Biden Year 1: Virus, Disunity Rage On 01/16 10:00
From the inaugural platform, President Joe Biden saw American sickness on
two fronts -- a disease of the national spirit and the one from the rampaging
coronavirus -- and he saw hope, because leaders always must see that. "End this
uncivil war," he implored Americans on Jan. 20, 2021. Of the pathogen, he said:
"We can overcome this deadly virus."
WASHINGTON (AP) -- From the inaugural platform, President Joe Biden saw
American sickness on two fronts -- a disease of the national spirit and the one
from the rampaging coronavirus -- and he saw hope, because leaders always must
"End this uncivil war," he implored Americans on Jan. 20, 2021. Of the
pathogen, he said: "We can overcome this deadly virus."
Neither malady has abated.
For Biden, it's been a year of lofty ambitions grounded by the unrelenting
pandemic, a tough hand in Congress, a harrowing end to an overseas war and
rising fears for the future of democracy itself. Biden did score a public-works
achievement for the ages. But America's cracks go deeper than pavement.
In this midterm election year, Biden confronts seething divisions and a
Republican Party that propagates the delusion that the 2020 election --
exhaustively vetted, validated many times over, fair by all measures -- was
stolen from Donald Trump. That central, mass lie of a rigged vote has become a
pretext in state after state for changing election rules and fueling even
further disunity and grievance.
In the dispiriting close of Biden's first year, roadblocks stood in the way
of all big things pending.
The Supreme Court blocked his vaccinate-or-test mandate for most large
employers. Monthly payments to families that had slashed child poverty ran out
Friday, with no assurance they will be renewed. Biden's historic initiative to
shore up the social safety net wallowed in Congress. And people under 40 have
never seen inflation like this.
Only two days after Biden's lacerating speech in Atlanta invoking the
darkest days of segregation, he saw his voting rights legislation run aground
when Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona announced her opposition to
changing Senate rules to allow the bill to pass by a simple majority.
Her rationale: Altering the rules would only "worsen the underlying disease
of division infecting our country."
For all of that, Barack Obama was on to something when he paid his old vice
president an odd compliment late in the 2020 campaign. Elect Joe Biden, he
said, and after four years of flamboyant Trump dramas and crazy tweets, folks
could feel safe ignoring their president and vice president for a spell.
"You're not going to have to think about them every single day," Obama said.
"It just won't be so exhausting. You'll be able to go about your lives."
Indeed America saw normalcy, some say dignity, return to the White House.
Pets came back and so did daily press briefings for the public.
The Trump-era political muzzle came off public health authorities, freeing
them to confuse the public all on their own.
First lady Jill Biden's studded "Love" jacket at a global summit
not-so-subtly countered the "I Really Don't Care, Do U?" jacket her predecessor
wore in a visit to a migrant child detention center.
Instead of promising the world and delivering a Potemkin village (as when
Trump declared the virus "very much under control" in February 2020), the Biden
White House set pandemic and other goals that were modest to a fault, then
exceeded them. The old game of lowering expectations and then taking credit for
beating them was back, though such boasting was gone when the dual punch of the
delta and omicron variants landed.
Even so, the discipline, drive and baseline competence from the new White
House produced notable results. Biden won a bipartisan infrastructure package
that had eluded his two predecessors, coming away with a legacy-shaping fix for
the rickety pillars of industry and society.
The first signs of that law in action came this month when Washington
approved New York City's Second Avenue subway project to a final engineering
phase before shovels hit the ground. The project, which would add three train
stops in East Harlem, stalled under Trump.
Americans everywhere will be seeing plenty more orange construction cones
for years to come. In just one initiative under the program, 15,000 highway
bridges are in line for repairs.
Biden steered more judges through Congress to the federal bench than any
recent predecessor. He won approval of a Cabinet that was half women and a
minority of white people for the first time. More than 6 million people are
back at work and half a billion COVID-19 vaccines have been put in arms, but
the nation has a long way to go to return to its pre-pandemic state.
