Biden’s First-Year Review: Troubles and Triumphs
President Joe Biden’s first year has been an eventful one, to say the least: one fraught with its share of difficulties, from the ever-looming COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent emergence of Omicron, to the highest inflation rate in forty years, to long-term questions on how to address climate change.
Over the past year, Biden has performed quite well, in some aspects, and has been able to deliver on some of his campaign promises. Yet, there are still many impediments that plague his presidency, leaving much more to be desired.
As of January, 77% of those polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation report that they have received at least one dose of the vaccine - a 7% increase since the president’s initial milestone of 70%, which was achieved back in August, albeit a month later than anticipated. Additionally, now that the CDC has approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 back in November, more than a quarter of children within this age group have been vaccinated.
Despite the increase in vaccination rates, according to the COVID-19 death toll, there have been 451,475 deaths, a more than 60,000 increase from the 2020 death toll of 385,453. However, the increased death toll in 2021 can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as 2020 being a ten-month pandemic period and the rapid surge in infection rates in late 2020 that counted toward the 2021 death toll. Furthermore, changes in measuring and tracking COVID-related deaths by medical professionals and hospitals have also played a role in the increase.
Jobs and the Economy
Inflation rates this year have reached a staggering forty-year high of 7%, greatly putting pressure on consumer wages. Amid this record-setting inflation, the country has also been experiencing a supply-chain crisis, stemming from a shortage of raw materials, foreclosures of factories, and transportation problems in response to the initial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the subsequent increase in consumer demand, as the country reopens, rubs salt further into these wounds.
The Biden administration, despite these shortcomings, has made great strides in other areas of the economy. In early March of last year, the House passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), that helped contribute to the fastest rates of economic growth since 1984, as measured by real GDP (inflation-adjusted). This enabled the economy to surpass even pre-pandemic levels of GDP. Unemployment rates also dropped from 6.2% at the beginning of Biden’s presidency to 3.9% by the end of his first year. As of January, more than six million jobs have been created.
However, Americans’ perception of the economy is somewhat paradoxical. An AP-NORC poll found that only 37% approve of Biden’s economic leadership, “a sign that they're blaming him for overall economic conditions and not crediting him for their personal circumstances.” Despite Americans’ real disposable income being higher in 2021 than the two preceding years, and their increased financial security as measured by savings and bank balances, a large portion of them still hold negative views of Biden’s economy. According to Larry Summers, former director of the National Economic Council under the Obama administration, "More unemployment is the difference between a job and not a job for 2 or 3% of the population. More inflation is higher prices for 100% of the population." He goes on to say, "People tend to think that ... higher prices are something that's being stolen from them.” Even though the Biden administration has achieved low unemployment, many Americans still feel “robbed” by inflation.
At the beginning of his presidency, Biden vowed to combat the effects of climate change. One of his first executive orders was to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement, which former President Trump had withdrawn from in late 2020.
At the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Biden pledged to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 50-52% come 2030, hoping that the U.S. will “lead by the power of our example." He also promoted a worldwide effort of transitioning to clean energy sources to combat pollution, especially in developing countries.
Biden’s Build Back Better Plan, an “earmarked $555 billion for renewable energy and clean transportation incentives over a decade,” would be the spearhead of his climate change initiative. This would be the largest amount allocated toward combatting climate change in U.S. history. Despite passing in the House, the bill hit a Senate-support roadblock, with moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) refusing to vote in favor of the bill, believing the spending might exacerbate already record-high inflation. The fate of this bill is yet to be determined.
Under Biden, all remaining U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in August 2021, but despite this marking the end of America’s longest war, the move still sparked backlash.
According to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center last August, 54% of Americans supported the withdrawal while 42% did not. When asked about the handling of the situation, 42% described it as “poor,” 29% said “only fair,” 21% said “good,” and only 6% said “excellent.” And when asked whether or not the U.S. achieved its goals in Afghanistan, 69% said it failed, while only 27% said it succeed.
Responding to widespread criticisms of the execution of the withdrawal, illustrated by the generally negative public mood shown in the figures prior mentioned, in a speech during August of last year, Biden conceded that the situation “[unfolded] more quickly than we had anticipated,” when referring to the collapse of the Afghan military. He also stated, “I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
In November 2021, Congress passed the historic $1.2 trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes spending on roads, transportation, clean drinking water, and clean energy, among other things. The bill also allocates $550 billion toward new spending, which will be put to use over the next decade.
Making his final remarks at the signing ceremony, Biden said, “Let’s remember this day. Let’s remember we can come together. And most of all, let’s remember what we got done for the American people when we do come together.”
In response to economic problems, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the US-Mexico border has seen a sharp influx of immigrants seeking asylum. Within Biden’s first year, there have been more than 1.9 million apprehensions at the border.
Though a critic of Trump-era border legislation, Biden has defended Section 265 of U.S. Code Title 42, which enables the expulsion of all asylum seekers (often on the same day of apprehension), with the exception of unaccompanied minors, who have been deemed a danger to public health to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The decision to uphold Title 42 has drawn criticism from human rights groups and public experts, but Biden stands by his decision, citing that its termination would pose a risk to public health.
Looking Behind and Looking Ahead
A national poll conducted in January found that only 43% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance (an all-time low for his presidency), while 52% disapprove.
With the economy facing record-high inflation, Biden has made it a priority to strengthen the economy in his second year, laying out the details of his plan in a January press conference. First on his agenda is to “fix the supply chain,” which his administration plans to tackle via the implementation of his newly passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will dampen the effects the supply chain crisis has had on American industries. Secondly, his Build Back Better Plan will “address the biggest costs that working families face every day,” such as lowering the cost of childcare and prescription drugs. Finally, he plans to “promote competition” by providing aid to small businesses, which have most felt the brunt of the pandemic.
In his final statements, Biden lent the American people some words of encouragement, “We’ve seen the grit and determination of the American people this past year. But the best days of this country are still ahead of us, not behind us.”