Must Try Harder: Grading President Biden’s First Year

With a mobilized progressive movement at his back, Joe Biden launched a clear break with the conservative consensus that has dominated our politics since Ronald Reagan. However, while this career centrist politician embraced what he called his “Roosevelt moment,” he enjoyed nothing like FDR’s majority in Congress or his connection with voters. The fate of Biden’s presidency will likely depend not just on whether he can produce—but on whether the progressive movement that helped bring him into office will be roused once more.

Despite a divided Senate and implacable Republican obstruction, the administration has passed two major investment bills. The American Rescue Plan, hailed by Bernie Sanders as the “single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s,” put money in people’s pockets, helping to trigger record growth and job creation. The child tax credit would cut childhood poverty in half—if it were extended beyond the year for which it was authorized. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a long-overdue down payment on necessary investment in rebuilding America. The centerpiece of Biden’s agenda, his Build Back Better bill, was torpedoed by Joe Manchin, but its remnants may still provide the first major commitment to addressing the climate challenge.

Biden—who campaigned as a moderate and famously promised donors that “nothing fundamentally would change”—broke openly with the shibboleths of the conservative era. He championed public investment to meet the Covid threat and industrial policy to meet the challenge posed by climate change and by China. In the face of corrosive inequality, he called for expanding the social safety net and hiking taxes on corporations and the wealthy. He offered vocal support to unions and worker organizing. His appointments and executive orders signaled a revival of antitrust actions to take on corporate monopoly and corruption. His administration forged a global minimum tax on corporations and sustained Donald Trump’s trade tariffs, breaking with the free trade gospel of neoliberalism.

In foreign policy, Biden finally ended the forever war in Afghanistan. He rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate and extended the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. He named climate change as an existential threat and corruption as a threat to democracy.

Biden’s policy initiatives were popular but inadequate, a testament to the depth of the hole we are in. The “Biden boom”—5.5 percent growth, unemployment plummeting at a record pace, wages increasing, particularly at the bottom end—was marred by rising inflationparticularly in vital food and gas prices.

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