Commentary

At the end of Year One, can Joe Biden build back his presidency? | Fletcher McClellan

Yes, things look bleak. But there are two, concrete steps Biden can take to salvage his presidency

January 20, 2022 6:30 am

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris implored Congress to pass voting rights legislation during a visit to Atlanta on Tuesday. The Democrats said they support changes to the Senate filibuster rules if Republicans continue to block the measures from debate. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Assessments of President Joe Biden’s first year in office are taking place in the midst of what observers say has been the worst week of his presidency.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

With his Build Back Better bill stuck in Senate limbo, Biden crusaded last week in Atlanta for an end to the Senate filibuster holding up enactment of the Freedom to Vote: John Lewis Act, which would expand access to voting and ban partisan gerrymandering.

Instead, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., pronounced she would not support any changes to the Senate rule. With all Republicans opposed to the measure and 60 votes required for passage, the bill named after the civil rights leader is dead.

Also last week, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt another blow to Biden, striking down the president’s executive order requiring large employers to vaccinate or strictly test all employees.

As of last weekend, an average of 800,000 Americans were newly infected with coronavirus each day. The emergence of the Omicron variant and party politics overwhelmed the progress the Biden administration had made in vaccinating the population.

To make matters worse for the president, recent economic reports showed the annual inflation rate at 7%, the highest in decades. And, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent an armed takeover of Ukraine seem to be going nowhere.

With nothing but Wordle to comfort us, there is greater speculation that Biden may be a one-term president, either for political or health reasons. The president’s approval rating has fallen from the mid-50% range a year ago to the low-40s.

We forget that one year ago, Biden faced tremendous challenges: a raging pandemic, economic collapse, and an attempt to undermine democracy, to name a few. Among post-World War II presidents, only Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Barack Obama in 2009 faced comparable ordeals with the economy, but neither faced an existential crisis like an airborne disease.

All three presidents moved aggressively to combat problems the nation faced. Obama launched a near-$1 trillion stimulus. Reagan cut taxes, reduced federal domestic spending, and pushed a military build-up in the last great confrontation of the Cold War. Enacted last March, Biden’s American Rescue Plan helped lower unemployment to where it was before the pandemic began. Wages increased and poor families received needed cash support.

However, both Reagan and Obama saw their approval ratings drop into the 40s and their political parties were punished in the Congressional mid-term elections. Presidents Clinton and Trump had comparable approval slides and mid-term defeats. It’s hard to imagine Biden avoiding this pattern.

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If there is a bright side for Biden, all the aforementioned presidents won re-election except for Trump.

Nothing is automatic, of course, and enormous leadership challenges remain. Biden’s greatest personal strengths, empathy and extensive negotiating experience, have been negated by a radicalized opposition party in thrall to a race-baiting loser. In response, Biden has abandoned talk of unity.

Though the first six months of his presidency were relatively successful, Biden made mistakes that squandered the good will he had earned with the public and the media.

U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been correct, but attempting such a difficult mission in the middle of the president’s first-year winning streak was, as they say in soccer, an own-goal.

The president’s biggest error of 2021 was putting his presidency in the hands of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Representing a conservative state that gave Trump a 40-point margin of victory in 2020, the West Virginian could easily switch his party affiliation and make the Republicans the majority party in the Senate.

After negotiating significant reductions to the overall domestic policy package, Manchin and Sinema arranged for the $1 trillion American Jobs Plan for construction and broadband access to be considered prior to the $1.8 trillion American Families Act, which would increase the Child Tax Credit, strengthen child care services, and establish universal pre-K.

Although the infrastructure plan was enacted with bipartisan support, progressives worried that Congress would abandon the social spending package, which it has thus far.

Progressives trusted Biden to get Build Back Better over the finish line, so it should be no surprise that the Democratic base is frustrated. The lengthy talks with Manchin – and the utter lack of cooperation from Republicans – postponed action on other important issues, including climate change, gun control, student debt, immigration reform, and – until this past week – voting rights.

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There are three things Biden can do as the November mid-term elections approach.

First, he could salvage the most popular bits and pieces from Build Back Better and voting rights bills. Second, he could issue executive orders to accomplish the same ends, risking Supreme Court disapproval. Third, he can campaign this fall on the items that Congress failed to pass and hope the Democratic base will turn out.

Unfortunately, without progress on the COVID-19 and inflation fronts, nothing Biden does is going to work. As his predecessors discovered, the gap between what presidents promise and what they can deliver is just too great.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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