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Biden's welcome return to normalcy

President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders

President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House on Thursday. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

President Joe Biden’s first 100 days have seen their highs — progress in the battle against COVID-19, capped by passage of the massive bill to fund the fight — and lows — an uncertain approach to the perennial problem of illegal immigration.

But even more important than the administration’s progress in tackling the country’s major issues has been the presidency’s return to normalcy in Biden’s first three months in office.

From his conduct of daily business to his administration’s reduced decibel level in communicating with the American people, Biden has set a tone that is a welcome contrast with the persistent, often self-induced chaos of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Gone are the days when late night or early morning presidential tweets signified new policy directions and political dialogue was shaped by Trump’s latest attacks on his political enemies.

Instead, the hallmarks of the Biden presidency include:

Regular schedules. Most White House business is planned and takes place between Monday and Friday with weekends off. Daily presidential schedules generally end in mid- or late afternoon.

Bipartisan outreach. Biden has met periodically with lawmakers from both parties to discuss current and upcoming legislation. Whether he’ll incorporate their advice remains to be seen. Trump rarely spoke with anyone but Republican leaders and his strong supporters.

Daily briefings. Press secretary Jen Psaki briefs reporters every weekday at midday, often accompanied by officials who are announcing initiatives or updating the status of ongoing problems, like COVID-19 vaccinations or the immigration situation. Briefings have returned to the pre-Trump combination of both providing information on administration actions and defending them, rather than mainly the latter.

Congressional testimony. Cabinet officials are appearing regularly before congressional committees. Though Democrats control the congressional agenda, such sessions also allow GOP lawmakers to press their points.

Controlled news management. The Biden White House has ended the flood of leaks that marked the Trump White House. The president has mainly given prepared statements and brief responses to shouted questions at the start of meetings. Biden waited 64 days before his first formal news conference, the longest of any modern president, and has given few interviews. Lower-level officials such as Psaki are answering frequent questions, but have been effective at sticking to their prepared scripts.

Administration advocacy. Cabinet members are making regular appearances on network and cable television shows. Presidential tweets are mainly factual, rare and, as Politico recently put it, "unimaginably conventional."

This conscious lowering of the presidential profile has prompted comments from administration critics questioning the extent to which Biden himself is running his own administration.

"Is he really in charge?" tweeted Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn last week. That echoed the frequent questions from conservative commentators about Biden’s mental capacity, but Cornyn said on "Fox News Sunday" he was only asking a question, not suggesting "anything about the president's competency or physical or mental (state)."

Biden’s conduct of the presidency has hardly been flawless. He is still trying to get a grasp on the immigration problem. His comments have included occasional misstatements and exaggerations like the claim his recovery plan would create 19 million new jobs or his likening of Georgia’s new voter restrictions to the racist "Jim Crow" era.

His reputation as a gaffe machine is probably one reason White House officials have limited his opportunities for off-the-cuff comments. But like Ronald Reagan, who often told some whoppers, Biden seems to have the kind of Teflon protective coating that Trump’s proclivity for making misleading statements never earned. Independent fact-checkers are finding fewer misstatements than with Trump, though that is a low bar.

Interestingly, as with Trump, inappropriate comments don’t seem to have affected Biden’s job approval levels, at least so far. But unlike his predecessor, overall public approbation of his presidency so far has remained steady at a positive level, in the mid-50s, though Americans grade him negatively on immigration.

History tells us the first 100 days give important clues to a president’s conduct of his office, especially how it contrasts with his most recent predecessor. For example, George H. W. Bush showed more of a bipartisan approach than Reagan to contentious issues like central America and the deficit.

The initial period is also when new presidents often have their greatest clout, leading to their most significant policy achievements. But it doesn’t necessary foretell their ultimate success.

If a new president is lucky, as Biden has been so far, he can control his agenda far better than he will when unexpected events inevitably force a more reactive mode.

Biden has been unusually aggressive in tackling the array of issues he inherited, from the domestic problems stemming from the pandemic to the festering problems in the Middle East and Far East. His decision to end the 20-year American role in Afghanistan prompted criticism from some members of both parties.

But Biden has so far displayed a serious, steady approach that gives assurance he will make key decisions carefully, after considering the options. Continuing that will serve him well.

While pressing ahead with many campaign promises, he has shown an ability to prioritize. For example, though he proposed a sweeping immigration bill, he relegated it to a back burner while he struggles with more immediate issues.

The extent to which Biden’s orderly approach will make Trump’s chaotic presidency seem like an aberration depends ultimately on how well Biden succeeds and what comes next. But at the 100-day mark, most signs are positive.

Carl P. Leubsdorf wrote this piece for The Dallas Morning News.

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