Biden’s biggest first-year blunders

·5 min read

Joe Biden ends the first year of his presidency in a funk, his agenda stalled and his popularity plummeting. Biden has done some things right, but voters are focused on what’s going wrong: Never-ending COVID, inflation, rising violent crime, intractable immigration woes.

Like most new presidents, Biden has made some tactical mistakes. The Afghanistan pullout was obviously flawed, with a last-minute terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers, followed by a bungled retaliation effort that killed an innocent aid worker instead of terrorists. Biden’s administration was unprepared for the COVID Omicron surge, with confusing messaging on countermeasures and a dire shortage of COVID tests. A key COVID-fighting measure, forcing most businesses to require worker vaccinations, effectively died when the Supreme Court blocked it on Jan. 13.

There have also been some larger strategic flaws in Biden’s presidency, and these, Biden will probably have to fix if his (first) four years in office are going to turn out successful. Here are four ways Biden has struggled:

Overpromising. Biden has made a habit out of saying things are going to turn out better than they do. Last spring he promised a “summer of freedom,” assuming widely available COVID vaccines would vanquish the virus. The Delta variant proved him wrong and the Omicron variant double-proved him wrong.

[See 4 things Biden got right during a bumpy first year]

Last July, when inflation was at 5.4%, Biden said inflation would be “temporary.” Inflation is now 7%, and a serious enough economic threat that the Federal Reserve has shifted its policy framework from loosening to tightening. Biden has also suggested many times that he’d be able to make a deal with holdout Democratic senators such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to pass his “Build Back Better” legislation on terms they can live with. Instead of a deal, however, Manchin single-handedly torpedoed the BBB package in December, as if Biden had been chatting with some different Joe Manchin. It’s unclear if that bill is dead for good, or can be resuscitated.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) boards an elevator to vote at the Capitol in the midst of ongoing negotiations over the Build Back Better bill, which aims to bolster the social safety net and fight climate change, in Washington, U.S. December 14, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) boards an elevator to vote at the Capitol in the midst of ongoing negotiations over the Build Back Better bill, which aims to bolster the social safety net and fight climate change, in Washington, U.S. December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Promising voters things that don’t happen is a guaranteed way to lose credibility, which is why Biden’s approval rating is down more than 10 points from where he started a year ago. As a candidate in 2020, Biden ran as a pragmatist eager to do what was achievable. As president, he seems to be promising what is unachievable.

Overplaying his hand. It’s really the whole Democratic party that’s making this mistake, but as head of the party, responsibility ends with Biden. The Democrats’ improbable sweep of both Senate seats in Georgia last January gave them the thinnest possible majority in the Senate, enabling them to pass certain partisan bills if every Democratic senator is on board. Yet the Democrats are acting as if they have a 15-seat majority, rather than a one-seat margin. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are now pressing hard to pass a voting-reform bill that has no Republican support and would require changes to the filibuster that a few Democrats don’t support, either. That means the bill won’t pass. Given pressing problems like Omicron and inflation, it’s mystifying that Biden and Schumer are pressing a moribund voting-reform package.

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There are similar problems with elements of the BBB, such as the expanded child-tax credit Manchin won’t support. If Biden and Schumer removed this measure, to craft a bill that could pass the Senate with 51 votes, they’d still be able to claim credit for unprecedented green-energy investments and important social programs such as free preschool for more kids. Maybe Biden and Schumer have some aces up their sleeves, but for now it looks as if they’re awaiting divine intervention that will flip votes that clearly aren’t there.

Trying to please everybody. Biden is clearly trying to appease his party’s liberal wing by going to the mat for voting rights and the expanded child tax credit and moderating his age-old aversion to changing the filibuster. Thing is, it’s backfiring. Liberals such as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts remain outraged that outliers Manchin and Sinema won’t back progressive legislation. Voters clearly think President Biden is more liberal than candidate Biden and on top of that, Biden has nothing to show for his liberal turn. He has turned off moderates who put him in the White House without any compensating gain elsewhere.

Underasserting himself. Why has Joe Manchin become the most powerful man in Washington? The simplest answer is that his conservative views in a liberal party with a one-vote Senate margin make him the swing vote on legislation dear to Biden, creating sizable leverage. But Biden has also allowed Manchin to exercise a de facto veto by larding legislation such as BBB with stuff Manchin can’t abide. If Biden narrowed his agenda, asked for less and tacked back to the center, it would neutralize Manchin and make Biden look less like a senator himself, and more like a president.

Biden’s presidency isn’t doomed. He has three years yet to right the ship. COVID could very well dissipate during that time, and inflation might abate as the world economy gets back to normal. If Biden does fewer things but raises his win-loss ratio, his first year might be an anomaly rather than a standard-setter.

Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips.

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