President Biden has been slammed by just about everyone for not:
- Ending a global pandemic.
- Solving climate change.
- Enacting comprehensive immigration reform, criminal justice reform and gun control.
- Passing free education and health care for all.
- Healing some of the worst racial tensions since the Civil Rights Movement.
- Shoring up America’s battered democracy amid one party’s determination to tear it down.
That same party continues to block every attempt by the president to tackle these problems, then attacks him for not fixing them.
Biden is also expected to have done all of this during his first year in office, in the midst of a pandemic unlike anything the world has ever seen, with a razor-thin majority in Congress where two Democrats can singlehandedly hold up their party’s entire agenda.
He’d have an easier time convincing Donald Trump he lost the election.
Now, let’s look at what has been done in Biden’s first year:
- Averted an economic catastrophe by passing $1.9 trillion in COVID relief — without any Republican backing, unlike the previous $3 trillion in COVID relief under former President Trump that Democrats supported.
- Fully vaccinated more than 200 million Americans.
- Extended health insurance to an additional 5 million Americans.
- Passed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that provides the biggest infusion of new infrastructure investment since Dwight D. Eisenhower built America’s highway system.
- Ended the war in Afghanistan.
- Rejoined the Paris climate accords.
- Appointed one of the most diverse group of federal judges and Cabinet members in history.
- Lifted the debt ceiling without Republican help.
- Cut child poverty in half.
- The largest profit margins for U.S. companies since 1950.
- Added 6.4 million jobs, the biggest single-year jump in U.S. history.
- Unemployment dropped from 6.2% when Biden took office to 3.9%, a historic single-year drop.
- The largest wage growth in two decades.
- Overall economic growth of nearly 6% for 2021 and expected growth of around 4% in 2022, the largest of any country in the world.
Yet you wouldn’t know any of this by reading the drumbeat of apocalyptic headlines: “Biden’s epic failures,” “Joe Biden’s 6 Biggest Failures During His First Year as President,” “How the Biden Administration Lost Its Way,” among many others.
Yes, Biden’s made plenty of mistakes, and the White House’s rosy economic figures gloss over darker trends. Notably, inflation is soaring and outstripping wage gains. But it’s not the result of the traditional economic forces that we saw in the 1980s. Rather, it’s a creation of the pandemic. (Check out The New York Times’ excellent illustration of supply chain dynamics and The Washington Post’s explainer on empty store shelves for more).
When coronavirus cases go down, inflation will eventually follow. That’s a crude, oversimplified way of looking at it, but that’s what will happen when supply catches up to demand.
Polls and process news coverage are snapshots of what people are experiencing in the moment. They have some worth in the short term, but not much in the long term.
Higher prices at the pump always drive down a president’s approval ratings, even though oil is a globally traded commodity over which presidents have little control.
But if those prices go down, along with inflation, omicron peters out and life resumes, every negative headline and poll will become moot a few months from now.
Incidentally, a lot of these negative headlines aren’t from conservative outlets. Trumpers should actually try reading fake news because it’s been among Biden’s fiercest critics, painting his presidency as an unmitigated disaster because he hasn’t fulfilled unrealistic expectations, while treating his accomplishments as an afterthought.
Another afterthought that’s hardly mentioned because it’s such a given is GOP obstructionism. The media dwells on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for thwarting parts of Biden’s agenda, while glossing over the fact that the entire Republican Party is united in ensuring Biden fails, even when their interests align.
Biden finally admitted as much at his one-year press conference: “I honest to God don’t know what they’re for.”
Republicans don’t need to be “for” anything because they know that being against everything benefits them at the ballot box.
It’s a strategy perfected by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Block anything the opposing party does, sit back and watch as they struggle to solve problems while offering zero ideas of your own (why open yourself up to criticism?), then blame them for everything when nothing gets done.
Or take credit for legislation you tried to stop (see: COVID assistance and infrastructure).
Either way, obstructionism wins.
The wrong way on voting rights
There’s one issue where Republicans are not only obstructing legislation, they’re the reason for it in the first place: voting rights.
Democrats’ recent failure to pass voting rights reform to counter a wave of GOP efforts to make voting harder illustrates the dangers of forcing a president out on a limb for a cause over which he has little control — and then leaving him out to dry.
Let’s start with the obvious: Voting rights reform was never going to happen because 10 Senate Republicans were never going to support it.
And eliminating the filibuster to get around that reality was never going to happen because Manchin and Sinema were never going to support that. (And don’t kid yourself, “carveouts” or bringing back the “talking filibuster” are just slippery slopes to abolishing the filibuster).
If you didn’t understand that, you’ve been deaf, dumb and blind to everything Manchin and Sinema have been telegraphing for months.
Yet some civil rights activists directed their ire onto Biden, snubbing his speech in Atlanta on Jan. 11.
It was a show of disrespect toward a president who has their backs — and a misunderstanding of his power.
“We’ve seen what’s possible when President Biden uses the full weight of his office to deliver for bridges, and now we need to see him do the same for voting rights,” Martin Luther King III and his wife said in a statement
With all due respect to the King family, there’s a simple reason Biden pushed infrastructure last year: He had the votes on Capitol Hill to deliver it.
Biden could talk about voting rights reform until his voice gives out, but he’s not going to change the political calculus of members of Congress who oppose it. If anything, presidents dig themselves into deeper holes by publicly making promises they can’t keep.
Other civil rights activists blasted Biden for too much talk and no action. Or for “dillydallying.” What dillydallying? He was a tad busy last year. Besides, do we think Republicans would’ve done a 180 on voting rights if only Biden had made his speech in July instead of January? And what action? He’s not some Manchema whisperer. Both senators have been adamant they won’t budge on the filibuster, which means any legislation is stuck.
That’s not to say Biden hasn’t tried. He revealed as much in his speech when he said: “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months.” He then thundered: “I’m tired of being quiet.”
The moment revealed two things: One, Biden cares about the issue. After all, his own presidency started off with a mob of delusional Trump supporters attacking Congress to prevent him from taking office.
Two, Biden understood that the only realistic chance to enact voting rights reform was to win over Manchin and Sinema — quietly, behind the scenes. We’ve seen how Manchin reacts to being called out in public. Look no further than the implosion of the Build Back Better Act.
The filibuster’s double edge
The outreach didn’t work, and perhaps that’s for the best.
As much as progressives are loath to admit it, Manchin and Sinema have a point that it’s not in Democrats’ interest to nix the filibuster because it’s their safeguard in a Senate that’s structurally lopsided to favor Republicans.
Just consider the sobering statistic that in the current “narrowly” divided Senate, 50 Democrats actually represent 40 million more Americans than 50 Republicans do.
This imbalance will only grow as more people leave red rural areas to live in bluer urban centers but representation doesn’t shift in the Senate, where the Founding Fathers gave sparsely populated states outsize power as a way of protecting the minority.
Of course, they never envisioned that today’s GOP would warp the institution so that the minority could hold the majority hostage, but the Senate’s fundamentals are baked into the Constitution.
Either amend the Constitution — good luck getting Republicans to commit political suicide — or nuke the filibuster, but that will come back to bite Democrats when the Senate invariably switches hands.
The late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found himself in this predicament when Republicans were abusing the filibuster to block President Obama’s nominees. In 2013, he went nuclear and changed the rules to allow Senate confirmation of executive branch and judicial nominees by a simple majority vote, with the exception of Supreme Court nominees.
Reid did not have much of a choice, but his decision had serious repercussions when in 2017, McConnell, then Senate majority leader, green-lit the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees by a simple majority.
The result: a 6-3 conservative majority that is far to the right of public opinion on most social issues.
Any “carveout” for voting rights will similarly backfire when Republicans exact revenge — not only by undoing voting rights legislation, but enacting a slew of conservative bills.
We already saw a preview of this when McConnell announced that if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lowered the threshold to start debate from 60 votes to 50, he’d immediately force Democrats to take politically tough votes on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, in-person learning and so-called immigrant “sanctuary cities.”
I suspect Schumer is secretly relieved the measure to change Senate rules failed — as were probably some moderate Democrats who hid behind Manchin and Sinema’s opposition.
So why the elaborate exercise of holding votes on election reform and rules changes that was destined to fail?
It wasn’t just so members could go on the record (although getting 48 Democrats to vote for changing Senate rules is no small feat — and gives Schumer a solid base to pass future reforms if he gets a slightly larger majority).
The main reason: Democratic leaders had no choice. The base would’ve excoriated them if they didn’t address voting rights.
Leadership had to get the doomed votes out of the way so they could move on to the strategy that actually has a chance of succeeding: grassroots efforts to get more Democrats elected — from county election boards to state legislatures all the way to the Senate.
After all, whether it’s voting rights, health care, education, immigration, climate change, gun control — you name it — the power rests with Sinema and Manchin in a 50-50 Senate.
The solution? Oust them or pick up two seats.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to mount a primary challenge against Manchin is a bit fanciful considering Trump won West Virginia by 40 percentage points, but Sinema is certainly vulnerable to a challenge.
Democrats should tread carefully, though, because she could avoid a primary by campaigning as an independent, and Arizona, which is still a purple state, tends to reward independents.
But there are a slew of competitive Senate races in other states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia where Democratic activists should focus their energy, tapping into the base’s frustration to get out the vote.
Not easy but not insurmountable
It won’t be easy. Republicans are probably the only political entity in the world — outside of dictatorships — who want to make voting harder. Every other democracy tries to make it easier through mail-in voting, making election day a holiday, etc.
But since the 2020 election, 19 Republican-led states have enacted voting restrictions under the guise of electoral fraud, which they’ve been trying to uncover since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They have yet to find a whiff of it. What they did unearth in the 2020 election was a stench of lies so ridiculous that even Trump-appointed judges eviscerated Trump supporters’ claims of fraud.
But while voting restrictions make it harder for minorities in particular to access the ballot box, they don’t make it impossible — and Democrats need to stop conflating convenience with access. Early voting and absentee voting will still exist in most places. Polling places will still be open after work.
Republicans aren’t worried about these laws because their base is energized — and reliable. Democratic voters are less consistent and the base has grown disillusioned with Biden (some expected him to perform miracles) and with Democratic infighting (even though GOP obstructionism is the bigger problem).
Democrats need to take a page from Republicans in galvanizing their base. This is how the party beat the odds in 2020 to capture the Senate — through the dogged efforts of activists like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, where Democrats picked up two critical Senate seats.
They’ll need to redouble their efforts in 2022 to pick up enough seats to override Manchin and Sinema — or at least keep the Senate in Democratic hands as a guardrail against what’s likely to be a Republican takeover of the House.
While activists work the trenches, they’re still pushing for change at the top through executive orders, which Biden seems receptive to, and more aggressive Justice Department investigations into GOP voting laws.
But executive orders, not matter how strong, are Band-Aids that can be ripped off when the other party comes to power, and the Justice Department is an independent entity that doesn’t automatically bow to political pressure.
The pandemic is a prime illustration of how Biden’s presidential powers can be constrained by his own government.
On Jan. 21, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas blocked Biden from enforcing a vaccine mandate for federal workers. Earlier, the Supreme Court gutted the most powerful weapon in Biden’s arsenal by blocking his vaccine-or-test mandate for private businesses with 100 or more employees.
It doesn’t leave Biden with many options. Vaccine mandates are controversial but have been shown to work. Many (not all) anti-vaxxers are Republicans who’d rather die than get the shot. (And plenty do: Republicans account for 60% of adults who remain unvaccinated, compared to 17% for Democrats, and are three times more likely than Democrats to die of COVID.)
Republicans are still rebelling against the simple but effective act of wearing a mask, and Americans in general are over lockdowns.
Yet you have to love the chutzpah of GOP governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida who rail against Biden for not stopping the pandemic — while DeSantis allows up to 1 million coronavirus tests expire, fights against vaccine mandates and even financially punishes school districts that dare to require masks.
Yes, Biden dropped the ball on testing and is only now playing catch-up. He didn’t anticipate a variant like omicron, but he should’ve.
At the same time, while Biden gets flak for prematurely declaring the country to be nearly COVID-free last July, can you really fault him for not predicting that 40% of the country would be so willfully ignorant as to turn down vaccines that could’ve finally put an end to this nightmare?
Likewise, we can easily fault the CDC for providing guidelines that are about as clear as trying to read a road map in Mandarin. But behind the missteps are humans working seven days a week scrambling to figure out a new and fast-changing virus. There’s a difference between mistakes and malice.
What is inexcusable is how Trump singlehandedly politicized the best defense we had against the coronavirus in 2020: masks (which he belittled even after he contracted COVID himself). That one politically self-serving act needlessly caused untold numbers of Americans to die — thousands, possibly even tens of thousands according to some studies. It ranks as one of the most unforgivable sins of his presidency.
Lastly, the current talk over breaking up Biden’s Build Back Better Act after Manchin torpedoed it also reflects a certain ignorance of how government works — even among lawmakers.
The $1.8 trillion package focusing on health care, education and climate change can only pass via budget reconciliation, which bypasses the Republican filibuster by only requiring Democratic votes.
But there are lots of rules attached to reconciliation, and it can only be used sparingly.
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed this out: “This is a reconciliation bill. So when people say, ‘let’s divide it up,’ they don’t understand the process.”
It’s tempting to want to preserve the politically popular parts of the bill that Manchin opposes, such as child care and lowering drug costs. But the minute those parts become stand-alone bills, they are subject to the regular and impossible-to-overcome 60-vote threshold.
Lawmakers are also overlooking the roadblock that derailed BBB in the first place: Manchin, who’s already said negotiations on a reworked package would have to start from scratch.
After months of teasing the White House, Manchin is worse than an Instagram influencer trying to strike the right selfie pose. But again, Biden’s hands are tied.
That leaves Democrats with one viable path forward, which Pelosi laid out and POLITICO Playbook summed up:
Democrats will probably take the ideas Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) has signaled he’s willing to accept — $500 billion in climate funding, universal Pre-K and a permanent fix for the Affordable Care Act — and try to pass that via the fast-tracking budget process that enables the Senate to avoid a filibuster.
It will be a much smaller “chunk” of BBB. Pelosi even acknowledged that Democrats “may have to rename” the bill.
Senior Democratic aides tell us that then — and likely only then — would the party move to try to pass their other axed portions of BBB. But since they have no chance of getting to Biden’s desk, those will effectively be turned into messaging bills that front-liners can try to run on in 2022, and blame Republicans for blocking.
Will it work? The odds are not in Democrats’ favor.
Republicans have an inherent advantage not only in the Senate, but also in the House thanks to years of gerrymandering — and that’s even before they enacted dozens of laws to make voting harder for Democrats.
Even if Democrats do win, they will have to endure countless recounts and conspiracy theories propagated by the Big Lie.
It’s amazing to think that Democrats never questioned the integrity of American elections even when 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. But after Trump lost by 7 million votes, the Republican Party made it normal to refuse to accept the results of an election — even launch a violent insurrection — if you don’t like them.
This will be the battle moving forward in every election — not to mention that Democrats are heading into a midterm election, where historically voters tend to punish the party in power, regardless of accomplishments.
Democrats are still haunted by the 2010 shellacking after they passed Obamacare. Biden was vice president then. He no doubt remembers it, too, but he also remembers that Barack Obama went on to win a second term and today ranks as one of the most popular presidents in modern history.
Biden would be getting ahead of himself if he thinks he’ll follow Obama’s path, but his naysayers are getting ahead of themselves by predicting his political demise. It’s only been one year of a four-year presidency. As Biden himself rightly pointed out during his one-year anniversary press conference: “Can you think of any other president who has done as much in one year?”
Anna Gawel is editor-at-large of The Washington Diplomat.