Carol Erker vividly remembers the emotion that washed over her after Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Even as she worried about the pandemic and the Oval Office that Biden was inheriting, she felt like she could finally breathe.
As Biden nears the 100-day mark of his presidency, Erker is pleasantly surprised.
“I was really concerned about the coronavirus,” Erker said this week, walking to her volunteer shift at the Bethlehem Public Library. “But he’s getting all those vaccines out in the time limit that he said he would. So yeah, I think he’s doing a good job.”
For any President, the first 100 days in office is an arbitrary yet inescapable milestone, an opportunity to take a measure of how the White House is beginning to touch the lives of Americans in concrete ways. Biden is also being judged through the prism of the pandemic, setting the course for challenges and opportunities for the remainder of his presidency.
Here in Pennsylvania, a state that was critical to Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump, sounds of optimism and signs of recovery are telling markers of the opening chapter of the Biden presidency. And in Northampton County, a swing county in a swing state in a divided nation, critics abound — but perhaps just as remarkably, people signaled their willingness to give the new President a shot.
“Certainly the temperature has been turned down and things are a little bit calmer,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. “It’s nice to not have all the noise coming out of Washington.”
Bethlehem is the largest city in the county, which sits on the eastern edge of Pennsylvania and is one of only 25 counties in America that, in the last four presidential races, voted twice for Barack Obama, followed by once for Trump and then for Biden.
Voters across the political spectrum here said in interviews with CNN this week that Biden had ushered in an unmistakable era of calm, turning the page from the unpredictability and drama of the last four years of the Trump administration.
“Even the more moderate Republicans are giving Biden a chance and waiting and seeing,” Cunningham said. “That doesn’t mean in November that they’re going to vote Democratic, but it certainly means that there’s more of a calm and acceptance and not a backlash immediately.”
Still, the false claims of election fraud, followed by the attack on the US Capitol in January, have complicated the political dynamic here since the election.
So far this year, 784 voters dropped their Republican Party affiliation in Northampton County, compared to 419 leaving the Democratic Party, according to Amy Cozze, the county’s chief registrar. Biden carried the county by 1,233 votes about of about 170,000 cast, a slim margin that underscores the fiercely competitive terrain.
Help for small businesses
At this stage of the Obama presidency, the backlash against him was already growing amid the early days of the Tea Party movement. For his part, Biden has many partisan detractors, but the sense of animosity is far more muted, several civic leaders said, particularly on the heels of the pandemic.
“There is no backlash because there’s broad bipartisan agreement that especially small businesses needed rescuing,” said Lamont McClure, the Northampton County Executive, who said many local businesses were kept afloat last year with the help of the Cares Act, signed into law by Trump, and are eagerly awaiting the promised assistance of the Biden-backed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
While Biden has repeatedly declared “help is on the way,” conversations with local officials here makes clear that the help has not yet arrived. McClure said he was still waiting to hear specifics from the Treasury Department, but anticipated it would be soon.
“We are prepared to move forward as soon as the Treasury Department wires us the money,” McClure said. “We don’t have any, any guidance yet on when the money’s coming. We were hoping it would be here by now.”
A White House spokesman told CNN that those funds should come next month.
A flood of federal money coursing through the economy offers a chance to revive businesses and families decimated from the pandemic. But the burst of government assistance, followed by the next steps of a robust agenda proposed by Biden, carries the risk of promises unkept.
Richard Thompson, the founder and managing partner of The Factory, a business incubator and innovation laboratory inside the former Bethlehem Steel Corporation, disagrees with how Biden proposes paying for some of his plans like infrastructure. But he also disdains political gridlock and hopes for a bipartisan spirit of compromise.
“We’ve got to get stuff done and we’ve got to move forward,” Thompson said. “It would be nice if everybody could say okay, I’ll give you this, but you give me that and have some support for both sides.”
Thompson is among the business leaders who voiced skepticism of how Biden has proposed raising a variety of taxes to pay for his economic agenda. But he also spoke highly of the potential of Biden’s ambitious call to reshape the American economy.
“Every president is my president — good, bad or indifferent,” Thompson said. “I like to support our president, so if I don’t like it, next time I’ll vote for somebody else.”
From large billboards to small storefront signs, the demand for workers is apparent here in Northampton County, with signing bonuses being offered as enticements at many jobs. Several business leaders said the repeated rounds of government unemployment assistance have contributed to the labor shortage.
“It’s easier to be unemployed right now than to have a job and want to work,” said Wayne Milford, owner of Birthright Brewing Co., across the county in the city of Nazareth. He said money from the Cares Act last year helped keep his business alive, but the latest wave of unemployment assistance has complicated things for him and other business owners.
People voted not for Biden, but ‘against Trump’
As Biden is preparing to unveil the latest piece of his economic agenda during his first address to a joint session on Congress on Wednesday night, he is scheduled to visit Philadelphia on Friday as part of his sales pitch.
Even though Biden was born about 70 miles from here in Scranton, the depth of his support is an open question in a county where Trump flags still wave prominently.
“People didn’t vote for Biden. They voted against Trump,” said Angelo Gosnell, an air-conditioning technician, who still questions the President’s victory and can’t bring himself to take down his Trump banner that hangs from his porch.
“In my heart, although not legally, obviously, he’s still the President,” Gosnell said one afternoon this week. “I’m a Trump man.”
Yet even among those who are open to Biden’s success, several say they are waiting to see more in the next 100 days — and beyond — before rendering a verdict on his presidency.
Addie Pettus, a real estate agent in Easton, applauded how Biden has handled the pandemic and the economy, but said she wanted to see more on police reform and social justice.
“Talking is great but we need action,” Pettus said. “I think it’s going to take more than the President to do that.”