Biden's Boring First Year
And what to expect in the next three.
The first year of Joe Biden's presidency has been precisely the kind of mushy nothingburger that he campaigned on. Many people voted knowingly for such an approach, which sounded restful and predictable after four years of Donald Trump's high-variance antics. But as every lamp-rubber learns the hard way: Be careful what you wish for.
The so-called infrastructure bill squeaked through in November with what passes for bipartisan support these days, with 19 Senate Republicans and 13 House GOP members backing the $1 trillion in new spending. This bill, unlike Biden's initial comically elephantine spending proposals, was unremarkable. It successfully exploited the baseline fondness of nearly all American politicians—and the nation's dads—for spending on roads and airports. (Though it wouldn't be a modern spending bill if it wasn't also laden with hundreds of billions of unrelated bits and pieces.)
Moderates have indeed ruled the day in Washington since Biden's election. Specifically, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has—as of press time—aligned himself with the Republican half of a divided Senate and stymied the additional $2 trillion Build Back Better spending bill that contained the entirety of Biden's remaining policy agenda.
Since Republicans have broadly abandoned even the lip service they once paid to fiscal discipline, multitrillion-dollar mishmash bills with no convincing case for how they're going to be paid for are also business as usual for the federal government. The Build Back Better plan has the kind of nonthreatening policy audacity that so many in Washington expected Biden would performatively propose, if not actually implement, and he hasn't disappointed in that sense.
But by focusing on Build Back Better, Biden is letting many other aspects of federal policy and executive authority run on autopilot. This, too, is a form of moderation, but not a laudable one. His immigration policy, for instance, has been nearly indistinguishable in effect—if not in intent—from his many predecessors'. Asylum and refugee policies remain inscrutable to the hundreds of thousands who are desperate to come to the United States. The legal status of immigrant children brought here by their parents remains fodder for easily reversible executive orders rather than congressional debate and decision. Eminent domain at the border continues, despite Biden's avowed opposition to previous wall-building efforts. The issuance of many work visas is stalled, due in part to the bureaucratic inflexibility beloved by status-quo Washingtonians like Biden. And while some Americans voted for Biden because they believed he would end Trump's "kids in cages" policy, even modest expectations for reform there have been mostly disappointed.
The war on drugs continues unabated. Just as candidate Barack Obama talked a big game and then did little on this front, Biden has declined to instruct the bureaucratic machine he oversees to take steps to reschedule marijuana. He has so far declined even to bring federal policy in conformity with the overwhelming majority of states' laws on the matter. He has chosen not to lead his party in examining harsh sentencing or pending criminal justice reform proposals. Biden's use of the pardon power has been perfectly unremarkable: So far he has issued only two pardons, one for Peanut Butter and one for Jelly, the ceremonial Thanksgiving turkeys. Trump issued three during the same period of his presidency—two birds and Arizona ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Biden did pull out of Afghanistan, delivering on a promise made by more than one of his predecessors, though he seems to have done a poor job of convincing even his own team that he was actually going to do it until it was too late to properly plan and execute the withdrawal.
And then there's COVID-19. On November 2, 2020, soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted: "The first thing @JoeBiden and I will do in the White House is get this virus under control." So much for that. As Matt Welch's masterful cover story (and Groundhog Day homage) outlines, we are now creeping up on the second anniversary of "two weeks to slow the spread" with no end in sight. Biden will, in all likelihood, continue to fight a rearguard action against COVID for the remainder of his presidency, but previous administrations have already emptied the armory in terms of both spending and available public health nudges.
The widespread adoption of vaccines has been a remarkable success story, but most of that success was already teed up by Trump. Trump, whose supporters include the most vaccine-resistant demographic, is quite pro-vaccine himself. In late December, Trump called the vaccine "one of the greatest achievements of mankind" after he revealed earlier that week he had recently received his booster. "The vaccine worked," he declared, and "if you do" get COVID-19 while vaccinated, "it's a very minor form" of it: "People aren't dying when they take their vaccine." Trump made a series of policy decisions that set up the folks doing the real work of producing the vaccines for success, including simultaneously guaranteeing a substantial market for their products, offering promises to protect intellectual property, and clearing away regulatory hurdles that could have resulted in even more deadly delay.
But it was always an act of hubris to imagine that a president could "control" a virus, any more than he can control gas prices or employment rates. He can control the behavior of some individuals up to a point, making a meaningful difference on the margins. But modern American presidents have neither the authority nor the stomach for the kind of extreme policy approaches to COVID or the economy that we have seen in other countries. And thank goodness.
Many Biden voters backed him because they believed he would represent a restoration of "norms." With respect to his rhetoric, Biden should hire an aircraft carrier, strap on a flight suit, and have a "mission accomplished" banner printed. Biden's speeches are bland—enlivened only by his signature gaffes—and his social media presence is painfully predictable.
He often says things that aren't true, of course. Most recently, he claimed that Manchin copped to misleading the American people about his support for Build Back Better, a blatant falsehood that had to be retracted. But at this point, politicians telling self-serving tales are arguably a national norm in themselves. With a giant Hunter Biden–shaped asterisk, this president's corruption and venality so far seem less than Trump's, though it would be hard to match Trump's lifelong appetite for such things. And none of Biden's supporters have stormed the Capitol, so there's that.
But Biden has cheerfully continued or implemented policies that he knows or suspects of being unconstitutional, including backing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's prohibition on most evictions during COVID and the federal employer vaccine mandate, which Biden was declaring both illegal and ill-advised right up until he imposed it via executive fiat.
Under Biden, the prospects for radical positive change and wholesale disaster seem equally dim. He campaigned predominantly on the restoration of a pre-Trump status quo, not a bold new future. Yet it remains a real possibility that congressional Democrats nominally under Biden's leadership won't show as much of a commitment to those historical precedents as his voters would like, moving instead to eliminate or disable the filibuster, to pack the Supreme Court or otherwise radically change the process for Supreme Court nominees, and to arrogate significant new power over elections to the federal government.
If Biden and his fellow partisans manage any of this, he will not only have unambiguously violated norms and process protections, but he will also have betrayed many of those who voted for him—the people who wanted Biden to be boring. And if they don't manage it, they will have delivered on their promise to be dull at the cost of any meaningful change.