One year ago on Thursday, Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th president at the US Capitol in an inauguration ceremony devoid of the usual crowds due to pandemic restrictions.
Biden identified four crises facing America: the coronavirus, the climate, the economy and racial justice. He could have added a fifth: a crisis of democracy in a divided nation where, just two weeks earlier, the Capitol had been overrun by insurrectionists.
How has he fared on all five counts?
Biden took office pledging to lift the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, which he called “a raging virus” that “silently stalks the country”. And there was a period of his presidency when it appeared he had.
Last summer vaccination rates soared as the virus receded and the economy rebounded. Touting the administration’s progress at an Independence Day celebration, Biden declared that the US was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus”.
But then came the arrival of the Delta variant, followed by the extremely transmissible Omicron variant. Biden rushed once again to restrict travel but it did little to slow the spread. In recent weeks, Covid-19 cases have reached record levels. Deaths are rising nationally and the number of Americans hospitalized with the disease is higher now than at any previous point during the pandemic.
Long lines to obtain Covid tests and low availability of at-home tests have sparked criticism of the White House’s preparedness, while shifting guidelines and muddled messaging from federal public health officials left a disease-weary public confused and frustrated. Public confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic has dropped significantly, weighing down his overall approval ratings.
Biden responded by ordering 1bn at-home coronavirus tests and is requiring private insurance companies to cover the cost of up to eight of these tests a month. Biden also announced plans to make “high-quality” masks available to Americans free of charge and deployed military medical units to help hospitals overwhelmed by a shortage of staff and beds. Leveraging the Defense Production Act, the administration is working with pharmaceutical companies to increase the supply of antiviral pills.
More than 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated, with nearly 77 million receiving a booster shot. Efforts to improve vaccination rates continue to be undermined by partisanship and misinformation. And a ruling by the supreme court this week blocked the Biden administration from enforcing a vaccine-or-test mandate for large businesses, though it allowed a vaccine mandate for most healthcare workers to take effect.
In response to the latest wave, the Biden administration has shifted its rhetoric – and its expectations. Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said the Omicron variant would “find just about everybody”, warning that the unvaccinated risk far worse outcomes.
In his inaugural address, Biden promised to heed the planet’s “cry for survival” by marshalling an unprecedented response to the climate crisis. But his ambitious plans have since collided with the reality of an evenly divided Senate, where a coal-state senator’s opposition has thwarted major pieces of the president’s climate agenda, with potentially dire consequences for the planet.
At the international talks in Glasgow last year, Biden pledged the US would slash its greenhouse gas emissions in half compared with 2005 levels by the end of this decade. But failure to enact the president’s Build Back Better legislation would make it nearly impossible for the US to meet that target.
The roughly $2tn proposal would amount to the nation’s largest ever investment in combatting climate change and contains a suite of tax incentives, grants and other policies that would grow the green energy sector and invest in sustainable vehicles and public transport services. Without it, the Biden administration would be forced to rely on a raft of environmental regulations and rules that could be overturned by future presidents.
Throughout the first year of his presidency, Biden has made climate change a priority, elevating climate advocates to key posts, creating a White House office of domestic policy, and appointing John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate, which he made a cabinet-level position. In April, he convened a summit to pressure world leaders to make stronger commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reassert US leadership on the global stage.
Biden used his executive authority to quickly reverse many of former president Donald Trump’s energy and environmental policies, starting with his first day in office when he moved to rejoin the Paris climate accords.
In November, Biden signed into law a $1tn bipartisan infrastructure bill that provides billions of dollars to make communities more resilient to climate-fueled disasters, but did little to reduce planet-warming emissions.
At the international talks last year, the US played a major role in negotiations over global efforts to fight climate change, though the final agreement disappointed activists and some world leaders. “This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, an existential threat to human existence as we know it and every day we delay the cost of inaction increases,” Biden said in Glasgow.
Yet the coming weeks and months will be critical for Biden’s climate goals, and his legacy. The president’s Build Back Better legislation is doomed without Senator Joe Manchin’s support and it remains unclear if negotiations can be revived. Next month the supreme court will hear a case brought by Republican-led states and coal companies that could significantly restrict the administration’s power to regulate carbon emissions driving climate change.
And if Republicans gain control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, action on climate change could stall, potentially for years.
It is the best of times and the worst of times. The White House ended 2021 pointing to jobless claims at a 50-year low, a stock market smashing records and an economy among the fastest growing in the world.
On the positive side, 6.4m jobs have been added under Biden, the most of any first-year president in history. When he took office the unemployment rate was 6.3%; today it is 3.9%, the lowest yet of the pandemic.
