The twin crises Joe Biden pledged to end were plain to see on Washington’s National Mall when he was sworn as President of the United States a year ago today. Masked dignitaries and the absence of a crowd suggested a winter Covid wave killing thousands of Americans a day. A heavily militarised Washington, resembling an occupied foreign city not the capital of a democratic superpower, was an equally unmissable reminder of the chaos of the attack on the Congress two weeks earlier.
In his inaugural address, Biden pledged to “overcome this deadly virus” and “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal”. Twelve months on, victory on either front has proved elusive. Biden promised unity and normalcy on the campaign trail. He has delivered neither in office.
And there are fresh problems too. His legislative agenda has run aground on the rocks of the razor-thin majorities he commands on Capitol Hill, prices are rising at the quickest rate in forty years, and a stand off between the West and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine presents the leader of the free world only unappetising options. No wonder his approval rating is underwater.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki put on a brave face when asked about the President’s setbacks recently. “An agenda doesn’t wrap up in one year,” she said. “We are going to continue to fight for every component of his agenda.”
“It’s time to right the ship,” says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “But you’ve got to right it fast, because otherwise it is sinking.” Sinking means heavy defeat in November’s midterm elections and the loss of control of the House of Representatives.
The clouds above the Biden White House weren’t always so dark. His administration hit the ground running when it took office, delivering a speedy vaccine roll-out, passing a bipartisan emergency coronavirus relief package and, less concretely, bringing a sense of calm after the exhausting Trump years. But the summer was a turning point. After Biden declared victory over Covid-19 on July 4 - Independence Day - the US’s vaccination rates plateaued, the Delta wave arrived and deaths spiked.
Then came Afghanistan: the botched withdrawal left a lasting impression in the minds of Americans — and the rest of the world. Biden’s core claim - indeed, his USP - of competence took a knock. The President went against the advice of military advisers. It wasn’t like the Afghan government was going to collapse overnight, Biden’s White House team assured the country, before being humiliated by the chaos that followed. His foreign policy’s contradictions had been exposed: was America “back”, as he had promised, or in retreat? As Matt Bennett, a former White House adviser and the co-founder of the centre-left think tank Third Way, points out: “the Afghanistan withdrawal obviously had a very big impact on people’s attitudes towards the president.”
Too often the Biden White House has been obdurate, dismissive or slow-moving when problems arise
Presidents are generally awarded too much credit when things are going well and too much blame when things go badly, and Biden is no exception. He can only do so much about the global supply chain issues that have contributed to inflation, for example. And he is hardly alone among world leaders in having failed to contain first the Delta and then the Omicron waves that have prolonged the pandemic. But too often the Biden White House has been obdurate, dismissive or slow-moving when problems arise.
This flat-footedness hardly helps allay concerns that Biden, who will turn 80 this year, is not up to the job. A November poll found that 48 percent of Americans think that Biden is mentally fit for the job. A year earlier, the figure was 67 percent. Saturday Night Live, the popular, left-leaning comedy show has started to make jokes about whether or not Biden is “lucid”. In one sketch, “Ghost of Biden Past”, a depressed and embattled president (James Austin Johnson) is visited by Vice President Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis): the chipper, sharp, energetic and aviator-clad former Biden of a decade ago.
Given Biden’s age, his vice president, Kamala Harris, is subjected to greater scrutiny than previous deputies. The younger, less experienced Harris has not proved to be a reassuring presence in America’s top team. Tasked with taking action to control migration on the southern border and help advance the president’s voting rights agenda, Harris’s concrete achievements are hard to come by. While Biden’s approval ratings are bad, hers are even worse.
And yet, as vice-president, she is the heir apparent if Biden chooses not to run for a second term. That has sent some Democrats into panic mode. Others sniff an opportunity. There is even talk of Hillary Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump in 2016, mulling a comeback, although most of Washington thinks Clinton 2024 is laughable — for now. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is licking his lips at the prospect of a rematch in 2020, even if he is coy about whether or not he’ll run.
The administration has compounded its problems with a failure to manage expectations. Early in 2021, before the going got tough, Biden convened a private summit of top historians. They poured honey into his ear, drawing flattering comparisons with FDR and LBJ, two of the 20th century’s most consequential presidents and, as architects, respectively, of the New Deal and the Great Society, Democrats who oversaw major expansions in the role of government.
Last year’s New Deal was to be Build Back Better, a sweeping, multi-trillion-dollar package of provisions offering funding for everything from renewable energy sources to universal childcare. While Biden, a Senate veteran who sees himself as a master of Washington bargaining, managed to get the requisite votes for a sizable package of infrastructure spending, he could not get a deal on the bill that was supposed to write him into the history books.
Still, Biden’s trajectory is not unusual for a president. Previous Oval Office occupants have experienced a self-confident and productive honeymoon period before a rude reminder that they have perhaps the most difficult job in the world. Optimists in the West Wing will take comfort from the experiences of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, two modern presidents who got off to bad starts before turning things around and winning re-election. Clinton is an especially instructive example. A fellow Democrat, he too saw a landmark piece of progressive legislation receive a thumbs down in his first year (in his case, a healthcare bill). When this leftwards route proved to be a dead end, Clinton found success by tacking to the centre. As Bennett points out, Clinton turned things around by “using his superpower, which was to identify with the struggles and aspirations of middle class aspirations. That is what Bill Clinton was amazing at. And Joe Biden is good at it too.”
So far, however, Biden has responded to the failure of his Build Back Better bill by retreating into partisanship. Last week he gave a speech in Georgia on the need to rewrite the Senate filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation — a second major pillar of his legislative agenda. The address was uncompromising, a vicious denouncement of those in his own party who oppose his proposal. The president argued that those who took a different view to him on the best course of action were siding with some of the most notorious segregationists and secessionists in American history. The hostile approach didn’t work. Like Build Back Better, his voting rights legislation appears to be a nonstarter. Many of Biden’s first-year woes stem from the contradictions of his presidency. At home, Biden has on the one hand promised a becalming normalcy and on the other described the end of the pandemic as a once-in-a-generation chance for transformative change. Abroad, America is supposed to be back but it hardly feels that way.
In a recent television interview, Kamala Harris was asked which two names would be on the Democratic ticket in the 2024 election. Given the context — a 79-year-old president who is yet to commit to running for a second term and a vice-president with chronic approval ratings — it was a question worth asking. “I’m sorry, we are thinking about today,” she replied after an awkward pause.
But it hardly mattered what she said. The important thing was that, just a year after Biden and Harris were sworn in, the question was being asked. Tacit confirmation, not that it were needed, of the weakness of the position that they find themselves in.