The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden boasts of early accomplishments. But now comes the hard part — on equity, voting, guns and immigration.

President Biden talks with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) after his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

President Biden spent the first 10 minutes of his address to Congress on Wednesday night touting the successes of his first 100 days, which he said got America “working again, dreaming again, discovering again and leading the world again.”

But he also conceded that some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.

“We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works — and can deliver for the people,” Biden said.

A year ago, before Biden had even wrapped up the Democratic nomination, he began plotting out the course of his first 100 days, with controlling the coronavirus pandemic and shoring up a battered economy topping the list.

But if Biden’s first 100 days have been about seeking to show competence, the days to follow will be about agility — and will test his ability to navigate a conveyor belt of incendiary challenges, including immigration, gun control, police reform and voting rights.

“We have to prove democracy still works,” President Biden said on April 28, calling on Congress to pass H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

On these issues, with no clear or easy path forward, Biden faces calls to deliver on promises left unfulfilled for key and increasingly impatient constituencies. The administration’s actions, advocates and insiders say, will require patience and the expenditure of political capital — and will color how Americans perceive Biden and the Democratic Party in the midterm elections.

In his address Wednesday night, Biden issued urgent calls for action in all these key areas — but for the most part, he made clear it would be up to Congress to make it happen.

“We cannot make excuses about why we cannot get these things done, especially as long as Democrats control both chambers and the presidency,” said Nina Turner, a former co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, who is running for Marcia L. Fudge’s old congressional seat in Ohio. “People where I come from are looking at us saying, ‘Okay, you guys asked for this power, now you still tell me you can’t do anything that changes my material conditions; it doesn’t make sense.’ ”

Republicans, by contrast, sought to frame Biden’s work so far as government overreach that needs to be halted.

“Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who said many of the country’s strides in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic were due to President Donald Trump’s efforts to speed vaccine production. “It will come from you, the American people.”

People who have pushed Biden to address his more complex promises have worried over his hesitation to embrace changing the filibuster, a legislative practice that allows any Senator to stop debate on a piece of legislation unless 60 members overrule the action.

“I can do the math; you can do the math. I don’t see what the path is to 60 votes to pass meaningful federal legislation as it relates to policing,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and a member of the Movement for Black Lives. “They need to share with us in the Black community what their legislative strategy really is. Simply announcing a bill or having a bill number isn’t the same as a legislative victory. What we really want is to understand what the plan is.”

At Wednesday’s address, Biden urged Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, or similar legislation addressing police misconduct “next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”

Four key takeaways from Biden’s first address to Congress

“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” he said. “Real justice. And with the plans I outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues American life in many other ways.”

Biden has promised that equity would be a lodestar of his administration. Millions of demonstrators who took to the streets last year after Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer demanded not just police reform, but also that government leaders at all levels work to dismantle systemic racism. Biden has promised to play a leading role in that fight, a stance that led Black voters to support him in 2020 — and helped tilt the U.S. Senate in Democrats’ favor after runoff victories in Georgia.

Since then, Georgia has enacted limits on voting that many experts say will disenfranchise large numbers of minorities. Other states with Republican-controlled legislatures are looking to follow suit, moves that Biden has labeled “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Biden has also promised to deliver significant action on gun control, painting himself as someone who understands the inner workings of Congress and who has “taken on the NRA twice and won.”

But while he said he would take action on gun control on Day One of his administration, he instead announced a series of modest executive actions on Day 78. He has also named a gun-control advocate as director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but his administration has largely called on Congress to do more.

Fred Guttenberg, who became an advocate for gun control after his daughter, Jaime, was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, said advocates understand that any action on the issue will come after a considerable fight, but he lauded Biden for changing the tone on gun violence.

“This country has been on a freight train on this issue, moving in the wrong direction. And he slammed the brakes on that train,” Guttenberg said. “And we now have got a president in the White House who is going to take very active measures to use his administration in every way possible to work at decreasing the death rate.”

He said advocates believe it is key to exert pressure on members of Congress who would stand in the way of meaningful legislation. “Legislatively, we have a very different challenge. And I get that.”

Biden will also have to deal with the push for immigration reform, an issue that has confounded presidents for decades and has become a lightning rod for the young administration.

Biden promised he would have an immigration policy that is more humane than Trump’s was and began allowing unaccompanied minors back into the country. But unauthorized crossings in April remained near a 20-year high as the administration has battled over whether to call what’s happening at the border a crisis.

The administration’s shifting stance on refugees illustrated the tumult. This month, the White House changed course over several hours on its plan to limit the number who can be admitted to the United States.

Meanwhile, Biden has directed Vice President Harris to address the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. But even her early efforts hint at the labyrinthine effort that any substantive change will take, particularly in countries where problems are compounded by ineffective and in some cases corrupt governments.

‘The wheels fell off’: How Biden’s misgivings on border surge upended plan on refugees

Six days after Biden directed Harris to contend with illegal migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the brother of Honduras’s president was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking in what prosecutors have said was “state-sponsored corruption.” On the same day Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, the Biden administration blacklisted a Guatemalan legislator accused of undermining anti-corruption efforts in the nation.

Some immigration advocates said the administration has pumped the brakes on Biden’s agenda but expressed relief that it hasn’t stopped altogether amid fire from Republicans.

“Have they slowed down on their agenda, yes,” said Frank Sharry, founder of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice. “They were beset by an increase in arrivals that made it difficult for them to manage the process in a way that is safe, humane and orderly, but they’re getting there. . . . They haven’t panicked yet. That’s a big sign for us.”

On Wednesday, Biden stressed that he had put the issue of immigration into Congress’s hands.

“On Day One of my presidency, I kept my commitment, and I sent a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress,” Biden said. “If you believe we need a secure border, pass it. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship, pass it. If you actually want to solve the problem — I have sent you a bill, now pass it.”

Jennifer Palmieri — the White House communications director under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2015 and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign — said that if Biden is going to find enduring success, his administration must focus on organizing principles and key policies, like the infrastructure plan he announced last month.

“That’s the job. The president of the United States has a lot of power and very little control,” Palmieri said. “You have very little control over what comes your way, and the job is to deal with the stray voltage while showing people that you’re focused on the things that are most important to them.”

Ashley Parker and Matt Viser contributed to this report.