Consumer demand is strong, helping the economy grow by an estimated 7% in the final quarter of 2021, although the Omicron variant, which has ravaged airlines and restaurants, is likely to cause a slowdown.
Wages are also up. With a record wave of people quitting their jobs, often to seek work elsewhere, average hourly pay jumped 4.7% in December compared with a year ago.
The stock market is thriving. In 2021 the Standard and Poor 500 index hit new records 70 times and finished up 29%. This beat Donald Trump’s first year as president when the S&P 500 hit new records 62 times and finished up 17%.
There is, of course, a “but” coming. The economy is still about 3.6m jobs short of its pre-pandemic level. Many employers are struggling to fill positions and many people are reluctant to return to the workforce.
Most dauntingly, inflation climbed to 7% in 2021, the biggest 12-month gain for 40 years, while supply chain problems left some supermarket shelves bare. This prompted a barrage of Republican criticism and fed a feeling of economic malaise, whatever the reality.
Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington, said: “The economy is actually better than the perception. Unemployment is down to 3.9%. Many millions of jobs were created and you’re going to get inflation under those circumstances. But the message hasn’t gotten out. Everybody thinks Biden’s done a poor job.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and strategist, instead argues that Biden overpromised. “The entire economy is seizing up, and people do blame Biden because he was trumpeting how successful he had been,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
“President Biden met with some of the civil rights leadership and we reminded him …You said the night you won that Black America had your back and that you were going to have Black America’s back,” activist Al Sharpton told a voting rights rally in August. “Well, Mr President, they’re stabbing us in the back.”
Biden is yet to fulfil his promise. But he has met some of his commitments to embed racial equity in policy. The early $1.9tn coronavirus relief package included $5bn for Black farmers, the most important legislation for this group since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Biden named a historically diverse administration that includes, in interior secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. Kamala Harris is the first woman of colour to serve as vice-president, though she has been handed intractable problems to solve and her approval rating is even lower than Biden’s.
But police reform efforts have stalled. Biden abandoned a campaign promise to create a national police oversight commission in his first hundred days.
Talks in Congress over the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which aims to improve police training, curb use of excessive force and end techniques such as chokeholds, collapsed in September in what Jacari Harris, executive director of a foundation named after Floyd, described as “a devastating setback”.
Most dramatically, the president’s lobbying efforts have failed to deliver on protecting voting rights for people of colour. National legislation aimed at blunting Republican-led state efforts to impose voter restrictions has stalled in the Senate, where a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans leaves no margin for error.
Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have declared their opposition to reform of a procedural rule known as the filibuster, a necessary step for passing the legislation. Biden is accused by critics of doing too little too late, failing to use his bully pulpit to give the issue the same priority as his bipartisan infrastructure law.
In a sign of the disappointment and exasperation, when Biden travelled to Atlanta this week to make his most aggressive case yet for filibuster reform, some campaigners boycotted the event.
Charles Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote: “For a year, activists have been screaming and pleading and begging and getting arrested, trying to get the White House to put the full weight of the presidency behind protecting voting rights, only to be met by silence or soft-pedaling.”
He added: “When Biden fully entered the battle, the other warriors were already bloody, bruised and exhausted.”
In his inaugural address, Biden proclaimed: “We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” Restoring the soul of the nation, he added, requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: “Unity.”
Nearly a year later, back at the US Capitol, Biden struck a very different and more pugnacious tone. “I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of our democracy,” he vowed, signaling a belated realisation that instead of repairing the breach with Republicans, he must now stand in it and fight.
Biden, who had run for election as an apostle of bipartisanship, and did get a win with Republican support for a $1tn infrastructure law. But the radicalised opposition party remains implacably opposed to legislation that would codify national protections for voting rights (see above).
Republicans remain in the iron grip of Trump, his “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and the delusion that the January 6 insurrection was inconsequential or even a righteous cause.
Trump acolytes and election deniers are now seeking office as secretaries of state and other positions that would put them in charge of running of future elections. This could given them the power to overturn results they do not like.
This year Biden has begun to speak out forcefully on the voting rights issue – “Do you want to be the side of Dr King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?” he demanded in Atlanta – but less so on the more insidious, precinct-by-precinct threat to the electoral process.
Tony Evers, the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, told the Guardian last month: “At the state level we’re raising hell about it but the Democrats on the national level are talking about Build Back Better, the infrastructure bill, lots of other things.”
Biden’s mission to heal divisions has crashed into polarisation that has only been accelerated by the pandemic and its battles over mask and vaccine mandates, as well as Republican-stoked culture wars over schools and critical race theory. Far from fading away, Trump is resuming campaign rallies ahead of a possible run for the White House in 2024.