"I think it's a lot of achievements, a lot of accomplishment, in the face of
some very serious obstacles," Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, told The
Associated Press on the cusp of Biden's second year in office. "The Biden
presidency remains a work in progress."
Matthew Delmont, a civil rights historian at Dartmouth, expected more from
Biden by virtue of Biden's decades of experience as a savvy operator in the
He had anticipated a far more effective COVID-19 response and more urgency,
sooner, in countering the rollback of voting rights and tilting of election
rules that Republicans are attempting across the country.
"There's something to be said for the professionalism of the White House and
not going from one fire to the next," Delmont said. "What I worry is that the
Washington he understands isn't the Washington we have anymore."
Political science professor Cal Jillson at Southern Methodist University in
Dallas said Biden has displayed "warning track power" -- the ability in
baseball to hit long but not, as yet, over the fence.
"There are not so much wins and losses as partial progress on many fronts,"
In Biden, Jillson sees a leader who brought the even keel that Obama had
talked about from the campaign stage but also one who only rarely delivers a
speech worth remembering.
"While there are vast partisan differences in how Biden is seen, in general
he is seen as stable but not forceful," he said.
That's how Biden has come across to John Ferguson, a retired diplomatic
officer in Lovettsville, Virginia, who considers Biden "infinitely better than
Trump" but adds: "He seems to give a speech every four hours and he's not very
good at it."
In large measure, Biden's innate civility and predictability brought the
sort of climate change that the world could get behind.
Here once more was a president who believed deeply in alliances and vowed to
repair an American reputation frayed by the provocateur in office before him.
There would be no more puzzling feelers about buying Greenland. No more
doting looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin; instead, Biden stepped up
diplomatic confrontation over Putin's designs on Ukraine. There would be no
eerie uplit gatherings around glowing orbs with rulers of dissent-crushing Arab
countries like Trump's photo op with the Saudis.
But the world also witnessed Biden's debacle in Afghanistan, a chaotic
withdrawal that brought more than 124,000 to safety but stranded thousands of
desperate Afghans who had been loyal to the United States and hundreds of U.S.
citizens and green card holders.
Discounting warnings from military and diplomatic advisers, Biden misjudged
the Taliban's tenacity and the staying power of Afghan security forces that had
seen crucial U.S. military support vanish. He then blamed Afghans for all that
went wrong. Millions of Afghans face the threat of famine in the first winter
following the Taliban takeover.
"He needs to be honest about the mistakes that were made," said Republican
Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, who served with aid workers in Afghanistan after
a military career and voted in Congress to impeach Trump. "He will say, 'The
buck stops with me,' after he's blamed everybody else for how something turned
All presidents enter the world's most powerful office buoyed by their
victory only to confront its limitations in time. For Biden, that happened
sooner than for most. A polarized public, Trump's impeachment trial and an
evenly divided Senate saw to that.
Biden entered office with a list of to-dos amassed by his party. His quest
for a sweeping "Build Back Better" program of social spending turned into a
months-long slog, hostage to disagreement between Democrats of the left and
center and sometimes to just one man, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, or
Manchin and Sinema together.
"There is a fine political line between forcing Congress' hand with detailed
guidance and short timelines and allowing Congress to spin its wheels
endlessly," Jillson said. "Biden has not found the sweet spot, but in such a
narrowly divided Congress there may be no sweet spot."
Biden came late, by some reckonings, to the Trump-inspired Republican
efforts in state capitals to revise how people can vote, how those votes are
counted and who oversees elections. Defending democratic processes is a
universal concern but also, in Delmont's view, the overarching civil rights
issue of this time.
"Right now it feels like there's a lot more passion and energy from folks
who would like to restrict or roll back voting rights," Delmont said. Absent an
effective defense of those rights by Biden, "I can't say that he's doing enough
to repay the Black Americans who put him in the White House."
Meantime, day after day, event after event, it was the virus that commanded
Biden's attention. "That challenge casts a shadow over everything we do," Klain
said. "I think we've made historic progress there but it's still a challenge."
