Essential Politics: The first 100 days can define a president. Here’s how the internet saw Biden and Trump

Composite image of Joe Biden waving, left, and President Trump on a golf course
President Biden and President Trump
(Associated Press)

This is the May 5, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between former President Trump and President Biden. There’s a wide gulf between the two, encompassing everything from personality to policy.

One “put P.T. Barnum to shame,” the other is “pleasantly boring,” voters told my colleague Mark Z. Barabak last week as the country marked Biden’s 100th day in office.


One big difference? The internet — and Twitter, in particular — was central to Trump’s rise and his governing. New policy, firings and diplomacy were all conducted in 280 characters.

By comparison, Biden is traditional in his approach: Social media is one tool out of many to maintain constituent relationships and a desired image.

This distinction matters: The presidents’ choices signal to voters the terms of engagement.

Look no further than online search trends — a bird’s-eye view of public conversations online that can hold a mirror to the White House. The data don’t represent all voters, but they can give us a peek at how a sizable chunk of the country thought about each president’s first 100 days.

The president’s track record, according to Google

First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way.

What do we mean when we say something — a hashtag, a person, a topic — is trending? It’s a way of defining the direction of public conversation across massive platforms. Trending topics are those that are being mentioned or searched for with increasing frequency, indicating a spike in interest. It’s not the same as popularity by pure number of mentions, though that is a useful metric too.

Data are tracked and reported by tech companies themselves. Google provides some of the most comprehensive and transparent data, so that’s what we’ve relied on here, though trends on one platform tend to bleed into another. We also can’t say with certainty why people search for some topics — only that they did.

Both presidents have plenty of things in common. Searches that included their names spiked around Inauguration Day, then dropped off, spiking again around big new events. Americans also pounced on real or perceived gaffes, such as Trump’s February 2017 comments about 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

But there are differences too. More online trends surrounding Biden touched on policy decisions, while Trump’s personal conflicts carried greater online weight. It’s a reflection of how the two have differed in their leadership and communication. Biden has focused on policy, a contrast to Trump’s frequent personal grievances shared online.

Queries that saw a spike in interest during Trump’s first 100 days:
“trump travel ban”
“trump address to congress,” “trump speech to congress”
“trump immigration ban”
“trump wiretapping”
“snoop dogg trump video”

Trump-related topics that saw a spike in interest:
“Telephone tapping”
“Trump Tower wiretapping allegations”
“Frederick Douglass”
“Executive order”
“Executive branch”

Most popular searches:
“trump,” “donald,” “donald trump”
“trump news”
“trump twitter”
“president trump”

The takeaways:

Trump’s January executive order was his first major decision to draw backlash — on and offline. The order, which suspended refugee arrivals and banned entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, rippled across the globe, stranded travelers and inspired mass protests at major American airports. The order was later challenged in court and revised. It’s also the only clear policy-related query to trend or reach his most popular searches list in the first 100 days.

The trends also reference one of the first significant conspiracy theories pushed by the Trump administration, including by the president himself in a series of tweets. In March 2017, Trump and his allies seized upon false right-wing claims that former President Obama had wiretapped Trump’s phones, even as the Justice Department, the head of the FBI and two congressional oversight committees found no evidence to support it.

There are a few surprises too — or perhaps reminders that the internet moves too quickly to remember each outrage cycle. The phrase “snoop dogg trump video” refers to a brief March 2017 controversy in which the rapper pointed a toy gun at a business suit-clad clown named “Ronald Klump” in a music video. The president shared his displeasure via tweet.

The 25 most popular Trump searches offer more familiar names that dominated public conversation at the time: “Saturday Night Live,” which upset Trump and attracted millions of viewers with Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of the president; CNN, Trump’s perpetual media foe; and Fox News, on which he often heaped praise in the early days of his presidency.

Queries that saw a spike in interest during Biden’s first 100 days:
“how many executive orders”
“joe biden stairs,” “biden stairs”
“biden tripping”
“biden insulin”
“Amanda Gorman”

Biden-related topics:
“Keystone Pipeline”
“Air Force One”
“Pipeline transport”

Most popular searches:
“biden,” “joe biden”
“biden stimulus”
“president biden”
“biden news”

The takeaways:

As under Trump, Americans reacted to Biden’s mistakes. But unlike Trump, online trends focused on one March 19 incident, when Biden tripped while boarding Air Force One. The incident — and surrounding social media chatter — echoed campaign trail criticism of Biden’s age.

On his first day in office, Biden announced he would rescind a permit and block the Keystone oil pipeline from moving forward, which brought praise from environmentalists and pushback from the oil industry. It was part of a flurry of orders, policies and legislation that Biden has accomplished in his first 100 days. Policy areas that made it into Biden’s most popular searches include stimulus checks, student loan forgiveness and guns.

It’s also worth noting the degree to which disinformation and partisanship continue to shape Americans online.

Searches for “biden insulin” and “insulin” peaked in late January as false rumors claiming Biden had raised the price of the hormone circulated. Also among Biden-related searches that saw a spike in interest — though not necessarily a high volume of searches — was “Biden booed at superbowl,” an unsubstantiated rumor that circulated among conservatives on social media.

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The latest on immigration

— Biden on Monday formally raised the nation’s cap on refugee admissions to 62,500 this year, weeks after facing bipartisan blowback for his delay in replacing the record-low ceiling set by former President Trump.

— A mother-son reunion outside the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the main border crossing point into San Diego from Tijuana, marked a key moment for the Biden administration. It’s touting the homecomings as a way to signal more of a humanitarian approach to immigration, write Kate Morrissey, Cindy Carcamo and Molly O’Toole.

The view from Washington

— From Brian Contreras: Trump will not be returning to Facebook anytime soon and the company must decide whether to make the ban permanent, the social media giant’s third-party Oversight Board announced Wednesday morning. It’s a major political blow, denying him access to a huge audience he needs to retain his dominance over the Republican party, Janet Hook writes.

— What’s going on with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney? As McCarthy signals that he would support ousting Cheney from her role, Sarah D. Wire reports that it’s part of an increasing fight over the future of the Republican Party.

— Virtually everything Sen. Alex Padilla does these days comes with great urgency: Just three months after his appointment, California’s first Latino senator has only 18 months to convince voters that he should keep it, Jennifer Haberkorn writes.

— Biden said Tuesday that his administration was beginning a “new phase” of its COVID-19 inoculation campaign to convince more people to get a shot and to make it easier for them to do so, Chris Megerian writes.

— From Don Lee: As the U.S. economy rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, more employers are turning to automation, including robots, rather than calling back workers or hiring new ones.

The view from California

— For months, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic establishment have painted the effort to recall the governor as a Republican power grab. But some Democrats are starting to question that approach, writes Mehta.

Caitlyn Jenner has released the first ad in her GOP campaign to unseat Newsom, a nearly three-minute production that positions her as a “compassionate disrupter” out to unseat the “elitists,” writes Maria L. La Ganga.

— That wasn’t the only development in the recall campaign Tuesday: One Republican opponent posed for photos with a burly Kodiak bear, write Phil Willon and John Myers.

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