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Saturday, 21 May 2022
Biden’s difficult year - and uncertain future
Ian Black

Exactly a year since Joe Biden entered the White House as America 46th president, it’s hard to be optimistic about his future as the elected leader of the world’s democratic superpower. And indeed the future of the United States itself – not just because of its escalating domestic divisions - but its global reputation as well.

 The world, and many Americans, breathed a sigh of relief when he was sworn in an emotional but highly unusual inauguration on January 20th 2021. But a year on from that Biden’s reputation has suffered many blows despite the very different nature of the issues on which he been judged to under-perform.

 Back then the ceremony on Washington’s National Mall was bizarre: the absence of the usual large crowds was because of the increasingly challenging Covid pandemic; and the big numbers of military personnel was a vivid and worrying reminder of Donald Trump’s supporters’ unprecedented attack on Congress two weeks earlier, claiming a “stolen election.”

 In his inaugural address Biden pledged to “overcome this deadly virus” and “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” Fast forward 12 long and stressful months, victory on both fronts has been elusive if not actually unattainable.

 Covid is of course still with Americans – and the rest of the world as well. The Biden administration initially performed well on the pandemic front. It delivered a speedy vaccine rollout, passed a bipartisan emergency relief package and brought a sense of cautious calm after Trump’s turbulent four years.

 But the summer months provided yet more challenges: on July 4 Biden declared that America was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus”. Then the US vaccination rate plateaued and deaths spiked with the arrival of the Delta variant.

 In August came the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and that did serious damage to the worldwide reputation of the Democrat in the Oval Office – even compared to his disruptive Republican predecessor. That is clearly a factor in Vladimir Putin’s threat to intervene in Ukraine.

 Even Democrats who voted for Biden in November 2020 are highly critical of his administration’s handling of Covid, but admit that they would back him again if he stood in 2024 – despite the significant drop in public confidence.

 Then there was the economic impact of the pandemic and rising prices. Biden’s version of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930’s “New Deal” was dubbed “Build Back Better” (BBB) act, the $1.75tn spending package that includes massive investments in childcare, healthcare and climate change initiatives. But the US president was unable to secure a deal on that with Congress and the Senate. It may still happen but is likely to go back to basics.

 Biden will turn 80 this year. Given his age – and Republican accusations that he is senile or already has dementia -  his vice-president Kamala Harris is subject to far more scrutiny than previous deputies. Harris is her boss’s heir-apparent, but she has not proved to be reassuring. Biden’s approval ratings are bad. He is the second most unpopular president since records began. But hers are worse.

 Biden is also seen as the least charismatic and politically savvy president since George H.W. Bush, who was in the White House from 1989-1993. The eight years he spent as vice-president under Barack Obama didn’t prepare him well for his current term in the Oval Office. He is increasingly viewed as a flawed politician in an impossible job.

 Democrats are already bracing themselves for the midterm elections this November. With a very small majority in the House of Representatives, and the Senate being 50-50, Biden will not want to lose any seats, given the difficulties his administration is having in getting legislation through Congress as it stands.

  The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has shown the confidence some in his party are starting to feel, by openly talking about the West Virginia Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, potentially changing parties. Manchin clashed with the White House when he said he could not vote for the BBB act.

 Biden’s approval rating has declined by 25% since the start of his term – leaving him almost as unpopular as Trump at this stage of his presidency. It is true, of course, that presidents nearly always suffer losses in their first midterm polls and the tiny majorities the Democrats have in both chambers of Congress are unlikely to hold.

 A great unknown in the coming period is whether Trump will stand again in 2024: he will be 78 then. But that may well be to the advantage of the Democrats. If that happens all bets are off about the future of what is still – so far – the most powerful and democratic country in the world. Hopefully Republicans will come to understand that in the coming months.

 Polling evidence does suggest that Democrats are over-pessimistic, even fatalistic about the future, to such an extent that it may turn out to be self-defeating. But of course it is true that they do not have an awful lot to look forward to in the course of what may turn out to be a extremely daunting 2022.