Iron County Progressive

 The New York Review

Can He Build Back Better?

Michael Tomasky

Many liberals worry that the Democrats are doomed. But Biden can still rebound.

February 10, 2022 issue


How to assess the Joe Biden presidency one year in? The economy is booming as it hasn’t in decades: between January and October 2021, real GDP grew at an annualized rate of 7.8 percent and disposable income grew 3 percent after inflation. The unemployment rate, 6.3 percent when Biden took office, was just 3.9 percent in December. Finally—and I could go on—6.1 million jobs have been created since Biden’s first day. That’s four million more than under Donald Trump and both Bushes combined.

Yet these economic facts—and they are facts—hardly inform the popular view of how Biden is doing. Since late August, when the president’s approval rating flipped from positive to negative, the media coverage has been relentlessly pessimistic. This is not entirely without justification. Biden’s troubles started with the botched Afghanistan withdrawal. He then encountered a series of setbacks. Politically, congressional infighting and indecision have left important voting rights and domestic spending bills stalled, culminating in a mid-December announcement from West Virginia senator Joe Manchin (a veritable copresident all last year) that he opposed the current form of Biden’s most important piece of domestic legislation, Build Back Better, the large public investment bill that would fund many new or expanded programs.

The defeat of Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race in Virginia—which Biden carried by 10 percent a year earlier—was an ominous indication of eroding support for Democrats in states they had considered safely in their column. And the global coronavirus pandemic rages on, despite the glimmer of hope last summer that we were moving beyond it. It has created supply-chain delays, an ongoing inflation spiral, and, with the Omicron variant, grave disruptions in travel and education.

These are the realities that have dragged Biden down. Rarely have a president’s approval numbers dropped so precipitously in his first year. Biden had a hefty 52–42 approval rating six months into his term. Six months later, those numbers have essentially reversed. Donald Trump was never in positive territory. Barack Obama lost more ground than Biden—incredibly, he had just a 22 percent disapproval rating when he took office—but as he finished his first year, he was still narrowly above 50 percent approval. George W. Bush’s approval shot up after the September 11 attacks, nine months into his first year in office. Bill Clinton lost around 20 points through mid-1993 but made much of it up by year’s end. If we go back before that, we’re in a different era—before polarization, before cable news became so omnipresent. So in the age of modern politics, Biden has set a record for having gone so quickly from enjoying the confidence of the majority of Americans to having, for the moment at least, lost it.

But this is not just a question of numbers. The sense among many liberals is that the Democrats, and the broader project of bringing to life a new era of Keynesian public investment, are doomed. The high expectations that resulted from Biden’s win and the party’s recapture of the Senate and that surrounded the administration’s early days—when Biden was making those (mostly) terrific appointments; issuing the executive orders that left even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez marveling; passing the Covid relief bill, also known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP), which helped people get through the pandemic and greatly expanded the child tax credit; distributing vaccines with competence; talking about changing the “economic paradigm” with an explicit vow to transfer wealth from the rich to the middle class—have crashed to earth. Governing is not easy, especially with such narrow majorities.