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28 July 2021

Why Joe Biden’s presidency is faltering

The euphoria surrounding the president’s first 100 days is gone – Americans now want to see Biden deliver on his promises.

By Emily Tamkin

After being inaugurated in January this year, Joe Biden had an industrious first 100 days. He ensured the US rejoined the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organisation; he ended the Trump-era ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries; he exceeded his promise that 100 million vaccination doses would be administered; and he passed a $1.9trn Covid relief stimulus. His start was favourably compared to that of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He was likened to presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon B Johnson, who are remembered for the New Deal and Great Society programmes, which aimed to tackling poverty and racial injustice.

But the honeymoon is over. In the doldrums of mid-summer, the headlines for Biden have wilted. According to one Gallup poll, his approval rating is now 50 per cent, the lowest since he took office. The ambitious infrastructure plan he intended to get through Congress, which would provide nearly $1trn for road and broadband upgrades, has stalled in the Senate. His White House has failed to stop voter legislation being passed in states such as Texas and Florida that will make it more difficult for black people and other minorities to vote. After the strong start to the Covid vaccination campaign in the spring, when nearly 200 million vaccines were administered between January and April, the country is now suffering from a surge in Covid-19 cases. Around half the population is still not fully vaccinated and the Centers for Disease Control is advising people to wear masks indoors again. There are also reports that Biden is losing suburbanites and moderate voters who are agitated by critical race theory, a decades-old legal idea that racism is integral to the US’s systems and structures.

Given all of this, it is worth asking: is Biden experiencing a summer slump?

The short answer is no, because the challenges he must solve transcend the immediate bump/slump model against which commentators assess the state of a presidency.

It is normal for the euphoria of the first 100 days to dissipate. Biden’s first 100 days weren’t particularly revolutionary, though they did suggest more radical action to come. The child tax credit in the Covid relief stimulus, for example, could cut child poverty in half – but only for this year, after which the policy will be dropped. Biden and the Democrats could still fulfill the transformative promises of the early days of his presidency, but now that he’s comfortably in office, potential is no longer enough; Americans need to see what Biden does with his power.

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It is also normal for pundits to act as though a stalled bill is a stalled presidency, and there is a tendency to cast gloomy prophecies about the Democrats’ political fortunes. In the recent past, political commentators warned that the party would lose key constituencies over immigration, crime and rampant political correctness. During the 2018 midterms Trump and Republicans tried to make the elections about these issues, and the press and policy wonks went along with it. Yet Democrats regained their majority in the House of Representatives. Similarly, in the 2020 presidential election, many analysts warned that Black Lives Matter protests and rising crime would cost Biden the suburbs; Biden made electoral inroads in suburbia.

If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, the Biden equivalent would be measuring the success or failure of the presidency based on one piece of legislation or one news cycle. The success or failure of Biden’s presidency will not be determined by a single infrastructure bill, nor are his electoral fortunes likely to be swayed by bourgeois agitation over “woke” culture or critical race theory.

But Biden does have a real problem. Trump lost the election because of his failure to control the pandemic; the defining legacy of his presidency is the distrust he created in political institutions, in the federal government, in citizens and in democracy itself. Trust is critical to a functioning democracy and is essential for ensuring public compliance with health policies, such as lockdown measures and vaccination drives. Biden is yet to overcome the distrust that Trump unlocked between 2016 and 2020; it could be fatal for his presidency.

This administration has done about as much as it can with respect to urging people to get vaccinated; other steps need to be taken. Mandating that federal employees either get vaccinated or show proof of a negative test, which Biden is expected to announce on 29 July, is a good start. Nor can the administration give up the fight for voting rights, simply telling black Americans that they must organise harder to counter the GOP laws passed in state legislatures. And all the while the climate crisis worsens. The US is not doing enough to mitigate the effects of a rapidly changing environment, the effects of which are now the daily burden of people across the country. California is currently facing one of the largest wildfires in the state’s history. The country’s south-west oscillates between droughts and flooding. The summer has already brought record-breaking heatwaves, and there are more on the way.

These are the three feats that Biden must achieve: controlling the pandemic; protecting the right to vote and strengthening the structures of American democracy; and leading the world on reversing climate change. Whether his presidency is struggling or spirited depends on his success with each of these challenges. 

Biden is not experiencing a summer slump, which pass with the season. An infrastructure bill either passes or it doesn’t, and the political headlines move on. Biden’s challenges are not seasonal; they are existential. And none of the earlier euphoria surrounding his early presidency has changed the fundamental question: can he rise to meet them?

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