When Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office and made his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, he uttered the famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” At the time of the speech, the Great Depression was ravishing the economy of the United States. Unemployment had skyrocketed, poverty plagued the urban and rural environment, and the good times of the Roaring ‘20s seemed a distant memory. In signaling his ambition to combat the challenges facing the nation, Roosevelt stated, “[i]t is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need to undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.” After that, as reported by FiveThirtyEight, Roosevelt attacked these problems through the use of Congress, signing 76 bills into law, and his executive power by issuing 99 executive orders in the early days of his presidency.
Reflecting on the action he undertook to address the severe crises in 1933, Roosevelt opined in one of his famous Fireside Chats that the first 100 days of his presidency conjured “a mental picture of the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal under these circumstances, the “arbitrary benchmark” of 100 days, as Max Paul Friedman, Professor of History at American University, described it, became a time to evaluate the success and effectiveness of early presidential policy. Since the Roosevelt presidency, every President of the United States has promised to deliver groundbreaking legislation and policy changes in their “first 100 days.”
Only several days into his administration, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has set his presidency’s tone through executive action. While Biden has already sent plans for legislation to Congress on issues such as immigration as widely reported and confirmed to be led by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the vast majority of policy activity has been taken in the form of executive orders, presidential proclamations, and other statements or memoranda dealing with issues the Biden camp has been discussing since the campaign trail.
The parallels between Roosevelt and Biden are striking, and the current president has been willing to compare himself to FDR. Biden assumed office in a time of upheaval and uncertainty that could match the Great Depression. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country faces a destructive public health emergency and economic crisis. Biden’s executive actions have primarily focused on combating COVID-19. He has signed orders dealing with issues surrounding the pandemic, such as travel, fairness in the nation’s response to the pandemic, and schooling. The president has mandated masks in many federally controlled areas and written to the World Health Organization to demonstrate the United State’s commitment to it and the fight against COVID-19. These policies directly reversed the Trump Era executive action signaling an intent to withdraw from the organization.
Further, Biden has offered economic relief to states that need to mobilize their National Guard in response to the pandemic. He has directed executive departments to “promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic” and paused student loans. The Biden administration promised to deliver widespread support for Americans because the pandemic has spurred on an economic crisis. These executive actions should be seen as the first step in fulfilling his campaign pledge.
Along with an intense focus on the pandemic and its economic fallout, the Biden administration has made proclamations with lofty goals. He has prioritized reversing the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who left the office after shamefully inciting an insurrection at the Capitol. Biden undertakes work to combat racial inequality, restore science as a guide to confronting climate change, end the infamous “Muslim ban,” halt construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico through cutting off funding and ending what had previously been declared a national emergency at the border, and signal the administration’s intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement (an international effort to address climate change), and limit discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. His predecessor has been heavily criticized for his inability to resolve these issues and his inflammatory approach to tackling the problems. Rebuilding trust in the government after the Trump Era was always going to be a monumental task, but Biden faces the extra challenge of the pandemic. Therefore, his first 100 days will be the most important in recent memory.
In the days, weeks, and months to follow, Biden will be judged on his ability to handle these enormous tasks. As the sun rises on the first 100 days of the Biden administration, we know he will continue to take unilateral executive action because it has become the primary tool that the President can use to influence national politics in a tangible way. As data from The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara depicts, the frequency of use of executive orders has changed dramatically from president to president ranging from William Henry Harrison executing zero orders in his approximately one month in office as 9th President to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 3,721 executive orders during his 12 plus years in office. Only time will show us how aggressively President Biden intends to use the powers of the office he holds. However, the actions taken thus far are a welcome sign to most moderates and liberals.
Despite the immense task that Biden faces being partially caused by the Republican Party under Trump, Biden’s executive orders have already come under attack from the right. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have criticized President Biden for not providing “unity” after the Trump administration despite both men selling the public a baseless and divisive conspiracy about the election. On the president’s first actions taken in the office, House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California stated he was “disappointed to see within hours of assuming office the new administration was more interested in helping illegal immigrants than helping our own citizens. . .and more interested in appeasing the WHO than getting to the bottom of how China released this virus to the world in the first place.” It appears, at least for now, partisan politics are as strong as ever. Ultimately, President Biden may fall short of replicating the success of Roosevelt’s first 100 days due to the nature of modern politics. Certainly, he will have to use executive authority to achieve his goals because a bitterly divided, slow-moving Congress continues to place divisiveness over duty.
Christopher Becker is a civil litigator practicing in New York. Christopher graduated from the University of Alabama’s School of Law in 2016. There, he was a Senior Editor of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review.