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Five Lessons From Biden's First Year in Office

Five Lessons From Biden's First Year in Office
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

1. On presidential first years

The first year of an American president is always a domestic policy year, and it is when presidential legacies are often built (Obamacare, Trump's fiscal reform…).

It’s much more difficult to draw firm conclusions from the foreign policy of the first year - think of Trump in 2017, where it was "the adults in the room" that were supposed to control his foreign policy; or Obama, who in 2009 delivered the Cairo Speech and won the Nobel Peace Prize, both of which said little of what would follow in Obama’s foreign policy.

Another important point is that the passage of time obviously matters for evaluation. That goes for Afghanistan, the infrastructure bill, and even the Covid recovery act. The infrastructure bill is already a historical achievement given the current political conditions. The Covid stimulus package sent checks but is also funding the future. With historical perspective, the evaluation will certainly be different - even by 2024 - for Afghanistan too. After all, three consecutive presidents wanted an end to the war: Biden did it, and the Americans approved.

It is certainly true that Biden’s popularity began to go down in August: but presidential approval always goes down over the summer of the first year, after the honeymoon period following the election (the first 100 days). August 2021 in the US wasn’t only about the terrible images from Kabul. The end of the summer brought a resurgence of Covid-19 with the Delta wave (coming after a "mission accomplished" speech on the 4th of July), with schools that were just about to reopen closing again and the economy disrupted.

2. On Biden promises and how they’ve held up

The problem is that Biden had promised competence (vs. the chaos of Trump), and taking charge of Covid-19. What happened in August basically destroyed both parts of this narrative. Americans noticed.

On Covid, the Biden team had a comprehensive plan and was very successful in getting shots to Americans who wanted them.

On Covid, the Biden team had a comprehensive plan and was very successful in getting shots to Americans who wanted them. But it also made several mistakes, putting too much confidence in vaccines and not enough effort on tests and masks. This was felt during the latest Omicron wave, with long lines of Americans waiting for tests, contrary to what happened in France, for example.

Most importantly, polarization has meant that not only did the GOP not cooperate, Republicans have been actively undermining some of the efforts, especially on vaccines and masks. The Supreme Court recently struck down a Federal mandate on masks. Governor Youngkin’s first measure in Virginia was to ban mask mandates.

3. On having the Congressional means for his high ambitions

From the start, Biden didn’t have the congressional margins to back his ambitions, especially given the filibuster in the Senate and the divisions within the Democratic Party. In Congress, Democrats face a very united Republican Party.

The filibuster rule is the reason why Democrats had to put all their priorities in one big bill, the Build Back Better bill. The spectacle of accounting and divisions has blurred the message and brought nothing (though a climate bill could pass in 2022).

4. On presidential style and leadership

Biden has put much energy and time in discussions with Congress, leading some critics to say that he behaves too much like a Senator and not enough like a President. However, he probably had no choice, given the ambition of his program and the absence of margins in the Senate. After all, Obama was criticized for the exact opposite reason, and he had 60 Democratic senators in his first year.

Another factor is that 2020, and the four years of the Trump administration in general, raised the mobilization and aspirations of the progressive wing of the party. Biden, representing the moderate wing, won the primaries, but Sanders rallied quickly and unambiguously. Biden then defined his program and campaign by including Sanders’ progressive team in various working groups: Biden’s program was really a synthesis and produced the "New Deal" aspirations he laid out last year at the beginning of his presidency.

Biden’s program was really a synthesis and produced the "New Deal" aspirations he laid out last year at the beginning of his presidency. 

The method was to confront the ambitions of the program with the political realities of Congress. The result has been two very ambitious and forward-looking plans and investments - but not the totality of the Build Back Better agenda.

5. 2022 midterms

The midterms forecast is not encouraging for Democrats, given historical record, small margins, redistricting, and the general mood. Inflation in particular will remain a major problem because it is felt by literally all Americans, despite an excellent job report and record-low unemployment.

Biden’s popularity is in the low 40%, and the House is almost already considered lost even by Democrats. The Senate, however, is more uncertain, because the map is more favorable to Democrats who have only 14 seats to defend, vs. 20 for Republican Senators.

The biggest problem is the state of the country and extreme polarization, even radicalization. Biden had to promise to unite the country - otherwise he would have been just like Trump. But January 6 and its aftermath have only solidified Trumpism’s grip on the US, and Trump’s MAGA base is very radicalized. As all experts know, deradicalizing is a very difficult task.


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