Biden has exceeded expectations among progressives, more centrist Democrats and many non-MAGA Republicans on several fronts. Despite the emergence of the delta variant, his management of the vaccination program was commendable and arguably the most “whole of government” response to a crisis outside wartime in decades. We are now mostly down to the willfully unvaccinated. That success in turn has allowed the economy to begin roaring back, albeit with a flash of inflation.
His Cabinet is diverse, competent and capable of advancing his robust domestic agenda. His judicial nominees are impressive and also remarkably diverse (in gender, race and background).
Meanwhile, Biden excels as the mourner- and comforter-in-chief. The tone of the White House including the briefing room is infinitely improved. (No crank coronavirus cures, insults and gaslighting from this crew.)
He has arguably made more progress by getting both the American Rescue Plan and the $250 billion Innovation and Competition Act than one would have expected with a 50-50 partisan split in the Senate. If he gets through his bipartisan infrastructure bill and reconciliation package — both of which are chock-full of popular measures, including tax increases for the super-rich and an end to corporate tax gamesmanship — he will have accomplished more in his first year in office than any president since perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On foreign policy, he has succeeded in reaffirming and repairing, especially with regard to the U.S. relationship with the European Union and NATO. He has begun to rebuild the defense of universal human rights, a strong pillar of our national security. He restored America’s international stature by rejoining the Paris accord and the World Health Organization. And he sanctioned Russia and called out China for cyberattacks. (Critics argue he could have been tougher on both, but the groveling before dictators has ended, thankfully.)
There are also the things he did not do that some observers feared. He did not automatically rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. He is not interested in packing the Supreme Court. He has not interfered with the day-to-day decision-making in the Justice Department (more on that later). He has issued a fleet of executive orders but has not usurped Congress by, for example, trying to ban assault weapons or expand background checks absent legislation. Restraint is an underappreciated quality in a president.
Nevertheless, there are worrying developments. Many of these are works-in-progress, but if there is not some course correction, his agenda will suffer.
Most important, his decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan (rather than leave a small military force behind) will prove disastrous if terrorists reconstitute themselves, posing a threat to the United States and its allies, and if Afghan women’s rights are obliterated. The signs so far are not positive.
His hands-off approach to the Justice Department and selection of Attorney General Merrick Garland has, to the dismay of many law-and-order Never Trumpers and Democrats, resulted in neither prosecutions of the former president and his senior staff nor any comprehensive review of the department’s conduct over the past four years. Refusing to hold former government officials accountable is a mistake and an invitation for future abuses. Fortunately, the inspector general is looking into discrete subjects, but this is no substitute for a full review. Garland still has time to consider a range of charges against the former president and his senior advisers if the facts and the law warrant; the question is whether he has the will.
On voting rights, Biden has said the right things. Garland has filed one lawsuit against Georgia and vowed to double the Justice Department’s civil rights staff. But there has been no full-throttled attempt to pursue possible charges against those who allowed phony auditors to despoil ballots and voting machines in Arizona. Given that the Supreme Court has largely tied Garland’s hands, new legislation is the only real remedy. Still, there is no visible strategy for obtaining voting reforms or to prevent Republican schemes to flip election results. If Biden is slowly cajoling Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to work around the filibuster, then the president’s refusal to publicly address the Senate procedure may be understandable. But if Biden fails to pass voting protections and never makes a pitch for filibuster “reform,” the backlash will be fierce and deserved.
Right-wing attempts to blame Biden for the surge in migrants was absurd and counterfactual. Nevertheless, the administration was unprepared for the situation at the border. Having been put back on its heels, it now declines to take credit for what amounts to a humanitarian rescue operation for thousands of children. The bobble over the refugee cap was another miscue.
Finally, Biden may have been too nice. In backing off additional funding for the IRS to raise more revenue in the bipartisan infrastructure deal, he has allowed Republicans to not only break their word but defend tax cheating. That is worth a public scolding. Granted, Biden is trying to lower the temperature and return to bipartisan dealmaking, but he should not permit Republicans to escape vocal condemnation at critical moments.
On balance, the positive certainly outweighs the negative. And compared with a hypothetical second term for his predecessor, his performance is magnificent. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement — and only so much time before the midterm election cycle.