How to assess the Joe Biden presidency one year in? The economy is booming as it hasn’t in decades: between January and October 2021, real GDP grew at an annualized rate of 7.8 percent and disposable income grew 3 percent after inflation. The unemployment rate, 6.3 percent when Biden took office, was just 3.9 percent in December. Finally—and I could go on—6.1 million jobs have been created since Biden’s first day. That’s four million more than under Donald Trump and both Bushes combined.
Yet these economic facts—and they are facts—hardly inform the popular view of how Biden is doing. Since late August, when the president’s approval rating flipped from positive to negative, the media coverage has been relentlessly pessimistic. This is not entirely without justification. Biden’s troubles started with the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. He then encountered a series of setbacks. Politically, congressional infighting and indecision have left important voting rights and domestic spending bills stalled, culminating in a mid-December announcement from West Virginia senator Joe Manchin (a veritable copresident all last year) that he opposed the current form of Biden’s most important piece of domestic legislation, Build Back Better, the large public investment bill that would fund many new or expanded programs.
The defeat of Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race in Virginia—which Biden carried by 10 percent a year earlier—was an ominous indication of eroding support for Democrats in states they had considered safely in their column. And the global coronavirus pandemic rages on, despite the glimmer of hope last summer that we were moving beyond it. It has created supply-chain delays, an ongoing inflation spiral, and, with the Omicron variant, grave disruptions in travel and education.
These are the realities that have dragged Biden down. Rarely have a president’s approval numbers dropped so precipitously in his first year. Biden had a hefty 52–42 approval rating six months into his term. Six months later, those numbers have essentially reversed. Donald Trump was never in positive territory. Barack Obama lost more ground than Biden—incredibly, he had just a 22 percent disapproval rating when he took office—but as he finished his first year, he was still narrowly above 50 percent approval. George W. Bush’s approval shot up after the September 11 attacks, nine months into his first year in office. Bill Clinton lost around 20 points through mid-1993 but made much of it up by year’s end. If we go back before that, we’re in a different era—before polarization, before cable news became so omnipresent. So in the age of modern politics, Biden has set a record for having gone so quickly from enjoying the confidence of the majority of Americans to having, for the moment at least, lost it.
But this is not just a question of numbers. The sense among many liberals is that the Democrats, and the broader project of bringing to life a new era of Keynesian public investment, are doomed. The high expectations that resulted from Biden’s win and the party’s recapture of the Senate and that surrounded the administration’s early days—when Biden was making those (mostly) terrific appointments; issuing the executive orders that left even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marveling; passing the Covid relief bill, also known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which helped people get through the pandemic and greatly expanded the child tax credit; distributing vaccines with competence; talking about changing the “economic paradigm” with an explicit vow to transfer wealth from the rich to the middle class—have crashed to earth. Governing is not easy, especially with such narrow majorities.
I think this despair is an overreaction. I also think it only helps the other side. We are confronting dangers that are without precedent in this country, dangers that Democrats and democrats, if I may put it that way, must be alert to. But being alert to danger and wallowing in despair are very different things.
This discouraging situation is, in part, Biden’s own fault. He badly misjudged the Afghanistan withdrawal. His administration sent mixed signals from the Centers for Disease Control on the necessity of masks as the Delta variant hit, and the CDC offered guidance on booster shots that many found confusing. The administration has been slow to get vaccines to the developing world.
But most of Biden’s problems emanate from outside the White House. Congress is in part to blame—specifically, a few members of Biden’s own party. Passing the president’s legislative agenda was not supposed to be this hard. We got a hint of the difficulty to come in March, as Congress crafted the ARP and Manchin almost stopped the bill dead over the size of its unemployment payments and the length of time they would last. His West Virginia Senate counterpart, Republican Shelley Moore Capito, told reporters, “I have no idea what he’s doing, to be quite frank. Maybe you can tell me.” He ended up compromising.
Later that month, in Pittsburgh, Biden delivered the most important address of his young presidency, rolling out a two-part plan, which he called the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. In the meat grinder of Congress, these mutated into the “hard” infrastructure bill—which will fund road, bridge, and rail construction along with many green energy initiatives—and the “human” infrastructure bill, known as Build Back Better. But in his Pittsburgh speech Biden sounded as populist as a Democratic president has sounded in a very long time:
Today, I’m proposing a plan for the nation that rewards work, not just rewards wealth. It builds a fair economy that gives everybody a chance to succeed, and it’s going to create the strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world. It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America, unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the Interstate Highway System and the Space Race decades ago.
