Read on for the updated report card. And no spoilers, but Biden might be less keen to put this one up on the fridge …
At the 100-day mark, I gave Biden a B+ for pandemic response. A year in, he’s still better than average but with more room for improvement.
The administration had extraordinary success ramping up vaccine supply and distribution. However, its hesitancy to embrace proof of vaccination and delay in getting behind mandates led to uptake far behind many peer countries. And because the team all put its eggs into the vaccine basket, other crucial areas — most notably testing — were neglected.
When Biden first came into office, many hoped he would restore Americans’ trust in federal health agencies. Unfortunately, major missteps by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have further eroded that trust. From prematurely ending mask recommendations to mixed messaging around boosters to the latest fumbles on isolation guidelines, the organization has worsened the confusion inherited from the Trump administration. As the United States reckons with how to live with covid-19, public health messaging is more important than ever. That and a new strategy for how to coexist with this virus need to be Biden’s top priorities.
I’m giving Biden a high grade because the biggest issue facing the nation — the problem we all grapple with in myriad ways every day — is the pandemic. Biden gets an A- because at the beginning of his term, essentially nobody was vaccinated; now, virtually every willing American is. That leaves far too many who have decided not to protect themselves, their families and their communities, but short of declaring martial law, there’s nothing Biden can do to force those holdouts to roll up their sleeves. Getting all those vaccine doses into all those arms was a bureaucratic and logistical challenge of the highest order.
The communication around the coronavirus, however, has been erratic — sometimes good, sometimes not so good. The message on the vaccine has to change because the virus itself changes, as does our understanding of it. But it shouldn’t be so hard to get the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC and the White House on the same page.
I’m disappointed by the lack of planning for coronavirus variants and securing supplies for rapid testing. Given the large number of unvaccinated globally and in the country, the likelihood of additional variants with increased transmissibility should have been anticipated. — Jane B. in Albuquerque
An administration official recently told Politico that a new plan to send Americans high-quality masks won’t work because “half the country won’t wear a mask.” That quote epitomizes Biden’s first year in two ways. On one hand, his biggest obstacles have been structural, starting with a gutless opposition. On the other, it’s hard not to link that official’s fatalism to this plan’s announcement weeks into the omicron surge instead of last year.
More and more, this administration seems resigned to disappointment, uninterested in changing a status quo voters despise. There have been notable successes (the coronavirus relief package, historic numbers of judicial confirmations). But I can’t give more than a C+ to a president who turned the strategically wise withdrawal from Afghanistan into a disaster, who let his party spend months on Build Back Better with nothing to show for it, and whose pandemic response since the summer has ranged from inconsistent to inadequate.
The job market is relatively strong; unemployment has plummeted faster than predicted, and wages are rising for the lowest-earning workers. Gross domestic product growth, consumer spending and household balance sheets look strong, too. That’s at least partly thanks to Biden’s fiscal stimulus plan signed into law last March.
But then … inflation. It’s far worse than most economists forecast a year ago, partly because of that same stimulus. In fact, the more time passes, the less prudent its size and composition look, especially since it may have crowded out Democrats’ political will for the other economic programs the president wants (universal pre-K, child tax credit, climate, Obamacare fixes).
To be clear: The pandemic still controls economic conditions, not the president. Biden has relatively modest tools available to tamp down inflation now, but he’s been frustratingly reluctant to deploy even those (eliminating tariffs, accelerating legal immigration). He also dragged his feet in naming nominees to vacant board seats at the Federal Reserve, which is actually in charge of price stability. And the supposedly inflation-fighting actions the White House keeps championing — antitrust interventions, Build Back Better — will do little to affect prices, whatever their other merits.
After a strong start in 2021 of reengaging with alliances and international organizations abused or abandoned by President Donald Trump, the Biden foreign policy team ran out of low-hanging fruit. As world crises piled up, the administration struggled to manage — much less solve — the problems it inherited.
