One year ago, Joe Biden stood on the West Front of the desecrated Capitol. With the plague ravaging the country, the expanse of the Mall was filled not by crowds but by 200,000 planted flags.
He spoke these words: “On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation … With unity, we can do great things.”
A year on, Joe Biden is president, but the country is not united, and he is not winning. He demanded Congress pass a massive rescue package to take care for tens of millions of Americans out of work and out of hope – and got it. Biden insisted on legislation to get America vaccinated – and got it. Both passed in his first 50 days. Biden wanted a bipartisan bill to rebuild the country – not just roads, bridges and airports, but broadband and clean pipes for drinking water and more – and he got the largest infrastructure program in American history.
Next: a huge social and environmental initiative to lower the costs in every household for childcare, health care, education, seniors, as well as half a trillion dollars to shift to clean energy. But the bill is stuck in the Senate. Ditto for legislation to check the Trumpist efforts to suppress the ability of millions, especially people of colour, to vote. On both bedrock Biden proposals, two Democratic Senators are denying Biden their votes to get these landmark commitments enacted into law.
No legislation has passed on gun control, police reform or climate change. The Supreme Court will likely take away the constitutional right of a woman to access abortion services.
The critical lesson for today from the Obama presidency is existential: Find unity and win or be consumed by unbridgeable differences within Democratic ranks and lose. Democrats need to show that in these times they can do big things. Because they cannot win if they cannot govern. That prospect will kill Biden’s presidency. The Republicans can taste epic gains in the November midterm elections.
America’s democracy is fraying. The conspiracy that nearly denied Biden the presidency is alive and burning today. Seven in ten Republican voters have drunk the Trump Kool-Aid and do not believe Biden is the legitimately elected president. After the attack on the Capitol, nearly a third of Americans believe that violence against the United States is justified. There is growing fear that the Trumpist efforts in swing states to pass new laws that affect not only who can vote, but who can count the vote, is a subversion of democracy that will lead to armed violence, approaching civil war, across the country.
Biden understands the world, and knows war may yet break out over Ukraine, a crisis which would also provoke a bitter debate in the US over “who lost Ukraine?” America would be left weaker, and China’s Xi may conclude that the time to seize Taiwan is sooner – before AUKUS can gel. Biden is not close to a nuclear deal with Iran and Kim Jong-un is off the grid and testing hypersonic missiles.
Biden heralded a return to normal, yet the country is anything but. More Americans have died since Biden became president than in 2020 when Trump’s quackery was at its height.
Because it is the president who owns COVID-19 and the economy, Biden’s approval is at 40 per cent – down 15 points since July. Economic growth is the fastest in four decades, unemployment is down sharply, 2021 was the best year ever for job creation, and household income is up. But Omicron is hitting people so hard, and people are the economy. Their lives are disrupted and when they shop, the highest inflation in 40 years hits their wallets.
A year on, this is a presidency in the balance.
Biden knows this and has had enough. His words now soar and sting. On voting rights in Georgia last week, “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet!” And: “I don’t know that we can get it done, but I know one thing: As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting” to redeem the dream of Martin Luther King.
Some pundits say Biden’s program is so transformational, he is like FDR and the New Deal. Others say he is failing just like Jimmy Carter, who lost re-election.
The better parallel is historian David McCullough’s on the 33d president: “Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear.”
Harry Truman gave ’em hell. And won. That’s exactly what Biden intends to do.