws than most predecessors

Number of laws passed in the first 100 days of a president’s first elected term, since 1933

PRESIDENT BILLS PASSED INTO LAW
Joe Biden 11
Donald Trump 30
Barack Obama 14
George W. Bush 7
Bill Clinton 22
George H.W. Bush 18
Ronald Reagan 9
Jimmy Carter 21
Richard Nixon 9
Lyndon Johnson* 14
John F. Kennedy 26
Dwight Eisenhower 21
Harry Truman* 53
Franklin D. Roosevelt† 76

* Since Johnson and Truman took office after the death of their respective predecessors, we’re counting the first 100 days of their full elected terms — in 1965 for Johnson and 1949 for Truman.

† Because of the unique nature of the 73rd Congress and Roosevelt’s first term, the number of bills listed reflects the period from March 9 to June 15 in 1933. All other counts begin on Jan. 20 and go through April 29.

Gerald Ford is omitted, as he was never elected president.

Data for Biden is as of April 27.

Sources: U.S. STATUTES AT LARGE, GovTrack

However, the raw totals of laws passed can be deceiving, as it’s hard to pass as many new laws as Congress did in the days of Harry Truman or Franklin Roosevelt. The expansion of congressional subcommittees since the 1950s has slowed early legislative output, and laws are simply longer and contain more provisions than they once did. Case in point: This Congress has passed only 11 laws, but one was the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which in terms of cost ranks as the second-largest piece of legislation ever, behind only Trump’s $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed in 2020 to deal with the pandemic and its side effects. This means that Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill now ranks as the biggest piece of legislation ever passed during a president’s first 100 days (adjusted for inflation), surpassing anything FDR passed and the nearly $800 billion stimulus package Obama signed in early 2009 to combat the Great Recession.

But an even better benchmark for Biden’s policymaking approach might be the number of executive orders he’s signed. Biden has been especially focused on rolling back Trump’s executive orders — almost half of Biden’s 40 executive orders include a revocation of at least one of Trump’s — such as ending Trump’s expansion of internal immigration enforcement and undoing many of his orders and actions regarding border security and migration. In total, Biden has signed more executive orders than any other president since Roosevelt in the first 100 days.

Biden has made ample use of executive orders

Number of executive orders and revocations of executive orders signed in the first 100 days of a president’s first elected term, since 1933

PRESIDENT EXECUTIVE ORDERS EXECUTIVE ORDERS REVOKED
Joe Biden 40 39
Donald Trump 33 8
Barack Obama 19 9
George W. Bush 11 4
Bill Clinton 13 2
George H.W. Bush 11 4
Ronald Reagan 18 18
Jimmy Carter 16 5
Richard Nixon 15 1
Lyndon Johnson* 26 6
John F. Kennedy 23 11
Dwight Eisenhower 20 1
Harry Truman* 25 0
Franklin D. Roosevelt† 99

* Since Johnson and Truman took office after the death of their respective predecessors, we’re counting the first 100 days of their full elected terms — in 1965 for Johnson and 1949 for Truman.

† The number of orders signed by Roosevelt is taken from the FDR Library because the American Presidency Project — the source for the other presidents’ executive orders — omits many of Roosevelt’s.

Gerald Ford is omitted, as he was never elected president.

Data for Biden is as of April 27.

Sources: American Presidency Project, FDR Library

Policymaking by executive order is a risky business, though, because while it’s easy to undo a predecessor’s order, that doesn’t necessarily undo all its effects. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Meredith Conroy noted in February, some of Biden’s revocations of Trump’s executive orders, especially on immigration, will be slow going, as they won’t necessarily fully reverse policies or change how agencies operate immediately. 

One reason presidents continue to sign so many executive orders, though, is that this can still be the easiest way to enact policy, especially for a president like Biden who has to pass legislation in a narrowly divided Congress. You can see him adopting that policymaking strategy in his March 7 order directing federal agencies to improve Americans’ access to voting. It’s a small step to expand voting access, but a lot easier to implement than the Democratic-backed electoral reform bill H.R. 1, which remains stalled in the Senate

With the first 100 days in the books, it’s possible that the Biden administration has already reached its highwater mark. After all, past research has shown that presidents tend to enjoy a greater rate of success in passing their agendas in the first 100 days than later on in their terms. But Biden’s political future isn’t dependent solely on what just happened in the past three or so months. The first 100 days can also be long forgotten by the end of a presidency. 

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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