At the 12-month mark, the obituaries for the Biden administration are being written. The polls are terrible. Biden’s marquee legislation is stalled. In recent weeks, even appeals by the president to the hallowed legacy of civil rights have failed to move the Democratic party’s holdouts in the Senate – Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema – thus blocking the passage of voting rights legislation. While the president invoked Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Manchin countered with the need to preserve the 232-year tradition of conservative stability in the Senate. Not for nothing, 2022 starts with talk about civil war.
It is a depressing picture. It is, however, worth reminding ourselves of where the nation was 12 months ago. As 2021 began, it was an open question whether the United States still had a functioning government. There was no orderly transition. The Trump administration simply gave up on Covid. As we now know, America’s senior soldiers were deeply concerned about the nuclear command chain. Then on 6 January there was the riot in the Capitol – now a morbid obsession of the Democrats – and the news from Georgia of the double Democrat win in the Senate runoff. It is on that thin basis that the Biden administration has since attempted to govern.
The restoration of normality that followed in the spring of 2021 was undeniably a relief, affirmed by the rapid rollout of vaccines. In foreign policy, Biden announced that the US was back. America rejoined the Paris climate treaty. Biden reasserted presidential control of the military command chain, insisting on his policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever the price. There were to be no distractions. All America’s resources were to be concerted around the competition with China. He was even open to a deal with Russia.
In March 2021, the passage of the $1.9tn American rescue plan was a big win. On top of the two other stimulus packages carried by the Democratic majority in 2020, the rescue plan has catapulted the US to the most rapid economic recovery on record. So large is the rebound that it has stretched global supply chains and engendered fears of a wage-price spiral. The inflation talk is now so deafening that it is worth reminding oneself that achieving a tight labour market was the point. As Biden remarked when employers complained about not being able to find workers: “Pay them more.” The problem for Biden, if there is one, is not that wages are increasing, but that they are not increasing rapidly enough. It is the erosion of real household purchasing power that makes inflation unpopular and means that Biden is not getting the credit you might expect given the surprisingly healthy state of the economy.
Nor, despite the triumph of vaccine rollout, has Biden earned much kudos on Covid. Over the summer, mortality surged among the unvaccinated in the American south and west. Now Omicron has exposed the fact that his administration did not establish an adequate system for mass testing fast enough. Rapid tests that are taken for granted in Europe have been desperately scarce. Across the country, school openings and healthcare systems are a mess. Among the discouraged and stressed are doctors, nurses and teachers, core members of the Democratic party constituency.
To tackle the problem, the administration has done an about-face on at-home rapid testing. To tackle the pandemic at source would require a global vaccination programme. On global vaccines, the Biden administration has upped donations and talked about liberalising vaccine patents. What it has not delivered is a well-funded, high-pressure global campaign.
When it comes to global policy, the Biden administration would clearly like to be seen as a serious climate leader – its climate envoy John Kerry played a suave part at Cop26. But what can the US actually deliver? The carefully calibrated Build Back Better legislation, valued at $1.75tn, which was supposed to drive America’s energy transition, is stuck on Joe Manchin’s opposition.
Nor is this merely a matter of one senator’s obdurate personality. The fact is that America is profoundly divided. There is a liberal majority, but the US constitution demands a winning strategy across states including the likes of West Virginia, represented by Manchin. He represents an electorate barely larger than that of the New York borough of Brooklyn. West Virginians voted for Trump by a margin of two to one and they have two Senators to represent them on Capitol Hill, just like California or New York. Manchin, meanwhile, has not articulated anything remotely like an alternative policy vision; he cannot even claim to represent West Virginia’s coalminers who like the look of Biden’s energy transition policy. He sees his ticket to survival in speaking not for miners but for mine-owners. The result is to expose the contradictions in the coalition that makes up the Democratic party.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 and Trump’s unhinging of convention opened the door to the left in the Democratic party. The Green New Deal had its breakthrough moment. When Biden defeated Sanders in the primaries he assimilated a large part of the left agenda and the energy that went with it. But whereas Biden won the presidency, the congressional Democrats did poorly. It was down to the runoff elections in Georgia in January 2021 to decide whether the Democrats would have even the slimmest of majorities. The result is the deadlock in Washington that has crippled the Biden administration. There is an ambitious agenda, with backing from the left, but to legislate they depend on the votes of the entire party, including its centrists. The right wing eagerly seizes on the radical agenda to mount scare campaigns, leaving Manchin to pose as the guardian of real American values against the radicals from both sides.
It is early to make predictions, but with the polls showing a huge slide in Democratic support, the president’s prospects in the midterm elections don’t look good. Like Clinton and Obama before him, he faces the prospect of governing with a hostile Congress. Both of those predecessors went on to win reelection to the White House, and Biden might stand a chance, but talk of 2024 brings up the awkward issue of his age. Were he to win reelection, he would start his second term of office at 82: that is old even by the geriatric standards of modern American politics. What is the alternative? Originally, the idea may have been that Biden would hand off to his vice-president, Kamala Harris. But nothing in the last year suggests that she would make a strong candidate.
If this feels like an impasse haunted by the spectre of Trump’s return, that should be no surprise. Biden-Harris was a ticket chosen in an emergency. In November 2020, for all Trump’s outrages, the electorate delivered a profoundly divided verdict. We are living with the consequences of that.
• Adam Tooze is a professor of history at Columbia University