President Biden’s to-do list in 2022 in many ways resembles the one he had when he took office in 2021.
Biden campaigned on a pledge to shut down the coronavirus, but he enters 2022 facing record-setting case numbers from the omicron variant and public fatigue with the pandemic.
The president called for unity in his inauguration speech, but that has been hard to come by, as polls have consistently shown a swath of Republicans, including some holding or running for office, refuse to acknowledge that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election.
Biden took office touting decades of Senate experience and a reputation for being able to cross the aisle. But his signature legislative proposal is in limbo after he was unable to convince a members of his own party, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), to vote for his Build Back Better agenda.
While White House officials argue the country is in a stronger economic and public health position than it was a year ago, the challenges facing the president and his team in the new year resemble the ones the country was grappling with 12 months ago.
“While the American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill the president signed were indisputably major achievements, Mr. Manchin’s defection on the Build Back Better Act caused doubters to ask whether the president had placed too much faith in the Senate as an institution, in his own negotiating skills and in his steadfast belief that he could cajole the West Virginian, one Old Bull to another,” David Axelrod, former top strategist in the Obama White House, wrote in a New York Times op-ed published this week.
“Or maybe he misread what the Covid crisis would allow him to accomplish legislatively, causing him to shoot for too much,” Axelrod wrote.
The White House put out a list of its accomplishments from Biden’s first year in office, which touted progress on the pandemic, economic growth and the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure law that marked a rare instance of lawmakers working across the aisle.
Unemployment dropped roughly 2 percentage points during Biden’s first year in the White House. Officials boasted that roughly 70 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus since the vaccination campaign began at the start of 2021
“In spite of unprecedented crises and opposition from Congressional Republicans, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Congressional Democrats got an enormous amount done for the American people in 2021,” read a year-end White House memo outlining the administration’s achievements.
But the challenges Biden will confront as he turns the calendar are many of the same ones he faced when he took office and that were highlights of his campaign.
Biden repeatedly pledged on the trail in 2020 that he would shut down the virus and listen to the medical experts, seeking to contrast himself with the Trump administration’s approach that sidelined health officials and saw hundreds of thousands of Americans die.
While the virus is in many ways out of Biden’s control, as evidenced by the omicron variant that was first detected in South Africa and is now the dominant strain in the United States, his approval rating in handling the pandemic has dipped from its peak over the summer.
The nation is seeing record-setting case numbers because of the infectiousness of the omicron variant, nearly six months after Biden held a celebration at the White House to mark the nation’s independence from COVID-19.
Biden has responded to the latest wave with efforts to ramp up testing and repeated encouragement for Americans to get booster shots.
“They make many of the right decisions, just too late,” said one former Trump administration official who worked on the pandemic response. “And I suspect that is because Trump’s mistake was having no deliberative policy process, and Biden is too far in the other direction of having one that is so cumbersome that they take way too long to make decisions when in a pandemic.”
Many public health experts argue the country is undeniably in a better position in the fight against the pandemic than when Biden took office, pointing to the majority of the country being vaccinated and the approval of treatments for COVID-19.
Another challenge for Biden has been turning down the political temperature after four years of the Trump administration, where coarseness, threats and division ruled the day. Biden used the word “unity” eight times in his inaugural address. But after one year in office, the country remains bitterly divided along political lines.
The divide was perhaps best reflected when an Oregon man used the anti-Biden euphemism “Let’s Go Brandon” after the president wished him and his family a merry Christmas on a phone call last week.
Biden did find some success falling back on his reputation as a former senator capable of getting things done in Congress. His party united to pass a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package early in the year, followed by a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that won GOP support in both chambers.
But his signature policy, the Build Back Better agenda that includes investments on climate change, child care, health care and more programs, faces an uncertain future after Biden was unable to win Manchin’s support despite months of personal negotiations.
Biden’s ability to find a path forward for that bill in the Senate could largely determine his party’s fate in the midterm elections and the shape of the rest of his first term, according to Axelrod.
“In his first year in office, Mr. Biden passed the Rescue Act, which jump-started the vital distribution of Covid vaccines and helped families, businesses and the nation navigate the coronavirus,” Axelrod wrote in The New York Times. “He defied the skeptics and passed a bipartisan plan to rebuild the country’s fraying infrastructure, with enormous implications for America’s economic future. That alone is pretty good work.”
“If he can retool the Build Back Better Act to make it permanent… rather than piece together a hodgepodge of temporary programs, it, too, may be able to stand the test of time and a decade from now may be even more popular than it is today,” Axelrod added.