Biden's Bumpy Road Ahead
A year in, the president faces intransigent Republicans and demoralized voters that seem to have forgotten the disastrous hand he was given
Americans have a very short attention span. Little more than a year ago, we were teetering on the precipice of expanding death and destruction with no sure picture of how we could extract ourselves from the downward spiral. Would there be a national vaccination strategy and system to make it possible to get the deadly virus under control? Would Trump come up with one more criminal act to deny the legitimately elected president from taking office? Would the country continue to lose jobs and face growing lines of jobless Americans unable to feed their families?
These were shaky times driven by a malignant man desperate to hold onto power, hold onto presidential immunity, and avoid a likely cascade of investigations and prosecutions.
Now, even as we continue to suffer from a deeply toxic and divided country, it shouldn’t be hard to see real progress. Yes, we are looking at year three of the pandemic—a tragic reality that has taken the lives of over 865,000 Americans—but by August last year over 70 percent of Americans had gotten at least one Covid shot. Now over 214 million Americans are fully vaccinated and nearly 84 million have gotten a booster.
Yes, we have questions and doubts. The messaging in recent months, particularly with the Omicron variant, has been confusing. The availability of rapid tests has been a real problem, especially as the highly transmissible Omicron surges. Fresh doubts have risen over the kind of mask to wear to best protect oneself and others with whom we interact. The advice over how many days to quarantine or stay away from the workplace if you do test positive has shifted. What’s the thing to do?
But even as we hear more and more people—people like Bill Maher—complaining that they are tired of the whole thing and are so “over it,” I shudder to think where we’d be if the country didn’t experience record turnout in the 2020 election and Trump was free to continue his homicidal indifference to the death and suffering.
In an inspiring sign that we have a president who doesn’t just lose interest with problems at whim and turn away, particularly when they are complicated or overwhelming or cause controversy, the Biden Administration purchased and is now mailing out up to half a billion free rapid tests (you can order them at covidtests.gov). Rather than gaslighting, they recognized a failure and are working to fix it. Whether they can fix the increasingly virulent and resistant strain of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers is another matter, serving as a sad reminder of the power of disinformation to convince people to “own the libs” by risking their own lives.
In his first year of office, the economy added a record 6.4 million jobs—an average of 537,000 jobs a month—and the unemployment rate dropped from 6.3 percent to 3.9 percent. This is the largest one-year drop and the most new jobs in a single calendar year in US history. Wages are up especially in low-paid jobs, the stock market has hit record highs, and the $1.9 trillion rescue relief plan got money into the pockets of tens of millions of struggling Americans households, businesses and state and local governments. It’s a far cry from the ridiculous threat of the former guy that if Biden is elected, the stock market will crash and the country will face an economic depression “the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
But the rise in inflation is real, undermining boosted wages for many Americans and spurring doubts and fears when people go to the grocery store or fill up their gas tanks. Public sentiment often goes sour and elections can turn around such kitchen-table realities. In a handful of recent polls, including one by The Economist/YouGov, 68 percent of Americans described the state of the economy as fair or poor. In a CNBC/Change Research poll, 60 percent disapproved of Biden’s handling of the economy. All this despite historic economic uplift in 2021.
This divide can be seen in a host of other issues when considered in a binary way:
Was Biden more courageous for ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan or more incompetent in managing the evacuation that led to the Taliban takeover?
Was his effort to unify the country and seek bipartisan solutions a sign of strength or a sign of weakness and a misunderstanding of how the country and Republican Congress members have changed? (In his two-hour press conference last Wednesday, Biden admitted, “I didn’t anticipate there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”)
Is his commitment to confronting climate change a reason for optimism or is his failure to pass necessary climate change initiatives a reason for despair?
Is Biden’s optimism—“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America”—the kind of leadership that will steer the country through this period of disinformation and an endangered democracy or is it a failure of imagination and a refusal to grasp the scale of the country’s challenge that increases our risk?
Is his returning human decency, honor and ethics back to the Oval Office the critical first piece of repairing America or was a more aggressive and quicker prosecution of the previous administration the focus needed to move the country past the corruption and criminality?
If early predictions that Biden could successfully emulate FDR now seem lost in the failures to pass voting rights legislation and (thus far) the Build Back Better human infrastructure bill, I am reluctant to toss aside my early optimism that a Biden presidency can and will meaningfully turn the page on the horrors that preceded him.
Yet we have seen how a hostile minority that embraces political violence, lies about election fraud, and dismisses democracy in an effort to take and keep power makes the road ahead more precarious. So does a troubled electorate that now mostly disapproves of him (53.4 percent disapproval vs. 42.3 percent approval.)
That road is made more precarious by a media drumbeat set on defining Biden a failure. It’s no surprise that Fox and its right-wing acolytes are pursuing this strategy. (“BIDEN ADMIN IS A CLOWN CAR DRIVING OFF A CLIFF,” screamed a recent Fox banner.)
It’s more disheartening to see traditional news media analyze Biden’s first year in the time-worn framing of two governing parties, as if Republicans and Democrats are two side of the same coin, rather than acknowledge that one is bent on ending the American democratic experiment. Consider this opinion from the editors of Bloomberg about Biden’s “disappointing first year”:
“The president’s most important job was to restore some semblance of national unity and persuade Democrats and Republicans to work together. If he ever tried, it wasn’t hard enough. Lately he seems to be calculating, no less than Trump did, that disunity will advance his political goals.”
One of Bloomberg’s examples of Biden’s embrace of the “hard left” and his failure to heal the country’s divisions is his use of rhetoric such as “champions of Jim Crow 2.0” to refer to the opponents of voting rights legislation. At his press conference last week, Biden displayed his new, more combative tone, signaling his impatience. “What are Republicans for?” he asked. “What are they for? Name me one thing they are for.”
Time will tell whether taking a tougher line with the intransigent Republicans will succeed at rallying demoralized Democrats, giving the party a fighting chance to hold onto the majority during the midterms, or will drive away more centrist Democrats still convinced by the fading promise of bipartisanship. But from confronting Trump and his regime’s coup attempt to finding new ways to pass his social agenda (Biden’s now talking about passing Build Back Better in pieces), his success over the next three years depends on acknowledging the reality of the opposition and finding fresh ways to inspire a discouraged majority.
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