Last summer’s disastrous pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan burned allies and undermined Biden’s big talk about the fight between democracies and autocracies. By the end of the year, the team was juggling a brewing war in Europe and a pandemic resurgence, and its diplomatic initiatives on climate change and Iran appeared stuck. Biden’s tough but sensible China approach was the administration’s most significant but least recognized achievement.
By the end of 2021, international expectations about the United States’ return to its historical position as leader of the free world had been dashed — replaced with broad frustration and a sinking realization that there is no rewind button in foreign policy.
Trump negotiated an awful Afghanistan agreement that resulted in no good way to leave — plus, leaving a war zone is inherently messy. The airlifts were extraordinarily successful. I am extremely pleased by the administration’s policy directions toward China and Russia, too, and encouraged that Biden is strengthening connections with allies. — Sue S. in Madison, Wis.
The good: Biden promised to take steps to address racial inequality and white supremacy in his first days in office. On top of choosing the first female and first Black and South Asian vice president, Biden assembled the most racially diverse Cabinet in history. Biden has made the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights a key tenet of many a speech during his first year.
The not-so-good: Biden broke his promise to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for abuses, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The treatment of migrants and Haitian asylum seekers has been reprehensible. Biden promised police reform but has not acted. And the administration still isn’t using its power to push through a tangible plan to fight the suppression of people of color’s vote. Let’s hope in Biden’s next year, we get more results than rhetoric.
The first grade is for all of 2021. The second grade is for recent weeks. Biden was far too slow to recognize the urgency of the fight for voting rights. Yes, it’s still a relief to have Biden rather than the authoritarian Trump as president, and we are far better off with a leader who defends rather than denigrates liberal democracy. But it was not until this month that he made standing up for free and fair elections a priority.
His forcefulness in his Jan. 6 address and since is morally right and politically beneficial. It would have helped those fighting for voting rights — in Congress and in the country — if Biden had engaged assertively much earlier about voter suppression and the need to change the filibuster. But we are where we are. Here’s hoping the president has learned a lesson: He needs to stay on offense for the rest of the year. Our democracy is at stake. Biden must say so.
Leaders set a course of action and then move events and people to meet their goals. Biden has failed to heal the country, failed to enact his domestic agenda, failed to bring the nation back to normalcy while controlling the coronavirus, failed to reduce global threats to U.S. security, and failed to strengthen his party’s grip on power. It’s only Year 1, and there’s time to improve. But it’s hard to see the famously stubborn 79-year-old changing an approach that has produced so much failure so quickly.
I actually thought Biden might steer a centrist track between our political extremes. Instead, Biden mistook and mistakes distaste for Trump as a mandate to transform U.S. institutions using a “progressive” blueprint. — Andy R. in Wonsqueak Harbor, Maine.
He’s allowed his party to vilify anyone who disagrees and recently joined them in his speech on voting rights. — Gregg P. in Waxhaw, N.C.
Biden has been a model of personal decency and empathy, a 180-degree shift from his predecessor. He helped restore our international standing and hired ethical people. However, as I warned at the 100-day mark, Biden let GOP lies and obstruction fester too long, only rectifying his passivity with a stirring Jan. 6 speech. By then, his poll numbers had tumbled.
Meanwhile, two major initiatives — voting rights and Build Back Better — have stalled thanks to two Senate Democrats, suggesting his agenda was unrealistic given his margins in Congress. His heady expectations for ending the pandemic also came back to haunt him. Biden can recover if he stops trying to “lower the temperature”; takes on extremist, antidemocratic Republicans and reckless governors; goes after untaxed corporations; and takes fighting crime seriously.
The messaging coming from the administration must be clearer, compelling and maybe a little less self-righteous. If Biden could find ways to let Americans know that their participation, votes, ideas, public service, identities and continued learning matters to the success of our country, maybe we could all let the dumpster fire burn out and resume the efforts that will snap us out of tribalism and distraction. — Joni B. in San Francisco.