The ARP, passed in March, cost $1.9 trillion. Biden’s new plan didn’t have a price tag that month, but everyone expected a number that would far exceed that of the ARP.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party was flush with optimism. “We think there is ample room to get the number up,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said. In June Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee who lost the Democratic nomination to Biden but worked with him to create “unity task forces” to lay out policy priorities, floated the idea of a $6 trillion plan. By mid-July, Biden and congressional Democrats settled on $3.5 trillion. Sanders initially denounced that figure and then, within twenty-four hours, endorsed it. “It’s not that I’m more pragmatic,” he said. “It’s that there are fifty members of the Democratic caucus. And unfortunately, not all of them agree with me on everything.”
So the leftmost senator was on board. But from the beginning there were numerous questions about the most fiscally conservative Democrats, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona. They were certainly cagey. Then August 11 brought a crucial and encouraging development: the Senate passed, 50–49, a budget resolution laying out a $3.5 trillion spending framework over ten years. Manchin and Sinema supported it. No one thought this necessarily committed them to $3.5 trillion, but most insiders took it as a sign that they, and some House moderates, would whittle the package down by perhaps a half-trillion to a trillion dollars, be content to call that a win for moderate common sense, and vote yes. It would be done in September or October, I remember thinking.
Here we are, weeks into 2022. Build Back Better has not passed and, as I write, might not pass. At best, it will pass in a deeply shrunken form, funding far fewer priorities than Biden had envisioned (although probably funding a few of them for a longer time period). Why wasn’t Biden able to get this through his own party? I see three culprits.
First, there are the maddening losses by Democratic Senate candidates who were defeated in 2020 despite raising barely conceivable amounts of money and vastly outspending their Republican opponents. In Maine, Sara Gideon outspent GOP incumbent Susan Collins $63 million to just under $30 million—and lost by 9 points. Gideon took in more than she could even spend, ending the campaign with a $15 million surplus. In North Carolina, Cal Cunningham outspent GOP incumbent Thom Tillis $51 million to $25 million. He lost narrowly, by under 2 points, but he lost all the same. In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison spent a staggering $130 million to Republican Lindsey Graham’s $97 million and still lost by double digits. Amy McGrath outspent Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Theresa Greenfield outspent Joni Ernst in Iowa. Both lost badly.
Something is very wrong with the way these campaigns are run if they can raise that much money, mostly from small donors, and not even come close to winning. Raising tens of millions and spending three quarters of it on TV ads, which is customary, is clearly dead as an electoral model, at least for Democrats in purple or red states. Someone needs to invent a new version of how to campaign in those places. What it has to do with Build Back Better is this: if just two of those five had won, Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t have mattered—Go vote no, Chuck Schumer could have said to them; I have my fifty votes.1 Two more Democratic senators would also have increased the chance of filibuster reform, which would have made it possible to pass voting rights legislation.
Culprit 2 is the structure of the Senate, in two senses. First, in the outsize power it gives to those last couple of senators whose votes a president needs in order to pass his program and who can therefore exact a high price for their support. And second, because of the filibuster requirement of sixty votes to clear “cloture” and proceed to a final vote. In Biden’s first year, the filibuster has been discussed mainly with respect to voting rights. But it blocks any ambitious legislative agenda—meaning that it affects only the Democrats, since the Republicans have no legislative agenda to speak of.2
The most persuasive way for Biden to have presented his program to the American people would have been in a series of targeted pieces of legislation that were easily comprehensible to the average voter. This is how the New Deal was passed. First up was emergency banking legislation, then a law establishing what became the Civilian Conservation Corps, then the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and so on. Imagine if Biden had been able to move from the Covid relief bill to a green jobs act, a rural broadband act, a universal prekindergarten act, a subsidized childcare act, a Medicare expansion act, a prescription drug act, and more. Each of these would have been wildly popular, readily understandable, and easy to sell, and this would have created a sense of momentum and accomplishment.
But because of the filibuster and implacable Republican opposition, this was impossible. None of these bills presented individually could have passed the cloture threshold. So Democrats had to stuff everything they could under the opaque and uninspiring rubric of “reconciliation,” which focused attention on the overall price tag and made the bill easy to mock as big-spending socialism. After Manchin withdrew his support for Build Back Better in December, some observers spoke of breaking the legislation into smaller pieces, but such discussion ignored the reality that each bill would need sixty votes. Furthermore, Senate rules limit the use of reconciliation to one or at the very most three bills a year.
Culprits 3a and 3b are Manchin and Sinema, but especially Manchin, as Sinema has muted her criticisms of Build Back Better in recent weeks. As the year ended, Manchin remained the sole obstructionist. Why? There are many possibilities. That Trump won his state by 39 points. That Manchin founded a coal brokerage company that has made him a wealthy man, which some say explains his opposition to the climate change measures in the bill. That he faces little resistance from Democrats in West Virginia, who are mostly afraid of him and whose numbers have dwindled. That he takes in a significant amount of corporate cash, including from the oil and gas industries. That he is out of touch with the concerns of poor West Virginians (he drives a Maserati Levante, which costs upwards of $80,000).
