As Joe Biden nears the first anniversary of his presidency next week, he faces the same main challenge that confronted him at the outset: End the COVID pandemic and restore normalcy to American life.
His administration has succeeded in improving the nation’s health by vaccinating a majority of adults and many children against the virus. But its inconsistent messaging about added shots, its lack of follow-up on the need for more tests and continuing resistance to vaccinations by many Republicans have undercut the president’s efforts.
The fact that COVID remains Biden’s top challenge, despite his administration’s intensive efforts, exemplifies the frustration that has permeated this White House in recent months and sapped his standing with an electorate that wants results.
Unfortunately, it is far from the only example:
• Unemployment has dropped sharply, and a record number of jobs have been created. But the Biden administration’s failure to recognize and curb the worst inflation in 30 years has tempered public confidence in his handling of the economy.
• Benefiting from his long Capitol Hill experience, Biden won congressional approval of two significant economic proposals, a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill and a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. But his third major measure, the $1.7 trillion package of social and environmental proposals, remains stalled, due to his own political overreach and months of Democratic in-fighting.
• Biden has strongly condemned the laws that Republicans in many states have passed to make voting more difficult and revise election procedures, and he has pushed for federal legislation to counter them. But solid GOP resistance and the refusal of some Democrats to curb the Senate’s filibuster rule has made his efforts so far mainly rhetorical, rather than impactful.
• And though Biden kept his promise to end the nation’s longest war by removing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, his administration’s inept handling of the operation cast doubt on both his foreign policy reputation and his promise of restoring governmental competence.
Biden has been hampered by the fact that he is less than compelling as the public face of his policies. He has held fewer press conferences and given fewer interviews than any recent president. And he has received little help from Vice President Kamala Harris, beset by staff squabbles and difficulty in determining her role in the administration.
Biden assigned her to manage two almost insoluble problems, illegal immigration on the Southern border and the drive to strengthen voting rights.
She interpreted her immigration role narrowly to focus on the economic woes and political instability in many Central American countries. But the flood of asylum seekers was driven by multiple problems and created complicated issues for the U.S.
That decision left the Department of Homeland Security struggling without apparent success to contain and manage the continued surge of undocumented immigrants, a situation exacerbated by Biden’s promise to alleviate the Trump administration’s harsher policies. Officials considered but dropped a plan to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief to families separated by the prior administration’s policies.
Biden has correctly termed voting rights one of the country’s most significant challenges. But GOP resistance and the filibuster fight have stalled legislative efforts to block some state restrictions and restore Voting Rights Act protections eliminated by the Supreme Court.
That stalemate exemplifies the reality confronting Biden’s far-reaching agenda in a closely divided Congress. Democrats have a four-vote margin in the House and Harris’ tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate.
But it’s also evident that, like some prior presidents, Biden’s aspirations exceeded his political clout. His difficulties could increase as the 2022 midterm elections approach, amid all signs the Democrats will lose control of at least one house of Congress.
Democrats could still pass a significant though trimmed-down version of Biden’s third major legislative proposal, the Build Back Better bill of social and environmental measures — if party progressives accept the limits demanded by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who holds the deciding vote in an evenly divided Senate.
Though Manchin has apparently withdrawn a pre-Christmas proposal, it might still be possible to pass a bill including a pre-kindergarten program, expanded Obamacare subsidies, expansion of Medicaid in states that resisted it, significant environmental measures, and a permanent child tax credit, perhaps limited to younger children and families with lower incomes.
With the omicron COVID strain delaying Biden’s State of the Union speech until March 1, Democratic leaders have time to do that, if Manchin and party progressives can agree.
These three measures carry benefits for many Americans but, unfortunately for Biden, even enacting all three won’t make his administration a success unless it copes with the fact that the COVID pandemic seems likely to become a permanent part of American life.
That marks a significant change from last January’s hope that an extensive regimen of vaccinations could control it. Biden proclaimed last July 4 “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence” from the pandemic — before the administration was caught off guard by first the delta variant and then the omicron strain.
The larger picture is that a lot has changed for the better in the last 12 months. The economy is stronger, the country healthier and most U.S. overseas relationships back to normal.
But Biden’s ultimate success still hinges on the degree his administration can control the pandemic and restore normalcy to American life.