I assumed Biden would improve after I awarded him a C- for his first 100 days. Wrong. From Afghanistan to the southern border to sky-high inflation, Biden has so far failed — shockingly so. His communication skills — a key for any president — are terrible. His recent full-throated condemnation of Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was justified, but indicting the Republican Party en masse was partisan and divisive at a time when unity is desperately needed.
Many Americans who did not vote for him thought Biden would at least bring competence to the job. They have so far been disappointed. To right the ship and begin regaining confidence, Biden could start by distancing himself from the policies of his party’s radical progressives.
It’s not anywhere near enough to offset the rest of his woes, but during his first year in office, Biden amassed an “A” record at least when it comes to judges. Presidents who dawdle over judge-picking at the start of their terms find themselves at risk of leaving vacancies unfilled at the end. Biden has seen 41 judges confirmed in his first year, more than any first-term president since Ronald Reagan, and a remarkable increase over Trump’s 23. Unlike Trump, Biden hasn’t yet had a chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy — looking at you, Justice Stephen G. Breyer — but he has had 12 appeals court judges confirmed.
Total numbers tell just part of the success story. The Biden judges are remarkably diverse, and not just in terms of race and gender. More than three-fourths of the confirmed judges are women, and more than half are people of color; Biden named the first openly LGBTQ woman to sit on a federal appeals court and the first Muslim federal judge. Just as striking are their backgrounds: more public defenders to balance out the prosecutors and big-firm lawyers who make up the usual judicial suspects.
His action on climate change will help keep the environment from falling out of the executive branch’s to-do pile. However, his promises to curb U.S. emissions through law and thus for the United States to do its part in mitigating the crisis — arguably his most important plans for helping future generations — have yet to come to fruition. — Daniel O. from Arlington, Va.
… and that’s grading on a Trump-shaped curve. Too often, this White House hoped for the best — and planned for the best. Biden wrongly assumed vaccine uptake would be high. Instead, he failed to persuade a third of the country to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and was caught off guard by the delta variant in the summer and again by omicron in the autumn.
The economy is hot, but inflation is not proving as transitory as the administration insisted. Biden did the right thing, though, by reappointing Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell. Abroad, however, he ignored warnings from his own national security team in pulling out of Afghanistan; the Taliban takeover was entirely foreseeable.
And on Capitol Hill, Biden couldn’t wrangle all 50 Democratic senators to pass Build Back Better. He did enact a bipartisan infrastructure package that Trump couldn’t get through — but that any non-Trump president could have.
Besides forgiving the debt of some students defrauded by their colleges, the Biden administration has done nothing to help solve the student loan crisis keeping millions of Americans under crushing debt. … Few of my friends — college-educated and otherwise — are interested in voting at all this fall for a party that has done almost nothing for us. — Tyler C. in Salt Lake City.
It’s time for a conference with Biden like those I’ve had with dozens of students over 25 years of teaching constitutional law. “I wanted to check in because, as we both know, you are off to a rough start, and it’s hard to get out of a hole,” it always begins. “First step: Stop digging.”
All the self-inflicted injuries my colleagues mention have Biden in a deep hole, his approval rating with him. But he could muddle back to the high 40s if he does the same thing he did during the 2020 campaign: next to nothing. Save his energy for aggression by Russia or China. Take the loss on Build Back Better gracefully, and use the State of the Union to announce the retirement of Anthony S. Fauci and the appointment of a fresh and persuasive face to the vaccine program. Stand rhetorically with parents and kids in favor of keeping schools open. Encourage civility. Smile. Wave. And go back to the basement.
“Stick to the basics,” I’ve told many a student. “Nothing fancy, just what needs to be done. And you might — might — get out of here with a C-.”
Average pundit grade
Average reader grade
Average pundit grade
Average reader grade
Average pundit grade
Average reader grade
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll see you for the next report card — honor roll or bust!