Approximately nine months and 37 million years ago, it appeared Joe Biden had picked a goldilocks moment to become president of the United States. The country still faced significant difficulties in the early spring, but they all appeared to be moving in the right direction. Unemployment was still high, but job growth had begun to boom after a winter slump. The pandemic was still with us, but case counts were falling as the vaccination drive ramped up.
Taken together, this looked like a best-case set of circumstances for Biden, who stood to reap political rewards for solving problems that were already turning round, and who was wisely taking decisive steps to build on the momentum he inherited. He accelerated the vaccination program the Trump administration left behind, and quickly passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to keep the economy juiced through the year. For a president clearly hoping to put the initials JRB next to FDR and LBJ in the history books, the challenges ahead seemed neither neither too small nor too large, but just right.
Surveying this political landscape, I wrote an article titled “Joe Biden Picked a Good Time to Become President.”
lolsob. Got that one wrong! This turned out to be an exceedingly difficult time for anyone to move into the Oval Office. Most of the reasons now seem obvious in retrospect, though it was easy to overlook or underestimate them as they emerged.
For starters, the pandemic had a lot more fight left in it than people anticipated, even after the emergence of the delta variant. As far as late June, experts seemed to the think that the new, more contagious edition of the coronavirus would lead to “hyper-regionalized” outbreaks mostly affecting communities with low vaccination rates. This turned out true to an extent—Alabama and Florida got walloped a lot harder than New York and Massachusetts, for instance—but we still ended up with a nationwide wave that crushed hopes of a quick return to normalcy. Now, hospitals are swamped once again thanks to omicron, and nobody can count on their travel plans because plane crews keep getting sick.
Then there was the Afghanistan pullout, which seemed to have put a permanent dent in Biden’s approval rating. The fall of Kabul was a chaotic embarrassment to the president, who a month before had said it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take over the country, and led to the death of 13 U.S. service members. But to some extent, Biden had nothing but bad choices when it came to America’s longest war. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan has explained, the president faced a crucial deadline on Aug. 31, when the ceasefire the Trump administration had brokered with the Taliban was set to expire. At that point, hostilities would resume, and generals estimated the fighting would require another 30,000 troops. The alternative was to evacuate. Biden chose the latter, since he’d promised to withdraw during his campaign, and paid the political price.
Of course there was inflation. You can debate the extent to which this was a self-inflicted injury, and whether the administration should’ve seen it coming (you can go on and on about it for thousands of words, and I have). Suffice to say, the American Rescue Plan’s stimulus checks probably exacerbated things, since so many families spent the money shopping and overwhelmed the world’s supply chains in the process, helping proving those of us who were doubtful inflation could become a serious issue very wrong. But some of the most acute supply chain problems, such as the lingering semiconductor shortage that’s hamstrung auto industry production, have been entirely out of Biden’s hands. Likewise, the spending categories voters seem to be most pissed about, like groceries and gas, are the ones where prices probably have the least to do with any administration policy. Tough luck.
And do we even have to talk about Joe Manchin? I guess we should. There was a short period, right around when the American Rescue Plan passed, where it seemed like despite having the thinnest possible majority in the Senate (and an only slightly larger one in the House), Democrats might be able to unify around a bold progressive agenda. Instead, we’ve watched months of internecine Democratic feuding as the party’s progressives have agonized as a handful of moderates proved willing to kill their agenda. At the moment, it’s unclear whether the Build Back Better Act, the climate and social spending centerpiece of Biden’s whole domestic agenda, is all dead or just mostly dead, as Miracle Max would say. Turns out, governing with just 50 seats in the Senate was always going to be hard.
Could Biden and his team have done a better handling some of these issues? Yeah, probably. The administration is scrambling to finally make rapid tests widely available after having failed to do so for the entire year. I’m not a military expert, but I imagine the Afghanistan withdrawal could gone more smoothly if the intelligence agencies hadn’t badly overestimated how long the country’s government would hold on. (Whether you consider that Biden’s fault or the national security blob’s is another issue.) On inflation, perhaps ARP could have been structured differently (one idea was to send out the checks piecemeal, so Americans would be less likely to spend them all at once). And perhaps Biden could have dealt more deftly with Manchin by actually offering a deal that met his biggest demands. But I don’t really want to litigate everything Biden did right or wrong this year, and I’m not trying to offer an exhaustive list of possible missteps.
My point, in the end, is just that Biden has not been playing president on easy mode. It would’ve been a rough time for anybody to assume office. Hopefully, for all our sakes, 2022 is a little gentler.