The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s year of hard lessons

President Biden makes his way to Marine One at the White House on Dec. 15. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The Washington that Joe Biden inhabits as president bears little resemblance to the one he thought he would be presiding over when he took office a year ago — one in which he believed it was still possible to bring people together across the partisan divide.

During his presidential campaign and in the weeks before he took office, Biden sounded supremely confident about his potential to be a dealmaker who could navigate the political undercurrents of the Senate where he served for 36 years. “I’m going to say something outrageous: I’m not bad at this,” the president-elect told a small group of columnists, of whom I was one.

“Part of this is convincing people what their mutual interest is. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to get anyone from the Proud Boys to some of our really, really strident Republicans,” he said. “I’m not going to get those folks. I don’t have to get those folks, I don’t think. But part of it is making a case — and I think there’s a case that can be made — that demonstrates that … everything from racial equity to environmental progress to plain old jobs can be had in a way that everybody can sign on to.”

If only. Biden’s first year has brought some major achievements: a $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief package; a vaccine rollout that has resulted in nearly 63 percent of the population fully immunized; a modern record for the number of new federal judicial vacancies filled by a first-year president. But of his big successes, only one — the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill he signed in November — made it over the finish line with bipartisan support.

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Meanwhile, as his presidency approaches its first anniversary on Thursday, it appears to be running out of gas. Biden’s job approval numbers are underwater, averaging in the low 40s. The Democrats’ push for voting rights is headed for defeat on the Senate floor. His ambitious Build Back Better legislation is stymied. As a new variant of the coronavirus is sending record numbers to the hospital, the Supreme Court has struck down his administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for private business. Inflation is running at its highest rate since the 1980s, dampening an otherwise robust economic recovery.

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The president has not only failed to bring Republicans aboard; he is having trouble keeping his own party and presumed allies in line. Build Back Better in its current form was sent into limbo when Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), whom Biden had courted for months, announced in December that he could not vote for it. Prominent civil rights activists boycotted his voting rights speech in Atlanta this past week, which they said was too little and too late. And freshman Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) added another insult by timing her speech opposing changes to the Senate filibuster rules — without which the push for voting rights legislation is doomed — to upstage Biden’s own trip to Capitol Hill to push for those changes.

That Biden then invited both Sinema and Manchin — another holdout against suspending the filibuster — to meet with him at the White House that evening was seen as yet more evidence of the president’s impotence.

Whether all of this will ultimately be viewed as a hinge point of the Biden presidency, or just a pothole in the road, will depend at least in part on factors that are out of his control — among them, the performance of the economy and the course of a tenacious pandemic that has gripped the country for nearly two years. But one thing is clear: The era of bipartisan good feeling and shared interest that Biden once envisioned is not going to happen.

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Senate Democrats in particular are arguing that a reset is in order. Once they have taken their lumps on voting rights, they plan to pivot quickly to resurrecting what parts of the Build Back Better proposal that might be salvageable, among them universal preschool, measures to lower the cost of prescription drugs and aid to families with children.

They also realize they have done a lousy job of touting the achievements they have notched thus far, most notably the rescue package that passed with Democratic votes alone. “The stuff that’s in that bill is incredibly popular and nobody realizes it’s the Democrats that did it,” grouses Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).

The presidency has a steep learning curve no matter how well prepared the occupant of the office believes they are upon arrival. What separates those who succeed from those who don’t is how willing they are to adjust their expectations to the realities they confront.

One of the president’s favorite observations is that “reality has a way of intruding.” For Biden, the question is whether he can learn to govern in Washington as it is rather than the sepia-toned one he wished it could be.