Politics

President Joe Biden: The first year

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It is a cliché of politics that candidates campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. But at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman’s poetry anticipated the rough prose to come:

“We lift our gaze not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us. …
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”

Workers were still repairing the windows in the Capitol behind Gorman from the violent attempt to overturn the election results. The broken glass is gone now, but not the threat, notes CBS News correspondent John Dickerson.

“I, in some ways, feel like the sun has not set on January 6th – that the day continues,” said Harvard University historian Jill Lepore. “So long as the idea that a violent insurrection against a democratically-elected president being certified into office or taking office is seen as legitimate, and defended as legitimate, or not repudiated by so many public figures – I hate to evoke images of such violence, but it just seems to me like it’s a series of buried landmines.”

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Through the lens of the January 6th convulsion, the Biden Administration at the one-year mark is a success merely because it exists at all. Democracy held.

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But presidencies are viewed through many lenses, and any way you look at it, the first Biden year looks muddy.

Dickerson asked New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, “How’s Joe Biden doing?”

“I think Joe Biden’s doing okay,” Bouie replied. “He ran for president on this promise of a return to normalcy, on a return to America …  maybe not quite as it was before President Trump, but much less chaotic. The persistence of the pandemic, and the persistence of the pandemic disruption on American society, I think, means that Biden can’t really claim that this has been a victorious year. It’s okay. It’s meh.”

This is not the chant President Biden wants to hear at the next rally: “Four more meh!”

The bluntest story of the Biden presidency is told in his approval ratings. They started to drop last summer with America’s messy departure from Afghanistan, and have continued to fall while COVID cases, crime and inflation have been rising. A presidency that started with heady comparisons to FDR now invites the headline, “It’s not over for Joe Biden.”

But history tells us that the bluntest story is not always the lasting one, especially for presidents in their first year.

“The impressions people have one year in very rarely have any bearing on how that president is seen at the end of a first term or a second term, or how that person is seen in history,” said author James Fallows, who was a Carter speechwriter. “Jimmy Carter, who as history knows was not reelected, was extremely popular in his first year in office.”

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President Carter’s first-year approval rating was higher than President Ronald Reagan’s, and his party lost fewer seats in the midterm House elections than Mr. Reagan did (though Reagan is considered the more successful president).

Measuring presidents in the moment is hard, said Lepore, because people focus only on what’s right in front of them … like a protracted global pandemic. “I’m kind of puzzling over this: How do you measure a president?” she said. “What most of us are measuring day-to-day are the COVID case numbers.”

Dickerson asked, “Does that basically mean the approval rating is a general thermometer of public feeling, and if the public’s unhappy, the president – as the best-known politician – is the one who gets blamed?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “It’s sort of a proxy for the national mood, rather than an evaluation of the efficacy of an administration, right? And most of us don’t have the ability day-to-day to evaluate the efficacy of the administration. In a way, with Trump it was a little different, because people did know what Trump was doing every day, ’cause he was tweeting all day long.”

Being president means sitting in the national complaint window; you are the target of public anger whether you caused a problem or not.

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biden-complaints.jpg

Mitch Butler for CBS News


Mr. Biden’s success delivering vaccines into arms was undermined by ideological hesitancy and viral variants; those aren’t his fault. But he is responsible for the mixed public health messages; and the president admitted being caught flat-footed on testing.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan fits a similar pattern: some part of public upset was the inevitable, unpleasant result of doing what the public wanted. But it’s also true that the Biden team failed to account for how quickly the country could fall.

Fallows said, “Biden made the decision to leave Afghanistan, so he can be judged up or down based on that decision. I judge him ‘up’ on that, because it is what his predecessors have said, and what he promised when he was running.

“Then, there’s the execution, and there is room for fair commentary about whether the human cost was needlessly grave. Even if the decision to leave Afghanistan had been carried out in the most perfect possible way, it would have been a tragedy there.”

On the economy, inflation in December rose 7 percent, a spike that hasn’t been seen since 1982 during Mr. Reagan’s first term – and that economists in both parties predicted would be caused by President Biden’s early spending programs.

“I’ve lived through times of hyperinflation, I’ve lived through times of mass layoffs – let me tell you: mass layoffs are way worse,” said Fallows. “The trauma to families and to communities, and to companies, is much worse than the genuine problem of inflation.”

The unemployment rate is moving in a more encouraging direction: just 3.9 percent, down from 6.3 at the start of Mr. Biden’s tenure.

“This is probably the strongest economy for workers that the United States has had in some time. But Biden gets no credit for any of this!” Jamelle Bouie laughed. “Without credit for a strong economy, and with the resistance from Republicans and a Democratic Party that is feeling unenthusiastic, he’s in a tough spot.”

Democrats are unenthusiastic because Mr. Biden has not been able to pass the robust social spending legislation he initially proposed, or voting rights legislation. Tough to do when Democrats have the thinnest possible majority in the Senate and can only afford to lose three Democrats in the House.

Dickerson asked, “So, as you feel it, given the margins that Biden faces, has he been stymied? Or is this just kind of the slow process that it takes when you have these kind of margins?”

“I think I’m somewhere in-between the two,” Bouie replied. “The infrastructure bill, depending on how you count, is either, you know, $600 billion or $1.1 trillion. And the COVID relief bill was $1.9 trillion.

In a year, President Biden has signed $3 trillion for the spending into law, which is, I believe, more than his Democratic predecessor signed in his entire eight years in office. So, by that standard, Biden’s doing great.

“But by the standard of the coalition and the coalition’s expectations, and by, I think, the administration’s expectations, he is probably behind,” Bouie added.  

Biden, feeling the heat from his base, signaled his urgency about voting rights earlier this week: “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet!”

Neither quiet nor loud worked; at the end of last week, Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema wouldn’t support changing Senate filibuster rules to pass voting reform.

“I hope we can get this done,” Mr. Biden said Thursday. “The honest to God answer is, I don’t know if we can get this done.”

The same day, the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s employer vaccine mandate – another setback at the end of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency. Which means the second year starts not with poetry or prose, but with the blues.

      
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Carol Ross. Illustrations: Mitch Butler. 

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