One rarely emerges empty-handed from an hour or two in the C-SPAN archives. I spent some time the other day watching a 2009 episode of Q&A, where Brian Lamb interviewed Christopher Hitchens. A passing reference to the debate over post-9/11 interrogation methods reminded me that it is far too early to make oracular judgments about Joe Biden’s presidency — much less to classify him as a “transformative” president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. The event, decision, speech, or law that will define Biden in American history has yet to happen.
Presidents spend the first months of their tenure in office dealing with issues and problems left over from the previous administration. George W. Bush, for example, wanted his first tax cut to increase economic growth after the bursting of the tech bubble. Barack Obama’s first tasks after taking the oath were stabilizing the financial system and lessening the fallout of the Great Recession. Donald Trump had to manage, in his inimitable style, the portfolio of ISIS, the southern border, and North Korea that Obama handed him in January 2017.
And yet all of these chief executives will be remembered not for what they accomplished before the arbitrary and overblown milestone of the “first 100 days,” but for how they responded to challenges that did not appear until long afterward.
Bush became a war president on September 11, 2001, and the war on terror and its fronts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Greater Middle East consumed him from that day on. As the first African-American president, Obama was guaranteed a place in the history books. But historians will also give space to his decision to press ahead with Obamacare despite public disapproval and electoral rebuke, to his authorization of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, to his speeches after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and the Newtown school massacre, to his nonenforcement of the “red line” he had drawn against chemical weapons use in Syria, and to the decline of race relations that began with the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., halfway through his second term. And the coronavirus and its knock-on effects — as well as the events of January 6, 2021 — will dominate any review of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Like his predecessors, Biden has spent these early months dealing with the lingering reminders of the man he replaced. But this chapter of his presidency might be drawing to a close. As vaccinations increase, the end of the pandemic is in sight. And as coronavirus deaths fall, governors lift the restrictions that hamper economic activity and job creation. A healthy nation and a buzzing economy will be the backdrop for the remainder of a presidency that will be uniquely Biden’s. Which is when the trouble usually starts.