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Biden's first year weighed down by disappointment

Thomas Gordon-Martin Washington | Isabella Escobedo Washington
January 20, 2022

From winning a record number of votes to an unpopular presidency struggling to pass key legislation, how did it go so wrong? With elections around the corner, Biden has little time to turn things around.

Joe Biden stands at the podium while looking down
Domestic and foreign policy errors have left Biden's administration open to criticism.Image: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

Joe Biden's first year in office

One year ago, days after encouraging his supporters to march on the Capitol building, Donald Trump's chaotic presidency ended. On the morning he left the White House, snubbing his successor's inauguration, he left this message:

At the time, United States President Joe Biden's supporters may have agreed. The 46th president had just won more than 81 million votes, the most ever recorded, and he had secured a slim majority in Congress.

Skip ahead 12 months, and a trying year has resulted in a slump in Biden's popularity. The president's struggling legislative agenda, rising inflation and the unabated COVID-19 pandemic meant Biden's approval rating sunk from a high of 54% in April to its all-time low of 41% before Christmas.

In recent days, failure to pass voting rights reforms and a mandatory vaccine policy for big businesses mean that in 2022, his problems have only worsened. Biden's Democratic colleagues from across the ideological spectrum have publicly said the president's strategy is failing, and have called for a new approach.

United States President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC on January 13, 2022
Biden has become frustrated by his struggle to pass key parts of his legislative agendaImage: CAP/MPI/RS/picture alliance

Biden's tricky first year 

Virginia Sapiro, a political science professor at Boston University, called Biden's first year "challenging." However, she thinks his struggles are better explained by the hand he was dealt. "I don't know any other president that came into office with such a huge pile of rubble to clear," she told DW.

After winning the 2020 election, Biden's inbox was stuffed with numerous thorny issues, including the economic and public health headaches of the COVID-19 pandemic and a deeply polarized US electorate.

Despite considering his slim majority in the Senate, Biden has achieved some significant legislative accomplishments. 

In March, he passed the American Rescue plan to help the poorest families during the coronavirus crisis and, later in the year, he signed a $1 trillion (€880 million) infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges across America. 

United States President Joe Biden makes remarks at the Port of Baltimore in November, 2021
The bipartisan infrastructure bill will also upgrade US ports to avoid supply chain disruptionsImage: Chris Kleponis/ZUMA/imago images

"Biden has actually been very successful in a certain number of pieces of legislation; but people are not very attentive to the bits and pieces," Sapiro said.

The 2020 election was also unique because immediately after Biden was declared the winner, polls showed more people were happy Trump lost than Biden won. After a series of two-term presidencies stretching back to 1993, Americans had issued a protest vote to ensure Trump was not granted a second term.

This result was, in a sense, not a decisive mandate for the senator from Pennsylvania.

Promises missed and reputations tainted

Central to Biden's presidential campaign was a desire to unite a divided country. At Biden's inauguration, he said America needed one thing: "Unity." He went on to use that word seven more times in his speech. 

However, political polarization persists. Republican resistance in Congress is frustrating large parts of Biden's legislative agenda. He's been unable to convince two holdout Democratic senators to pass his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan to combat the climate crisis, and strengthen health care and the social safety net. 

The conservative majority in the Supreme Court could roll back abortion rights later this year, adding further fodder to a divisive issue. Meanwhile, polling shows that 45% of Republican voters still falsely believe that the election was rigged.

After 12 months, unity remains elusive in the US.

For observers outside the US, one series of events might stand out above the rest: the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. America's removal of troops in August was followed by reinstatement of Taliban rule, along with an end to democracy and collapse of human rights, especially for women

Stark images of US aircraft departing stranded Afghanis provoked comparison to America's controversial evacuation from Vietnam in 1975. 

The withdrawal made the US look "inept, incompetent and ultimately weak," said Seth G. Jones, vice president at Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

"Twenty years of progress on women's rights went down the toilet bowl, the economy collapsed — and in the place of the US, we've seen the Chinese, Iranians and Russians develop a relationship with the Taliban government," Jones told DW.

More problems on the horizon

If Biden's first year was difficult, the next three could be even harder. On foreign policy, threats include Chinese militarization in the Pacific, instability in the Middle East and potentially a Russian invasion into eastern Ukraine

"There are lots of questions about how much backbone this administration has," Jones said. 

Sapiro argues that "the only way Biden's popularity will improve is if COVID-19 goes away and if the bills he's hoping to get going happen."

Perhaps more damaging for the president's authority is the rumor that he will not run in 2024. "This is the unstated assumption and the current that runs through the whole of Washington," Bret Stephens, a center-right opinion columnist at The New York Times, told DW. 

US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 13, 2022
Joe Biden is the oldest elected president in American historyImage: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/picture alliance

At 78, Biden is the oldest president ever elected. If he runs in 2024, he will be 82 years old. 

Stephens, who said he voted for Biden, says the president should now step aside. "The Democratic Party needs to start finding viable candidates to run in 2024, because the Republicans will be in a strong position to recapture the White House," he pointed out.

Sapiro thinks that rather than focusing on the next presidential election, what matters more are the 2022 midterms in November. 

"Those are always a referendum on the president, and at the first midterm they always lose seats," she said. 

If Republicans secure a majority in Congress, it would make Biden's job even harder, as he would have to accept further concessions to pass any laws. 

Asked what he can reasonably achieve if this happens, Sapiro's answer is clear: "Bloody nothing!"

Edited by: Sonya Diehn