On his 100th day as US president, Joe Biden spontaneously lowered his black face mask, leaned towards the microphone and shouted: “Go Georgia, we need you!”
It was a fitting moment in a state that has more claim than most to be the ground zero of a potentially transformative presidency.
Biden had just marked the 100-day milestone with a drive-in rally in Duluth, about 30 miles north of Atlanta, to promote his $4tn plans to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and vastly expand the government’s social safety net.
Troubled by a cough, and briefly interrupted by protesters demanding an end to private prisons, the president gave an abridged version of his speech to a joint session of Congress the previous evening.
But he paid particular attention – and gratitude – to an audience that has played an outsized role in the making of his administration.
Towards the end of his campaign, he visited Warm Springs, the Georgia town that helped Franklin Roosevelt cope with polio. Come election day, Biden became, by a narrow margin, the first Democrat to win Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Then on 5 January, unexpected runoff wins by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia gave Democrats the balance of power in the Senate. If Republicans had retained control, Biden’s first hundred days would have looked very different.
Jonathan Alter, the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, said on Thursday: “Without the Georgia runoffs, you would not have that transformational presidency. It would be a completely different story. If 6 January is an important date in American history, so is 5 January because of those Georgia runoffs and none of what’s happening would be possible without 5 January.”
Ossoff and Warnock joined Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, on stage at Thursday night’s rally. The four joined hands and held them aloft as the song (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher boomed from loudspeakers.
Georgia has become a bellwether in a nationwide battle over voting rights. More than a hundred corporations, as well as civil rights organisers and sports leagues, spoke out against restrictions passed by Georgia’s Republican state legislature. Biden condemned the curbs as “just wrong” and called for Congress to pass nationwide protections.
Last month Atlanta was the scene of a mass shooting in which eight people died, including six women of Asian descent, helping prompt Biden to take executive actions for gun safety and denounce hate crimes.
Long a Republican stronghold, Georgia is now a diversifying swing state that will feature closely watched races for Senate and governor next year. It will almost certainly be one of the most competitive states during the 2024 presidential campaign.
With a US national flag behind him, Biden told supporters gathered around vehicles: “Because of you, we passed one of the most consequential rescue bills in American history … You changed America. You began to change America and you’re helping us prove America can still deliver for the people.”
That meant, he said, a hundred days that included the creation of 1.3m jobs, more than other president in history over the same period. It meant food and rental assistance, loans for small businesses and an expansion of healthcare. And, he said, the US is on course to cut child poverty in half this year.
The president went on to tout the biggest jobs plan since the second world war, building infrastructure, replacing lead pipes to ensure clean drinking water and expanding broadband internet to rural areas.
Tackling the climate crisis, Biden added, will “create millions of good paying jobs”, going on to repeat a line from his address to Congress: “There is simply no reason why the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing.”
Biden also pushed his new $1.8tn families plan that includes free universal preschool, free community college and support for childcare. “I was a single dad for five years,” he said, recalling the death of his first wife in a car crash and how he had to depend on family members because he could not afford outside help.
Republicans have questioned how Biden intends to pay for his bold plans. He insisted: “It’s real simple. It’s about time the very wealthy and corporations started paying their fair share … No one making under $400,000 a year is going to pay a single additional penny in tax.”
In an emotional finale, Biden told the crowd: “Folks, it’s only been a hundred days but I have to tell you, I’ve never been more optimistic about the future in America.” America’s on the move again. We’re choosing hope over fear, truth over lies, light over darkness.
Biden, who has further campaign-style stops planned in Pennsylvania and Virginia in coming days, is enjoying popular support in opinion polls. A survey by Navigator Research found positive approval among 86% of Democrats, 61% of independents and even 59% of Republicans. Two-thirds of the public believe Biden’s pandemic-related policies have had a positive impact.
Navigator also conducted three online focus groups with low-income Republicans and Democrats across the ideological spectrum in Florida, Nevada and Texas. The comments included a man from Florida saying, “I don’t feel like I have to doom scroll through my feed to see what the next thing is,” and a Nevada man commenting, “Almost immediately as soon he took office, everything just kind of calmed down and everyone’s like, ‘OK, we have a normal person there’.”
But Republicans in Congress have condemned Biden’s spending spree, suggesting that he is exploiting the pandemic to smuggle in liberal imperatives and that his promise of bipartisanship rings hollow.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told Fox News: “We’re friendly. We’ve done deals together in the past. However, the reason we’re not talking now is because he’s not trying to do anything remotely close to moderate.
“Think of it as the Biden bait-and-switch. He ran as a moderate, but everything he’s recommended so far has been hard left. Bernie Sanders is really happy. He may have lost a nomination, but he won the argument over what today’s Democratic party is – more taxes, more spending, more borrowing.”
Earlier on Thursday, the Bidens visited former president Jimmy Carter, 96, and his 93-year-old wife, Rosalynn, at their home in Plains, Georgia. It was at least the third occasion this month on which Biden has spoken with one of his predecessors, following conversations with George W Bush and Barack Obama about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter for president in 1976. Carter’s defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in an era in which calls for smaller government and lower taxes for big business and the wealthy were embraced as key to economic growth.
Alter, also the author of the Carter biography His Very Best, said: “Biden wants to have a foreign policy that’s based on human rights and that goes back to Jimmy Carter.
“He doesn’t want to have an Iranian hostage crisis but in terms of the aspirations for American leadership in the world, and standing up for American values in the world, that really does date from Jimmy Carter, who is no longer in bad odour in the United States, particularly in the Democratic party where in the past Democratic nominees have not really been thrilled to be associated with Carter because he lost in a landslide.
“But that was more than 40 years ago. The sting of Reagan’s landslide has worn off and part of what Reagan is selling is a partial return to the pre-Reagan political universe.”