There may be something to each of those reasons, although after Manchin announced his opposition to Build Back Better, he did get a rebuke from the president of the United Mine Workers, who pointed out several provisions in the bill that would benefit West Virginians and asked him to reconsider his position. But I think Manchin’s actions are best explained by his background. His family owned a large carpet business in Fairmont, West Virginia, and he retains the mentality of the small businessman. He is a Democrat because he was born in 1947 in West Virginia—a time and place where nearly everyone was a Democrat because of the progress Roosevelt’s New Deal had brought to the state. I know; I was born there in 1960, and my father, a prominent trial lawyer, knew Manchin’s uncle, a flamboyant secretary of state whose two chief missions, until a corruption scandal ended his career, were to visit senior centers to kiss nonagenarian ladies and to defend the state’s honor whenever some outlander made a joke about it.
Manchin has remained a Democrat, but his mindset is that of the frugal and flinty employer suspicious of his employees. He revealed this very clearly on September 30, when he told reporters that work requirements were, to his way of thinking, essential for his support: “I cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving towards an entitlement mentality.”
The Democratic Party as a whole has, since the Great Recession, come to embrace a more social-democratic vision of the welfare state, approaching a consensus that free-market economic policies have ravaged much of America and it’s finally time to build a social safety net that includes paid family leave and other policies that have long been in place around the world,3 a process that Build Back Better is intended to begin. Few states have had it worse than West Virginia, where many small coal towns that once had bustling main streets are now destitute and consumed by the opioid crisis. Residents of these towns desperately need assistance and investment, especially as the market for coal dwindles.
Manchin is not a Republican—for example, he has said he supports rolling back the Trump tax cuts of 2017. And he did vote twice to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. But his September remarks, and his comments to colleagues that he believes many parents are using their child tax credit payments to buy drugs, reveal a worldview that emphasizes scrutinizing personal morality over ending corporate exploitation of vulnerable populations. This is a pretty conservative way of seeing poor people’s struggles.
The next source of trouble for Biden has been the Republican Party. Yes, there was a surprise show of bipartisanship on the “hard” infrastructure bill, which even Senate Minority Leader McConnell supported (as did the chamber of commerce in Louisville, Kentucky). That was a tremendous accomplishment—the largest such bill since Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System—and proof that some Republicans still value highway improvements more than they want to destroy Democrats.
But the Republican Party of our time revolves around one man. Trump may have lost the presidency and been chiefly responsible for his party losing control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and the Senate in 2020. But since his defeat, Republicans remain in thrall to him, as he sits in Mar-a-Lago and stews about the 2020 election being “stolen.” As of Christmas, he had endorsed eighty-three candidates in the 2022 Republican primaries, many of them either personal bootlickers or the opponents of candidates he perceives as insufficiently loyal. Most of his endorsees boast about having his support, and it helps most of them in the polls.
As such, the Republican Party is largely dedicated to restoring Trump to the White House in 2024. This translates to opposing and undermining Biden however possible (except on infrastructure like roads and bridges), first and foremost on the matter of Covid vaccination. In the United States, party identification is the chief indicator of whether someone gets the vaccine. Republicans may refuse the shots in the name of “freedom,” but they also know very well that fewer vaccines equals more virus equals more trouble for Biden. That Biden, who has implored Americans to get vaccinated many, many times since taking office, is paying the political price for the antisocial behavior of those who want to lay him low is a bleak irony.
President Obama, too, got little cooperation from congressional Republicans. But the pre-Trump Republican Party was still somewhat committed to basic principles of democratic practice and process. No one questioned the results of either the 2008 or the 2012 presidential election, for example, and from 2011 until the end of Obama’s second term, Republicans controlled the House but made no effort to open impeachment proceedings against him, despite some loud clamoring over various “scandals” in the right-wing press. I say “somewhat” because the party did engage in antidemocratic practices—aggressive gerrymandering, McConnell’s denial of even a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and more. But the congressional Republican Party, with a few crazy-uncle exceptions, did accept Obama’s legitimacy as president.
That has changed. From rank-and-file voters to state-level officials to the House of Representatives, most Republicans claim that Biden’s presidency is the illegitimate product of a rigged election. In their world, democracy is an inconvenience. Or rather, in the parallel-fact universe these people inhabit, it is Biden and the Democrats and the mainstream media that have assaulted democracy, and Trump and his loyalists who are defending and saving it. The most shocking poll result I’ve seen in some time was delivered last October by Marist College, which found that, by 42 to 41 percent, American adults see the Democratic Party as a greater threat to democracy than the GOP.
