The new year is well underway for US President Joe Biden. It’s not pretty. The Russians are coming at Ukraine. The pandemic is not under control; America this year will come close to one million dead from Covid-19. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Biden’s sweeping legislation on social programs and climate change is dying in the Senate. He has been unable to unlock the shackles on voting rights legislation, angering his base of black voters that helped sweep him into the White House. At 42%, Biden’s job approval is the worst of any modern president—save for Donald Trump. The November midterm elections look like a disaster, with the Republicans all but certain to take over the House of Representatives, and perhaps the Senate as well. There’s already talk the House Republicans will impeach Biden in 2023. (Spoiler alert: they will.)
So, what does the president of the United States do? The answer is simple: his job. Get as much done as he is capable of achieving.
In terms of Washington business, the issues are straightforward. Federal funding of the government (‘supply’, in Australian terms) expires on 18 February and must be extended. A deal will be reached.
There’s major legislation to rebuild America’s capabilities in high technology, scientific research and development, and semiconductors. The urgency of meeting what China is projecting across the Indo-Pacific in these fields means that enacting the bill is imperative, and this will get done too.
Discussions will reopen on the stalled Biden ‘Build Back Better’ agenda with the Democratic Senator who has stymied it so far, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The gulf between the two men is significant. Manchin is a conservative Democrat in a state Trump carried by nearly 70% of the vote. West Virginia is coal, and the heart of Biden’s climate program is renewables.
At stake are Biden’s pledges to ensure that American households have the resources to meet the basic costs of childcare, education, healthcare and care for seniors. Covid exposed the absence of safety and security for tens of millions of Americans when catastrophe strikes. The Biden programs are immensely popular. From the Obama years, Biden and the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate understand that they must find unity and win or be consumed by differences within their ranks and lose. Democrats need to show that in these times they can do big things. They can’t win if they can’t govern. That is what November is all about.
The logic is inescapable, and it’s likely that a more targeted Build Back Better program will be passed. Even if it is ‘only’ a trillion dollars, enactment would mean that Biden will have delivered more than US$4 trillion in economic recovery, Covid response and security for working Americans in his first two years in office. This is on a par with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Biden also is on the verge of making history with the nomination of a black woman to the Supreme Court. Prospects for confirmation are strong, and a win and will give Biden some added political capital.
Even if this all gets done, Biden’s road to recovery is rocky. Where he stands today is crystal clear: he has lost the confidence of most of the American people. Biden’s Washington is not delivering the goods. Over 70% believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Around 60% believe their households are losing the battle with the cost of living. The lived reality of Covid and inflation obscures the excellent macroeconomic numbers on annual growth, job creation and rising wages.
The penumbra of Trumpism is quite apparent. Some 70% of Americans believe that the country’s political differences are profound, and even more believe that American democracy is endangered.
This is the context for the work of the House Select Committee on the 6 January insurrection. The committee is doing a thorough job of tracking down and interrogating all the principals who had a role in developing and executing that violent assault on America’s democracy. All the former president’s men have been subpoenaed. The committee will soon hold public hearings, which will have the potential, not unlike the Watergate hearings nearly 50 years ago, of educating the American people about what happened and what was at stake. If dramatic enough, the hearings could shake the political landscape.
What will Biden face from the Republicans this year? Theirs is a simple playbook: don’t do anything to distract from a man besieged. Push buttons on the fears afflicting Republican and especially independent voters. Inflation is out of control and is killing your pocketbook. You trusted that Biden would make America Covid-normal, but it’s not, affecting your family and your job. The woke left is controlling our schools and our kids’ minds. Crime is skyrocketing and Biden wants to take away your guns. The borders are out of control and dangerous immigrants are flooding in. The left is dictating Biden’s agenda, and that agenda is socialism. And forget about voting rights.
Biden’s polling started heading south last September when the surge of the Delta variant coincided with the horrific exit from Afghanistan. That tested perceptions of Biden’s expertise in managing foreign policy—a significant selling point for his presidency. This is why the outcome of the Russia–Ukraine situation, beyond the issue of security in Europe, is so important for Biden. If he can stare down Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Ukraine saved, it will be a significant victory—not necessarily like John F. Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, but not dissimilar. If Russia takes Ukraine, Biden will be vilified as the president who ‘lost’ that country. It will be quite searing.
And who knows what nasty surprises are coming from Iran and North Korea?
We can take the measure of this president when he delivers the State of the Union address on 1 March. He will say that the state of the union is strong, and that there’s nothing America and Americans can’t do if they are together. He will believe every word he will utter. But will the American people?