Everyone needs to take a breath: It’s been one year. These headlines could just as easily read, “Joe Biden Fails to Fix Every Problem in the World in 365 days.”
What drives much of the “presidency in peril” coverage is Biden’s approval ratings. CNN’s poll of polls, released Thursday, found that 41% of Americans approve of the way Joe Biden is handling his job while 54% disapprove.
Low approval ratings are used as a proxy by various political and ideological factions to argue that the president needs to do more of what they want and if he doesn’t, he won’t get reelected. (Spoiler alert: nobody will cast their vote in three years based on how they feel today about Biden). Progressives argue ratings are low because Biden is not progressive enough and moderates and “Never Trump” Republicans argue it’s because Biden is too liberal. It’s become conventional wisdom in the media that Biden’s approval ratings started dropping because of how he handled the Afghanistan withdrawal. But Gallup’s senior editor Jeff Jones told Politico in November that his declining poll numbers began before that, during the Delta Covid-19 variant surge.
The fact is, approval ratings are most closely tied to how people feel about their day-to-day lives. Americans are understandably fatigued as we enter the third year of the pandemic and, until the US gets back to some semblance of normal, we should expect Biden’s approval ratings to reflect that frustration. Moreover, gas prices are high and research has shown that presidential approval ratings often track with gas prices, even though the president’s power over these prices is limited. The economic news is mostly good for Biden — unemployment is down and wages are up — but inflation is high and rising. Taken together, this means the day-to-day life of many Americans feels really hard.
It doesn’t help that the media reinforce the idea that Biden is somehow failing because he hasn’t solved issues that have bedeviled his predecessors over longer periods of time. The New York Times dinged Biden this week, noting that, “The president has not yet succeeded in meeting his own goals for combating climate change,…[hasn’t] delivered on his broader promise for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans” and has failed “on the central promise he made during the 2020 campaign — to ‘shut down’ the pandemic…”
This is bananas, but it’s a fairly typical roundup of the disconnected-from-reality analysis of Biden’s first year.
No president has been able to achieve a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who were not able to accomplish immigration reform over an eight-year period each. Biden should not be expected to do what they couldn’t, in a single year, in the middle of a global pandemic.
Speaking of the pandemic, it’s hard to shut it down when conservative leaders across the country are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen. Biden, for his part, signed into law the historic $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to ensure broad distribution of vaccines. But he can’t force people to get vaccinated. He did issue vaccination and testing mandates for businesses, but those were rebuked by the Supreme Court. He also isn’t responsible for conservative disinformation and efforts to thwart measures to protect people from Covid by Republican elected officials, which is the primary reason the US is still struggling with the virus in a way that some other industrialized countries aren’t.
What about Biden’s alleged lack of success in solving the climate change issue in a single year? Biden has taken many steps that are within his authority on climate change such as rejoining the Paris climate accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and undoing many Trump-era anti-climate executive orders. He has pushed climate priorities in his Build Back Better bill which anyone who is sentient knows hasn’t passed because Biden enjoys the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and he couldn’t win over Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. There is also the fact that Republicans have zero interest in this bill. Republican obstructionism is not Biden’s fault.
Biden is not a magician; he is president. He can’t shout “abracadabra” and produce 50 Democratic senators who will support every element of his agenda. There aren’t 10 GOP senators to pull out of a hat to back common sense and patriotic priorities like protecting voting rights. “But he didn’t end the filibuster for voting rights,” is the complaint. Right, because he doesn’t have the votes.
This doesn’t mean that Biden couldn’t have done some things better in his first year. The administration was caught flat-footed by the Omicron variant and failed to deliver on promises to make testing easier and more available to Americans. Biden should have called Sen. Manchin’s bluff on Build Back Better a long time ago and struck a deal if there was one to be had (which is debatable). If Manchin wouldn’t strike a deal, Biden should have moved on to something more achievable like breaking the bill into smaller parts (something he said in his press conference this week he is open to doing).
Ultimately, we need to remember that Biden entered the White House during one of the most difficult periods this country has ever faced. “The worst pandemic in 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he said during his campaign. “The most compelling call for racial justice since the 60’s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.” We can now add to that list an attack on democracy by one of the two major political parties.
It seems that whatever Biden’s flaws, the country is in a better place than it was when he took office, something that was not a given considering the challenges he was up against. Like all presidents, he is clearly absorbing the lessons of the first year and recalibrating for the next.