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It’s been an easy idea to hold over the years, a tempting one at times, really: Joe Biden is dunzo and isn’t coming back from this setback. The 1972 death of his wife and daughter, before he even got sworn into office. The plagiarism scandal that ushered him from the 1988 presidential race. A less-than-1% showing in Iowa 20 years later. The death of Beau Biden. A “gut punch” of a fourth-place finish in Iowa in 2020. And yet Biden got up off the mat every time. Joe Biden doesn’t always win, but he certainly doesn’t quit.
That’s why, as Biden ends 2021 and noodles the lessons learned from his first year in the Oval Office, it’s tempting to write him off as irrelevant, a has-been placeholder. But that would be a mistake, because being Biden means never letting adversity have the final word. In fact, the talkative president seldom lets anyone have the last say.
Every President puts his—and, yes, to this point it remains an all-boys club—mark on Washington, and Biden is no exception. He has brought back some sense of civility and compromise missing during the previous four years. He’s as buttoned-down a President as has walked the West Wing since George H.W. Bush. Unlike his immediate predecessor, errant, middle-of-the-night tweets aren’t a problem. And, with some trepidation, America’s allies are starting to recognize the Washington they’ve known in the post-World War II era.
But there’s still a sense of disappointment, even among Biden’s allies. Restoring America’s place in the world is great and all, but the big campaign-era promises of eliminating some student debt, ambitious overhauls to immigration and policing, and a complete and total defeat of a pandemic and climate change now seem fanciful given how the political system seems to have run circles around this President.
The kindest interpretation of the way Biden ends 2021 is to describe his first year as President as plenty of unmet potential. His social spending and climate change bill had a massive reduction in ambition and is now parked on the shelf, thanks in no small measure to fellow Democrat Joe Manchin. Politically popular programs like a child tax credit—paid in the form of a monthly check—expired without much fanfare because Manchin didn’t want to create a permanent entitlement. Police and immigration reform and a voting rights package have all met a similar fate. Biden may be his party’s leader but he’s not much of an enforcer.
Biden’s polling, as a result, has gone from hey-he’s-not-Donald-Trump levels of giddy relief to but-what’s-actually-getting-done? incredulity. His accomplishments, including an early pandemic relief plan and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, were enormous legislative victories but have gone largely unappreciated. Democrats’ messaging on both seemed all over the place. And while it’s easy to blame almost anything on a failure to communicate—it was a favorite of the Obama era, for sure—there is an unmistakable sense that the country perhaps over-corrected for the Trump-era raft of retail.
As a result, Biden heads into the new year — and, importantly, the midterms year—with a lot of unfinished business. Even Biden’s allies are worried about how he’s positioned Democrats heading into the midterms, especially in places where he narrowly scraped by in 2020 like Pennsylvania. The bipartisan infrastructure bill has some promotable pieces in it, but it alone is unlikely to convince voters that Democrats deserve to continue holding the House, the Senate and the White House with unified blue jerseys.
The economy remains fundamentally strong, with unemployment at record lows and a job market that is finally adjusting its pay to match the true value of work. The threat of inflation looms but it seems like the Federal Reserve is challenging its own pre-pandemic assumptions that low unemployment and inflation would remain in separate lanes.
But so much of the political implications of the economy are mental. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November fell to 4.2%. Three times since World War II have voters seen a lower unemployment rate in presidential election years and still booted the party from power, and all three times it favored Republicans. Voters go with their gut on this; the economy was humming along at a 4.9% unemployment rate in October of 2016 as voters decided to flip the White House red, but kept it blue in 2012 when the jobless rate was a painful 7.8%. In other words, the economy alone isn’t predictive.
That’s exactly why Biden needs to take a moment with his advisers and reassess what they’re selling. The product itself has proven solid: some big legislative wins and an economy that most of Biden’s predecessors would covet. The problem is that Biden has also had some bigger setbacks, made all the more stinging when dealt by fellow Democrats’ stubbornness.
Biden leads a party with power limited only by its ambition. The filibuster exists only because Democrats let it stand; the rule was changed in 2013 and 2017 for nominations. The 6-3 Supreme Court stands ready to gut a half-century of progressive wins because Democrats aren’t ready to pack the court out of fear of escalation. Even procedural defeats on including a minimum-wage increase and immigration overhaul fell because Democrats wouldn’t fire the arbiter in the Senate. (In 2001, Majority Leader Trent Lott disagreed with one too many negative rulings from the parliamentarian and canned him.)
All of which is to say this: Joe Biden has been on the job for almost a year. He still has a governing majority for at least another year, barring deaths or defections on the Hill. The time is short—but powerful. Biden is hardly riding high, but he’s still on the horse, and it takes more than a year of bad headlines to keep him down.
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