In January 2021, President Joe Biden took the Oval Office, adopting a bitterly divided nation suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Now over a year later with midterm elections looming, the Americans have begun to evaluate his presidency, policies, and progress. So, where has Biden delivered and where has he fallen short on promises?
Following his predecessor’s deceit and inaction towards the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden promised to take swift action to distribute vaccines and pass pandemic-relief legislation. Hours after taking the White House, Biden signed executive orders into law, spanning from requiring masks on all federal property to rejoining the Paris Climate accords. The fresh administration capitalized on the first-100 day buzz, by expeditiously passing and signing into law a 1.9 trillion dollar COVID-19 stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan. The relief package boasted $1,400 per-person checks to middle-to-low income households, expanded child tax credits of up to $3,600 per child, extended unemployment benefits adding $300 dollars per week until September 6, and a plethora of funding for small businesses, schools, and communities.
Days after the bill was passed, Biden was delivered a second major victory, accomplishing his goal to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days, in just 58 days. Upon being sworn in, Biden instated a specialized COVID team and purchased an excess of 200 million additional vaccines for Americans. Franklin History and Government teacher, Kimberly Livesay, characterizes the early bliss saying, “I think for a lot of people, there was some hope that after he was elected, regardless of political views, it would provide a time of more consistency.” On his 100th day in office, he’d smashed his goal, vaccinating upwards of 230 million Americans. Despite early successes, the honeymoon period quickly ended.
On the campaign trail, Biden and company promised to address immigration and replace Donald Trump’s harsh policies and xenophobic rhetoric with inclusive practices that would end migrant detention centers and intensive border control. However, months into his administration, Biden was faced with an influx of migrants at the southern border, more than seen at any point during the Trump administration; by March 2021 US Customs and Border Patrol reported that the number of “border encounters” on the southwest border had doubled in the three months since his inauguration. Biden reverted to Trump era policies, including a law known as Title 42 that automatically expelled almost all undocumented immigrants seeking entry. The law, originally justified as a COVID defense, was a departure from normal border protocol. It was used to deport over 4,000 Haitian migrants under the Biden administration from border detention centers in September 2021.
Biden quickly pivoted to his legislative agenda and the American Jobs Plan. The bill, with an initial price tag of 4 million dollars, was aimed at updating crumbling infrastructure throughout the country. It’s set to provide massive funds to invest in upgrading roads, bridges, transit systems, water pipelines, and broadband, while increasing “good-quality job” opportunities in manufacturing, research and development, and healthcare. The plan was slimmed down to a lesser 1 billion dollars and re-named the Bi-partisan Infrastructure Law. After passing successfully in Congress, attracting the votes of 15 Republican senators, Biden signed the bill into law on November 15, 2021.
Biden, seemingly with momentum, continued to push his agenda on Capitol Hill with The Build Back Better Act. The bill proposed a sweeping investment towards a more progressive America by making preschool free for all, expanding the child tax credit, advancing clean energy, and expanding affordable health care. On the doorstep of a passing vote, West Virginia senator and moderate Democrat Joe Manchin took to Fox News, revoking his critical support saying, “I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible. I can’t get there.” Manchin’s decision was a gut punch to the White House, effectively killing the act.
The defeat came at the start of the deadly Omicron surge which further lowered Biden’s approval rating. Just when Americans thought the pandemic might have been reaching an end, the COVID-19 variant Omicron swept across the nation, breaking records and wreaking a familiar trail of havoc amongst communities. During the Omicron surge, the United States of America set a record for the most cases in a single day, reaching 1.43 million on January 10, 2021. The dramatic rise in cases almost a year after Biden assumed control made many question if Biden underestimated and overpromised during his campaign.
Biden promised to deliver on the issue of climate change, but has approved 34% more permits for oil and gas drilling than Trump did in his first year in office. Biden was a huge proponent of voter rights and yet was rendered incapacitated alongside congressional Democrats when failing to get the highly advertised John Lewis Voting Rights Act to the Senate floor for debate. Biden championed gun control, cheaper community college, police reform, and the potential for public health insurance in his campaign, but has not delivered substantial results in any of the areas.
In a deadlocked Senate, with Democratic holdouts, AZ-D Kristen Sinema and WV-D Joe Manchin, Biden has found it difficult to make much progress. The two senators have vehemently opposed the abolishment of the filibuster, a process in the US Senate where any one senator can file an objection to stop any debate or vote from happening unless they can get 60 votes to continue. Democrats are instead forced to shove large bills using a congressional loophole known as reconciliation which only requires a mere majority, which is still a tall ask considering Democratic holdouts. “I think it illuminates the way that compromise is just not realistic even though theoretically that is the goal,” remarks Livesay. Despite recent defeats, Biden may have a brighter future ahead. On January 26, 2022, it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer would be retiring. This puts Biden in a position to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises: to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
“I think that you see in history where the Supreme Court, which used to be all men, doesn’t necessarily represent the American public, but you also see so many landmark cases that deeply impact human rights so I think it’s a really huge responsibility. And we should be asking whether the Supreme Court actually reflects public opinion in terms of representation,” says Livesay. Of 114 judges to serve on the Supreme Court over the course of history, all but 6 have been white men and none have been Black women.
With midterms looming, Biden is looking for a shift of momentum in favor of the Democratic party. Historical data in combination with Biden’s approval rating points to the fact that Republicans are likely to gain seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. If the House were to flip, the Democratic agenda would become even more stalled than it currently is. “Once you have the House in Republican hands, I think you can essentially assume no major legislation will be passed so Joe Biden will be rendered kind of ineffective in terms of legislation,” remarks Livesay.
As more time passes, Biden’s portrait as the 46th president of the United States of America has begun to reveal itself. To paint a full picture is complex, but by steeping itself in large promises, the White House has struggled to meet expectations and adapt to less than ideal circumstances. Livesay concludes by saying, “When you look at success for gauging a presidency, I think ultimately, it’s whether or not a president is able to gauge the moment and meet the moment.” To govern in times so volatile and unpredictable would be difficult for any administration, but has the Biden White House put their best foot forward despite the obstacles? The upcoming months leading up to the midterm will solidify his legacy as Democrats across the country fight to maintain control.