It’s hard to know how many elected Republicans really believe that Trump was the rightful 2020 winner or that voter fraud is a rampant problem in America. It’s shocking to see Trump’s associates openly flouting the subpoenas issued by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, and to think that we’ve reached the point at which a committee of Congress may issue subpoenas to a few of its own members—and that those members, too, will disobey the body in which they serve. And it’s next to impossible to believe that Republicans writing bills like the one in Arizona, which shifted authority to defend election-related lawsuits from the secretary of state (currently a Democrat) to the attorney general (currently a Republican), really think they are behaving democratically. Their actions speak quite clearly.
Unfortunately, the offensive against Biden and democracy is likely to grow far more intense. If the Republicans recapture the House in the midterm elections, as seems likely, they will do all they can to discredit Biden. They may begin with oversight hearings that seem justified—on the Afghanistan pullout, for example. But they’ll move quickly to subpoenaing West Wing and Cabinet officials in search of pseudo-scandals, and they’ll almost certainly move to impeach Biden over something—possibly involving his son Hunter’s past business dealings or the current handsome prices his paintings fetch through his New York gallery. (Georges Bergès had better prepare himself to be probably the first art gallery owner in the history of the republic to be handed a congressional subpoena.) The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—which decides whether to open impeachment proceedings against a president—is likely to be Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the two or three most aggressive Trump lickspittles in the House. And Republicans will instantly shut down the select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. It will be an ugly two years.
After Congress and Trump-devotion, the third source of Biden’s woes is the media, or our two medias, the right-wing one and the mainstream one. This is about far more than Biden. It’s not clear to me that the media as presently constituted can defend democracy.
It’s now apparent that the avowedly right-wing media has more power to set the national agenda than the mainstream press. The Marist poll results I cited above provide one of many available examples that support this contention. The idea that the party that’s trying to protect and expand voting rights is wrecking democracy isn’t just a misconception—it’s the result of an orchestrated assault on reality. And yet nearly half of Americans believe it. This is the power of the right-wing media at work: Fox News, of course, but also Newsmax, One America News Network, Breitbart News, The Blaze, The Federalist, The Daily Caller, The Washington Free Beacon, right-wing talk-radio hosts, Christian radio, and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which pushes pro-Trump, right-wing views across the television and radio stations it owns in dozens of markets.
All these outlets are agenda-driven in a way the mainstream media are not. The mainstream media certainly lean liberal but regularly run tough stories on Biden and Democrats; the right-wing, pro-Trump media will basically never say a bad word about Trump or any Republican, except of course Liz Cheney and other apostates, and are constantly feeding their readers and viewers stories about alleged liberal duplicity, lack of patriotism, and so on. And now Trump is starting his own media company, to be run by retiring representative Devin Nunes, who earned the job by defending Trump and attacking his critics when he chaired the House Intelligence Committee.4 How will it cover the 2024 campaign?
I don’t know that the mainstream media have the power to counter all this, or even the will. In early December, the Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote a much-discussed column in which he asked a data analytics company to examine more than 200,000 mainstream news articles about both the Trump and Biden presidencies, analyzing the tenor and placement of adjectives in the stories. The findings, Milbank wrote, “confirmed my fear: My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.” During 2020, when the Trump administration’s response to and dishonesty about the pandemic led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, when he refused to denounce white supremacists at a debate and launched serial assaults on democracy, he got slightly more favorable coverage in the mainstream media than Biden has received since August. Something is seriously wrong with our definition of what constitutes “news” if the media can’t be, in Milbank’s phrase, “partisans for democracy.”
I still think Biden can rebound. Three developments could dramatically shift the political winds: the passage of some version of Build Back Better, an easing of inflation, and a return to something like normal on the virus front. If these happen, Biden could well be riding a comeback wave by next fall. Certainly, even a diminished Build Back Better bill, combined with the Covid relief and hard infrastructure bills, would legitimately rank him with FDR and LBJ as having overseen major expansions of the social safety net. Voters tend to like these things once they’re passed and implemented. (Obamacare is now viewed favorably by nearly 60 percent of Americans.) It’s also important to remember that millions of citizens strongly oppose Trump and Trumpism and broadly support Democratic policy priorities—even if this America is outshouted by Trumpist America. The next three years will show us which side has the greater resolve—or whether, in a battle in which only one side is playing by the traditionally understood rules, resolve is what matters.
—January 13, 2022
This is assuming Gideon, Cunningham, et al., as first-year senators, would have been better team players than Manchin and Sinema. Vice President Kamala Harris, in this scenario, would cast the tie-breaking fifty-first vote. ↩
Not just Europe, by the way. Maternal and paternal leave to care for a newborn are offered in nations such as Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Chad, and numerous others in the developing world. ↩
For a thorough discussion of Nunes’s success at raising millions of dollars by peddling various deep-state conspiracy theories, see Jake Bernstein, “The Fundraising Pulpit,” The New York Review, April 23, 2020. ↩