Frustrated Biden enters second year looking to fight
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Joe Biden 1.0 was a calming, grandfatherly figure, a low-key veteran coming out of retirement in 2020 to heal a nation deeply divided by Donald Trump. A year later, meet Biden 2.0 -- the frustrated, angry fighter.
"I'm tired of being quiet," he said last week in a blistering speech.
Biden was referring specifically to his many fruitless "quiet conversations" behind the scenes with senators in a doomed effort to get his signature legislation on voting rights passed. He could just as well have been summing up the exasperation of his first 12 months in the Oval Office.
And if 2021 saw mild Biden, 2022 looks set to feature a louder, more pugnacious version -- a president running out of time, patience and allies to save what remain of his ambitions.
Biden took office January 20, 2021 -- at 78, the oldest man to ever become US president -- facing incredible challenges.
Covid-19 was out of control, Trump's supporters had just two weeks earlier tried overturning the presidential election, the economy was comatose, and around the world US allies were reeling in Trump shock of their own.
Biden's answer to all that -- not to mention to the explosive tensions over racism after a series of Black Americans were killed during botched arrests -- was to promise competency, old-fashioned decency and unity.
"My whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people," Biden pledged in his inaugural address.
And he even seemed to have a chance of pulling it off.
Democrats narrowly controlled both houses of Congress, Trump had been banished from Twitter, and Covid vaccines were ready.
"There were high expectations that Biden, given his experience and his knowledge of Washington, would be able... to make the trains run on time again," said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
"It was all about a return to normalcy."
- 'Hubris' -
Fast forward to the start of Biden's second year.
Beset by the Delta and Omicron Covid variants, an ever-more divided America, and the likely loss of Congress to the Republicans in November's midterm elections, Biden's luck at the age of 79 seems to have run short.
With a majority of just one in the Senate and barely more than that in the House, his huge social spending plan -- called Build Back Better -- is dead in the water. Ditto the voting rights package he says is needed to save US democracy from Trump's supporters.
A centrist at heart, Biden has failed to connect with the right or satisfy his own party's left. As he's discovering, the center today is hard to find.
Average approval polls on fivethirtyeight.com are at a lowly 42 percent, down from 53. A recent Quinnipiac poll, while an outlier, posted a disturbing 33 percent approval.
Abroad, the picture is similar.
While world allies do like having a United States not governed by Trump back, the country's humiliating military exit from Afghanistan torpedoed the Biden administration's aura of professionalism. Certainly Russia seems unconcerned, as it masses troops on Ukraine's border.
It all adds up to a bitter awakening from the days when the White House buzzed with idealism and talk of Biden emulating his hero Franklin Roosevelt, who led America through the Great Depression in the 1930s.
"Their optimism, combined with the public expectation that all of this would be solved, led them down a path of hubris," Brown said.
- 'Less shouting' or 'fight'? -
There's still a scenario where Biden comes out on top: the pandemic burns out, the economy stabilizes, inflation recedes, and with the subsequent feel-good factor Biden gets his party to reverse those legislative defeats just in time for the midterms.
Biden's aides also point out they got Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, juicing a Covid-ravaged economy and preventing more widespread misery. Remarkably, Democrats also got strong Republican support in passing a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.
All that with a razor-thin majority in Congress.
The more likely outcome for 2022, though, is continued Democratic infighting, followed by Republicans winning one or both chambers of Congress in November.
At that point, Biden can expect aggressive House investigations, and even possibly impeachment, as Republicans seek to further undermine their opponents' ability to govern.
And it would become increasingly likely a 2024 White House challenge could come from Trump, even as the former president continues to try to subvert the 2020 election.
So much for Biden's vow to restore "the soul of America."
David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist at the heart of the mainstream establishment, advises Biden to pivot back to "less shouting and more of Biden's trademark common sense."
But Biden, his back against the wall, is signaling that he sees things more darkly going into 2022.
"I did not seek this fight," he said in another dramatic speech this month, this time commemorating the anniversary of the January 6 storming of Congress by Trump supporters.
"But I will not shrink from it either," Biden said. "I will stand in this breach."
Biden's first year scorecard
US President Joe Biden came in facing extraordinary challenges: a nation divided after the Donald Trump years, the Covid pandemic, and an economy in tumult.
And he promised Americans a lot: to heal the country's democracy, defeat Covid, address deep-rooted racial and economic problems, and restore US standing around the world.
How did he do?
- Covid-19 -
Biden made a strong start with a vaccines rollout that stood in contrast to the often confused policies of Trump, who tried to play down the seriousness of the pandemic, although he did oversee the rapid development of the vaccines.
Apparently lulled into a false sense of security, Biden declared July 4th a day of independence from the virus. The Delta variant struck that summer, reversing the downward trends of the spring and by the time the Omicron variant took grip in December, Biden was taking the blame.
At the start of the administration, 69 percent of Americans approved of Biden's Covid policies. Today that's 46 percent.
In conservative areas of the country, the Biden administration's attempts at imposing vaccine mandates have provoked fierce political opposition and on Thursday the Supreme Court struck down his attempt to mandate vaccinations at large businesses.
- Economic rescue -
The Biden administration credits passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan with saving the economy from going into a downward spiral, with mass unemployment and recession.
Biden also signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package to fix bridges, roads, internet connections and much else. This was achieved with Republican support and was something that Trump, in particular, had long promised but failed to deliver.
However, an even bigger climate and social spending package, the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill, died in the Senate after Biden proved unable to persuade a stubbornly opposed Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, to vote in favor. With a majority of just one in the Senate, that meant shelving of the bill.
Stock market indexes and job growth hit records over 2021, with unemployment at a respectable 3.9 percent. However, at the same time Biden is presiding over shockingly high inflation -- a record seven percent in December's annual figures.
For months, Biden's economic advisors claimed inflation would be a mere blip but, like the pandemic that is behind those distorted prices, it has stuck.
- Democracy and social change -
A natural centrist, Biden has had difficulty satisfying the left wing of his party or the pressing demands of key voting groups, particularly African Americans.
His frequent vows to change America's addiction to firearms and to institute reforms preventing police brutality have got little traction.
His signature voting rights reforms, designed to stop discrimination against Black people and suppression of turnout, foundered in the Senate, again because of opposition from just two Democrats. Having such a razor-thin margin in Congress puts almost any presidential ambition at risk.
On the broader issue of healing the country's political divisions, Biden also gets a low grade -- even if it's not all his fault.
Biden promised to unite Americans in his inaugural speech, leaving behind Trump's unprecedentedly divisive style, which included whipping up hatred against migrants, journalists and other opponents in constant mass rallies.
But with Trump's ideology now dominating the entire Republican Party and the real estate tycoon likely to seek reelection in 2024, Biden is being drawn further to his own leftist base. Support from independents, that elusive middle ground, is dwindling.
- America is back -
"America is back," the Biden administration loudly declared to the world on day one.
In many ways, that has been the case. Biden put the United States back into the Paris climate accord and back into the multinational attempt to control Iran's nuclear capacity.
He moved quickly to reassure America's oldest and strongest allies in Europe, NATO and across Asia that Washington stood with them as a partner -- reversing Trump's emphasis on bilateral relationships and treatment of even friends as cutthroat economic rivals.
The exit from Afghanistan ended a failed 20-year war and was something previous presidents had only talked about. However, the dangerous and often chaotic final days of the drawdown punctured the US image of professionalism, turning a moment of relief into a humiliation.