Biden is the second U.S. president to be humbled by the coronavirus, which
has killed some 846,000 people in this country.
The U.S. is now much better equipped against COVID-19. America's medical
arsenal is stronger by orders of magnitude than in the pandemic's first year
and the relief money pumped to households, communities and states also made a
big difference, though at a cost of stirring inflation.
The Biden administration has been strikingly successful in procuring
vaccines and clearing the way for new antiviral medicines that can be taken at
home, which should relieve the strain on hospitals once those pills become
But testing continues to be a core failure, and millions of Americans still
refuse to get vaccinated.
Rapid tests are frustratingly difficult to find, and expensive. PCR tests
still take three to five days in many cases to get results. That means
Americans will continue to be several steps behind the virus, especially with
omicron. It remains to be seen if the administration's new testing push leads
to a meaningful change.
Trump was undone by his bluster, his inability to own up to the seriousness
of the situation and his failure to communicate the stakes truthfully to
Americans. But Biden has not been entirely free of hubris.
His mask-less springtime stroll with Vice President Kamala Harris in the
Rose Garden may be remembered as an ill-conceived example to the country.
Biden's July Fourth celebration of American "independence" from the virus was
premature, to put it charitably, despite hedging his remarks in recognition of
the dangerous delta variant then stirring.
His portrayal of a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," meant to nudge those who
won't get the needle, further illustrated the country's us-and-them divide and
wasn't exactly true. Fully vaccinated people account for a growing number of
cases across the country, though they are far less likely to suffer from it as
much as the unvaccinated do. Equally vexing for Biden is that those most
protected against the virus remain most afraid of it.
On the other side of the political divide, prominent Republican governors
have actively opposed vaccination and mask mandates.
Anti-government sentiment, nurtured by misinformation, has been aimed at
public health advisers and their recommendations, long regarded as beyond the
As the pandemic enters its third year, the notion that the U.S. may not be
able to crush the coronavirus and may have to settle for living with it -- a
thought that sparked outrage when it briefly surfaced in Trump's time -- may
now be gaining currency.
Biden's campaign promise from October 2020 hangs in the balance: "I'm going
to shut down the virus, not the country."
IN THE WORLD'S EYES
Biden campaigned on a promise to restore U.S. leadership, with dignity,
among the democracies. He's made good on the style of that while disappointing
supporters at home and allies abroad on some of the substance.
Apart from his bungled Afghanistan withdrawal, his efforts to bring Iran
back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord and reverse Trump's
withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal have been met only by Iran moving closer
than before to nuclear capabilities.
With some of the autocrats he had promised to confront on human rights,
Saudi's crown prince among them, he has equivocated.
Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Council for
Foreign Policy, branded Biden's foreign policy "ruthless pragmatism,"
especially when it comes to undemocratic Middle East governments. Domestic
politics, including Biden's own concerns about voter abhorrence for high gas
prices, have kept him from making America the out-front example of fighting
climate change that he'd promised it would be.
While Biden convened global summits for democracies and climate change as
promised, and rejoined the Paris climate accord, his biggest effort on climate
That, along with mixed administration efforts at home to keep natural gas
and gasoline cheap and flowing while cutting fossil fuel use over the long
term, threatens Biden's aim of making the U.S. a leader by example on the
The U.S. does look much more normal to the world again, though.
Biden and his diplomats are going all out on rebuilding the alliances that
Trump trashed. He's dealing head-on both with Russia and China. People who care
about human rights welcome U.S. leadership on tough sanctions for China and
Myanmar over their vicious mistreatment of minorities.
Overlaying everything, domestic or foreign, is a constant foreboding in the
White House over what Trump might do next.
A year ago Trump left Washington for Florida, breaking one last tradition as
president by refusing to attend Biden's inauguration. He told a sparse crowd of
supporters at Joint Base Andrews that they should expect a second act.
"We will be back in some form," he said. "Have a good life. We will see you