When he took office one year ago, President Joe Biden faced extraordinary challenges. He had to contend with a global pandemic that had crushed the economy and confounded the experts. He had to repair shattered alliances and restore American credibility after four years of President Donald Trump. More pointedly, he was taking charge of a country left bitterly divided — with trust in government plummeting, Republicans disinclined to cooperate, and Democrats commanding only the barest majorities in Congress.
At the outset of a new administration, things have rarely looked so bad.
This grim context makes the strength of the economic recovery during Biden’s first 12 months all the more impressive. Last year, U.S. output grew 6.1%, rebounding from a 2.3% drop in 2020, the fastest turnaround of any comparable advanced economy. The unemployment rate fell to less than 4%. Although spirits are low and tempers frayed after two years of Covid-19, things could be worse — and in most other countries, rich and poor alike, they are.
Biden also has some legitimate accomplishments to boast of. He got more judicial nominees confirmed in his first year than any president since Ronald Reagan. His administration has prioritized climate initiatives, made progress against the pandemic, and largely avoided scandal.
Unfortunately, these achievements don’t alter the fact that Biden has disappointed in vital respects. The growth numbers fail to accurately reflect the country’s short-term prospects because the recovery faces hazards — and Biden’s approach to policy making is adding to the risks.
The gravest threat is not Covid-19 but the possibility that America’s creaking machinery of government might break down altogether. 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.
From the outset, Biden has deferred to the progressive left of his party — its most energetic wing, but one that is badly out of touch with much of the country and sees any kind of compromise as capitulation. This alliance delayed and almost killed a much-needed infrastructure bill that had bipartisan support. It also impeded sensible tweaks to the American Rescue Plan that passed in March. As now seems clear, that $1.9 trillion measure helped fuel excess demand and push the inflation rate to 7% in December — confronting the Federal Reserve with the challenge of tightening monetary policy without crushing the recovery.
As for the currently stalled Build Back Better plan, it was designed to reconcile progressives’ desire for another “transformative” fiscal program with two Biden promises — that the spending would be “paid for,” and that taxes wouldn’t rise for the vast majority of Americans. To square this circle, the proposal relied on budget gimmickry so outlandish it alienated moderates in the president’s own party. A principal casualty, if the bill goes nowhere, is hundreds of billions in support for clean energy and carbon abatement — a commitment of surpassing importance that should’ve been moved as a separate initiative. According to the progressive mindset, it had to be all or nothing: Unbundling and prioritizing would let the crisis go to waste.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Biden said it was now clear the plan needed to be broken up into smaller pieces that could command the necessary support in Congress. That’s encouraging. It isn’t too late to salvage parts of his program.
Both fiscal measures were marred, in addition, by a reflexive deference to organized labor, which added immense costs and undermined the president’s own goals. Biden’s alliance with teachers’ unions likewise gave cover to ill-judged school closures that have harmed students, burdened parents, and created a huge political liability.
The president’s most recent nod to the left is the most alarming. His speech last week in Atlanta made the case for voting-law reforms in a way that might’ve been calculated to kill any possibility of future cooperation across the aisle. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to ease voting access while protecting ballot security. But to slam opponents of the proposals as enemies of democracy and champions of “Jim Crow 2.0” — as the president did — is both inapt and self-defeating: How can Biden imagine that such rhetoric makes agreement more likely?
One year in, the president needs to remember he promised to move on from Trump’s poisonous politics and start healing the country’s divisions. That’s why he was elected, and no task is more important. It means resisting the call of the hard left. It also means speaking to the people in the middle of an exhausted and discouraged country. On Wednesday, he said he’d do that too, promising to travel more to explain his proposals and make his case. With luck, that could help him recover the ground he has lost with voters — especially if he makes time to listen as well as talk.-Bloomberg