Opinion How Biden can fix his presidency

President Biden delivers a speech on rebuilding the nation's bridges in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on Jan. 14. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
President Biden delivers a speech on rebuilding the nation's bridges in the South Court Auditorium at the White House on Jan. 14. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden on Wednesday closed a mixed year of both successes and frustrated hopes. At a news conference, Mr. Biden acknowledged “challenges” but also boasted of “enormous progress” fighting the pandemic and passing major legislation, saying that he would “stay on this track.” In fact, despite his substantial achievements, his presidency could use a reset.

To be clear: Americans should be grateful every day that Mr. Biden is in office rather than former president Donald Trump and the band of incompetents who used to run the government. One can only imagine how much worse off the country would be if Mr. Trump were still dispensing bizarre medical advice from the White House, running a Russia-friendly foreign policy as the Kremlin prepares to invade Ukraine, or continuing to deny climate change. Mr. Biden has also restored integrity to the Oval Office, neither lying nor abusing his authority the way Mr. Trump did. And the president can claim some important accomplishments. Most Americans are vaccinated. His covid-19 aid bill alleviated child poverty during the worst of the pandemic. The country is only beginning to see the benefits of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that will fund massive investments in green energy, highways, bridges and rail, which passed under his leadership.

But when the president entered office, expectations ran high. New vaccines would tame the coronavirus and reignite the economy, and the Democrats’ majorities in Congress would draft transformative social legislation. When congressional Democrats quickly passed the massive covid-19 aid bill and the Biden administration ran an orderly vaccine rollout, hopes rose even higher. Yet in recent weeks, the omicron variant has set records for new cases in the United States, jobs numbers are volatile, inflation is up, and the Democrats’ $2 trillion Build Back Better plan has stalled in the Senate.

This history shows that the president controls only so much. He can do little about inflation and even less about the viral genetic mutations that lead to new coronavirus variants.

But that is not the whole story. Mr. Biden, who ran as a longtime Senate veteran able to get the executive branch and Congress working again, has committed several unforced errors.

Top on the list was his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which resulted in the deaths of 13 American service members and consigned to Taliban rule a country into which the United States had invested vast resources.

As Afghanistan unwound, Mr. Biden allowed progressive expectations to outrun the reality of what Democrats could accomplish with their slim congressional majorities. Progressives talked of passing a Build Back Better bill running to several trillion dollars or more, using the Senate’s reconciliation procedure that allows taxing and spending legislation to duck the filibuster’s 60-vote requirement. In fact, conservative Senate Democrats Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) would not support a bill that surpassed $2 trillion. Once that reality sank in, Mr. Biden should have persuaded Democrats to prioritize a few programs to fund sustainably. Instead, House Democrats refused to sacrifice programs to save others, approving a bill containing a large number of underfunded initiatives. When Mr. Manchin balked publicly, the White House released a blistering statement that poisoned negotiations.

On voting rights, Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats pushed for sweeping legislation that would end partisan gerrymandering and mandate voting-access measures, warning that failure to do so could leave U.S. democracy in severe danger. This time, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema supported the bill but did not favor changing Senate rules to pass it over a Republican filibuster.

Even on the omicron variant, the Biden administration could have been better prepared. It was foreseeable that the coronavirus would continue to mutate, perhaps in a way that made it more infectious and enabled it to evade vaccines. The White House should have built rapid PCR testing infrastructure throughout the country in case this occurred, which it did this winter. Instead, wait times are almost uselessly long for reliable results.

In his second year, Mr. Biden must tack toward the practical. Mr. Manchin had offered to support a $1.8 trillion Build Back Better proposal last month, which would have included hefty climate change provisions, before his talks with the White House collapsed. The president should have taken up Mr. Manchin then. Mr. Biden should say yes to Mr. Manchin now, salvaging as much of that proposal as he can in direct talks with the West Virginia senator. Progress could happen soon: Mr. Biden signaled Wednesday that he would substantially pare down the Build Back Better bill to match Mr. Manchin’s preferences, with the climate and energy provisions remaining at its core.

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Meanwhile, the gravest threat to U.S. democracy is not vote denial but that administrators or elected officials will attempt to tamper with legitimate vote counts based on lies about fraud. Mr. Trump’s continuing effort to discredit the 2020 vote, which experts say was the most secure presidential election ever, has spurred a wave of GOP candidates to campaign on his bogus conspiracy theories. A bipartisan group of senators is discussing a bill that would harden vote-counting procedures against partisan subversion. Mr. Biden should foster these discussions.

The president should also encourage lawmakers to keep working on reforming the Senate. Though Mr. Manchin refused to upend the filibuster to pass a voting rights bill, he has signaled openness to altering the rules in more modest ways. These could include making it more difficult for the minority party to sustain filibusters, which have become routine only recently. Doing so might require more talks with Republicans; the president should get those started.

Mr. Biden’s first year was not as bleak as many reports have portrayed. But he could have accomplished more. He might yet do so if he behaves more like the pragmatic former senator he promised to be.