Biden’s first year was a study in contradictions

The president has tried to toe the line between touting his successes and blaming others for his failures. Neither strategy has been particularly convincing.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 19: U.S. President Joe Biden checks his watch while answering questions dur...
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Exactly one year ago, a newly sworn-in President Biden took the rostrum on the steps of the United States Capitol building, still scarred from the violent putsch instigated by Biden’s predecessor just two weeks earlier — and extolled a message of unity above division, common purpose above partisan rancor.

“With unity we can do great things, important things,” Biden exclaimed. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”

But 364 days later, with just hours to go until the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, Biden struck a decidedly different tone during a White House press conference marking this week’s milestone. Insisting “I didn’t overpromise, and what I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen” in regards to his promised generic, middling utopianism, Biden nevertheless admitted, “I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort [by Republicans] to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done.”

It’s this glaring dissonance between “I’ve done great” and “boy was I wrong about this incredibly obvious, widely telegraphed thing” that’s come to define Biden’s first year in office. There’s a prevailing sense of floundering frustration that stems largely from a clash between the White House’s bristling need for people to celebrate Biden’s legitimately noteworthy (and largely early) accomplishments, and the the fact that Biden’s fundamental narrative of being a political dealmaker who knows how to get things done across the aisle has been proven hopelessly, hilariously wrong — to the apparent surprise of nobody but him.

Consider this exchange between Biden and CBS News’s Nancy Cordes, which manages to encapsulate that tension in just a few short sentences. Here is the president in a single breath admitting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as a synecdoche for the GOP as a whole, is single-mindedly committed to scuttling his entire agenda, while at the same time proving himself fundamentally incapable of letting go of his folky, glad-handing, everyone-gets-along persona.

Indeed, running down the list of things Biden insisted weren’t “over-promised” and for which, he apparently sincerely believes, he “outperformed” expectations is a depressingly uninspiring slog down memory lane:

Coronavirus hasn’t been eradicated, and now runs as rampant as it did when it first upended our daily lives two years ago. In fairness, this is a result of both the exact sort of Republican obstructionism (both legislatively and culturally) that Biden is so surprised by, and of the fact that his administration failed (or abandoned) many of the mitigating policies that might have kept the latest wave of the pandemic at bay, only to belatedly implement a baseline of basic competency after nearly one year in office. Biden did get a huge swath of the American public vaccinated, but there are still far too many holdouts, and his administration almost entirely relied on near-universal vaccination as its entire coronavirus strategy before finally getting bullied into changing course.

The middle class, which Biden bizarrely overestimates, hasn’t been “rebuilt” so much as left to stagnate while members of his own party continue to block his signature Build Back Better agenda — itself a pale shadow of candidate-Biden’s initial plan. The country’s health care system remains a mess, despite record numbers of people signing up for Affordable Care Act coverage.

The gulf between Trump-infused conservatism and the rest of the country is as wide as ever, with Biden’s inaugural plea to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal” now drowned out by a chorus of “let’s go Brandon.” The dream of racial justice seems as far as ever, with Republicans — and again, some of Biden’s fellow Democrats — blocking one of the most crucial attempts to re-enfranchise minority voters since Lyndon B. Johnson’s term in office. (After the voting rights bill was defeated late Wednesday, McConnell insisted there was no need to safeguard the electoral process because “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” as if there’s a fundamental difference between the two.)

These are the bars that Biden himself set for his administration from day one, and which he has, for now at least, wholly failed to clear. And despite that, his White House is trying to project an image of sympathetic strength.

“It does not surprise me that despite progress on COVID, despite progress on the economy, voters are not going to give us a passing grade yet,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico this week. “But President Biden was elected to a four-year term, not a one-year term.”

While Klain is technically correct, it’s hard to see Biden’s next three years being dramatically different without major changes, up to and including the prospect of losing the Democratic congressional majority in 2022, which would put his and party’s backs even further to the wall. To head off this disastrous likelihood, the White House is going to have to undergo a major shift in how it operates — something Biden himself acknowledged during his press conference this week.

“I’m going to go out and talk to the public,” he told reporters. “I’m going to do public fora. I’m going to interface with them. I’m going to make the case of what we’ve already done, why it’s important, and what we’ll do — what will happen if they support what else I want to do.”

That’s good. But if we’ve learned anything from the president’s past year, it’s that telling people what he thinks only matters if Biden also listens to what they say they want. If he can’t do that, then there’s no reason to think his second, third, and fourth years in office will be any different from the first.