At the start of his presidency, Joe Biden succeeded in defying low expectations. Faced with the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, he passed a $1.9trn stimulus bill almost twice as large as that introduced by Barack Obama in 2009. Biden’s administration delivered 100 million Covid-19 vaccines in just 60 days. And the US rejoined the Paris climate agreement, vowing to halve emissions by 2030 and to abolish them by 2050.
But a year after Mr Biden won the election, his forward march has been halted. On 2 November, the Democrats lost the Virginia governorship to the Republicans, suffered defeats in New York local elections and only narrowly retained the New Jersey governorship. Mr Biden’s own approval rating stands at a record low of 38 per cent – no postwar president has suffered a faster drop in support. In the absence of change, the Democrats will likely lose control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, rendering Mr Biden largely powerless. What has gone wrong for the man who won more votes than any presidential candidate in history?
Mr Biden’s economic record is undeniably impressive. Unemployment now stands at just 4.6 per cent (down from 6.3 per cent when he took office) and the US is forecast to make the strongest post-Covid recovery of any G7 country. The introduction of more generous tax credits has reduced child poverty by a quarter since July. The president’s decision to defy fiscal hawks on his own side and pursue Keynesian stimulus has been vindicated.
On 5 November, the Senate finally passed a $1.2trn bill to overhaul the US’s dilapidated infrastructure, including $110bn for roads and bridges, $39bn for public transport and $65bn for broadband access. A second $1.75trn bill, if approved, would lay some of the foundations for a European-style welfare state, including universal preschool, a further expansion of healthcare coverage and paid family and sick leave. But such is Mr Biden’s spending blitz that the Democrats have struggled to communicate the administration’s achievements to voters (who, as in the UK and Europe, are being squeezed by inflation).
Economic recovery alone, however, is no guarantee of success. Mr Biden’s woes began on the world stage with the US’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though most American voters supported the removal of US troops, they were appalled by their country’s humiliation as the Taliban returned to power. Mr Biden, who offered himself as a competent and experienced alternative to Donald Trump, has struggled to recover credibility ever since.
The US president is also hindered by divisions among Democrats. Though he presents himself as a moderate, his party’s image is increasingly defined by its more radical wing. As the Democratic strategist David Shor observed in a recent interview with the New Statesman, “If you had told me in 2012 that most of the Democratic field would embrace [slavery] reparations and decriminalising border crossings, I would have thought that a joke.”
The Democrats also face increasingly formidable structural obstacles. By gerrymandering congressional districts, the Republicans have ensured that they can win a majority of House of Representatives seats even with fewer voters. In the Senate, meanwhile, large states such as Democratic California (population: 39.5 million) continue to receive the same representation as small ones, such as Republican Wyoming (population: 580,000). Unless the Democrats are prepared to pursue radical constitutional reform, they will need to build a broader electoral coalition capable of surpassing these hurdles.
After Mr Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, we warned that it would be “complacent for Democrats to assume that a more diverse electorate has created a permanent ‘progressive majority’”. The Republicans’ victory in Virginia is further proof of this.
It would be folly for the Democrats to assume that a Trumpist candidate, or even Mr Trump himself, could not win in 2024. At the last election, Mr Trump retained most of the white non-college-educated voters he won in 2016 – a group the Republicans had long struggled among – and attracted increased support from Hispanic and black voters. Demography, contrary to what liberals have assumed, is not destiny. If they are to win again, the Democrats need to see the US as it is, not as they wish it would be.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks