WASHINGTON >> The card tucked in President Joe Biden’s right jacket pocket must weigh a ton. You can see the weight of it on his face when he digs it out, squints and ever-so-slowly reads aloud the latest tally of COVID-19 dead.
Sometimes he’ll stumble on a digit — after all, flubs come with the man. But the message is always clear: The toll of the virus weighs on him constantly, a millstone that helps explain why the typically garrulous politician with the megawatt smile has often seemed downright dour.
For any new leader, a lingering pandemic that has killed more than a half million citizens would be plenty for a first 100 days. But it has been far from the sole preoccupation for the now 78-year-old Biden.
The oldest person ever elected president is tugging the United States in many new directions at once, right down to its literal foundations — the concrete of its neglected bridges — as well as the racial inequities and partisan poisons tearing at the civil society. Add to that list: a call for dramatic action to combat climate change.
He’s doing it without the abrasive noise of the last president or the charisma of the last two. Biden’s spontaneity, once a hallmark and sometimes a headache, is rarely seen. Americans are seeing more action, less talk and something for the history books.
“This has been a really terrible year,” said Matt Delmont, who teaches civil rights history at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “There’s so much. We want a new president to be a light forward. From that perspective, it makes sense that you want to get out of the box fast.”
Biden “sees the virtue of going bigger and bolder,” Delmont said. “It so strongly echoes FDR.”
Few would have bet Joe Biden would ever be uttered in the same breath as Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s too soon to know whether he deserves to be.
But the scope of what Biden wants to do would — if he succeeds — put him in the company of that New Deal president, whose burst of consequential actions set the 100-day marker by which all successors have been informally measured since.
It’s not all been smooth. Biden has struggled to change course on immigration practices he railed against in the campaign, drawing accusations from within his party that he’s “caved to the politics of fear.”
Yet in 100 days he has achieved a pandemic relief package of historic breadth and taken executive actions to counter the legacy and agitations of Donald Trump.
The U.S. has pivoted on the environment and established payments that could halve child poverty in a year. It has embraced international alliances Trump shunned. It has elevated the health insurance program Republicans tried for years to kill.
“He ran as the antithesis of Trump — empathetic, decent and experienced, and he is delivering,” said former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod. “He’s restored a sense of calm and equilibrium to a capital that lived on the jagged edge for four years of Trump.”
Gone are the out-of-control news conferences, the sudden firings, the impulsive policy declarations, the Twitter drama. Instead Americans are getting something more methodical. Like the index card in his pocket. It shows his schedule, the key virus statistics and war casualties.
Biden has appeared in public far less than his predecessors. That’s partly because of the pandemic but also because he wanted to occupy less of the American consciousness than did Trump, who spoke loudly but achieved almost nothing legislatively in his 100-day debut.
If there is a consistent through line to Biden’s term so far, it’s his attempt to respond to age-old racial inequalities, even in unexpected corners of public policy.
His massive infrastructure plan, for example, contains measures to address harms inflicted generations ago when governments built urban highways through Black neighborhoods.
“That’s something most Americans don’t think about if they don’t have a direct experience of it,” Delmont said. “People hear infrastructure and think it’s a race-neutral set of policies.”
But without understanding the fracturing of Black neighborhoods from the bulldozer or the heavy pandemic toll on minority communities, he said, “It’s hard to know what systemic racism looks like. These are civil rights issues. That’s where people want to see actions and resources.”
For the most part, Biden is actually doing more than he promised in his campaign. The election dealt him a hand that makes bigger things possible, thanks to majorities so thin in Congress that he needs Vice President Kamala Harris to cast tiebreaking votes in a 50-50 Senate.
But that power might not last. First-term presidents historically see their party lose big in the midterms and Republicans have shown no inclination to support his policies.
Even within his party, cohesion is not a given, with constant tension between centrists and the left. So far, Biden has managed to avoid a revolt from either faction. But liberals were from pleased when Biden balked at reversing Trump’s cuts in refugee admissions, as promised.
Biden was deprived of an orderly transition by Trump’s false claims of election fraud, which meant delays through the federal bureaucracy. It meant the Trump administration had done little to facilitate vaccine distribution before Biden took office, prompting his complaint about “the mess we inherited.”
Still, the Trump administration and Congress had made a massive investment in vaccine development. Trump also locked in early supplies for the U.S. while many other developed countries still face crucial shortages.
Biden’s success in surging vaccine distribution since then was a significant early achievement, helped by the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed into law within two months. No Republican lawmakers supported it.
To this point, Biden enjoys healthy poll numbers. Pew Research found an approval rating of 59% this month, in league with Obama and President George W. Bush and far better than Trump, 39% in April 2017.
Few people have tried longer to be president than Biden, who had formed a clear vision of the job after decades in Washington.
He talks more quietly now, moves a little slower and has lost weight. Mindful of his age, and his own life touched by immense tragedy, Biden knows tomorrow is never a given.
He speaks of all he wants to do, “God willing.”
“I’m just going to move forward and take these things as they come,” he said at his only formal news conference. “I’m a great respecter of fate.”
The schedule on his card is full. The virus death tally inches up, more slowly now. He’s played golf once.