The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s policies have been good. But they are nowhere near enough.

President Biden shakes hands with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) following signing into law the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 at the White House on Aug. 16. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Prominent Democrats and even some in the news media are describing President Biden’s policy accomplishments as extensive and groundbreaking after the passage of a string of bills over the past two months. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the president “a bit of a superhero.” But let’s keep it real. Biden’s policies are notable but still fairly limited. He and his allies’ suggestions during the campaign and early last year that Biden could transform the nation as much as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did aren’t close to panning out so far.

In assessing the record of Biden and Democrats, it’s worth going through the administration’s record in detail. Here are the policies Biden aides and other Democrats tend to tout the most, in order of their adoption:

The American Rescue Plan. The big economic stimulus at the start of Biden’s term was not a clear-cut success. It contributed to the great job growth over the last two years, but also to very high inflation. Because the U.S. government had pumped so much money into the economy and the nation was recovering from the pandemic by the time Biden entered office, it’s likely that job growth and inflation would have been heightened regardless of whether the rescue plan was passed.

There was a great policy in this legislation: the universal child tax credit. But it was not renewed, largely because of Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) objections.

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The bipartisan infrastructure package. Building roads, getting broadband access to more Americans and other provisions in this bill are good. But infrastructure was not one of the top five or even top 10 issues that the United States needed to address in 2021.

The real promise of this provision was electoral — that passing the rescue plan, infrastructure bill and other economic-focused legislation would help Biden and Democrats appeal to moderate and conservative voters without college degrees and ensure Democratic success in the midterm elections and beyond.

Perhaps because of inflation, this hope didn’t pan out. Biden’s poll numbers are dismal outside of the core Democratic base.

The Afghanistan withdrawal. Even though it was poorly executed, this was a laudable decision by the president. That said, the United States had already largely pulled out from Afghanistan — there were only about 3,500 troops there before the withdrawal.

The appointments of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and dozens of other left-leaning jurists to federal judgeships. I’m thrilled we have a Black woman on the Supreme Court. It’s also great the Biden administration has tapped fewer corporate lawyers for judgeships and instead chosen more attorneys with backgrounds like serving as public defenders.

These judges could end up pushing U.S. law in a more equitable direction. But with six GOP appointees on the Supreme Court, they are for now slated to have their views ignored or overruled for years, if not decades.

The Inflation Reduction Act. The climate portion of this law, if it actually reduces emissions as Democrats hope, could be the best policy adopted by a U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Climate policy is that important. The $2,000 cap on prescription drug spending for seniors in the act is the kind of policy that will meaningfully improve some Americans’ day-to-day lives, even if it doesn’t fully kick in until 2025.

Many of the other policies in it are fairly incremental. For example, Biden campaigned on creating a public health insurance option for all Americans, not what the law does: increasing subsidies for the small fraction getting insurance through Obamacare.

Even though Democrats don’t talk about this as much, there is one policy area beyond these five achievements where I think the Biden administration is making changes that could be truly transformative: reining in corporate power.

Biden chose a fairly progressive slate of officials to run agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These appointees are still in the early stages of their work, but if they have a full four or eight years we could see big changes: many more Americans in labor unions; fewer mergers that create virtual monopolies in major industries; companies that behave better because they are wary of the federal government suing or fining them.

There are many other policies Democrats are trumpeting, particularly the recently passed bipartisan bills to make it easier to manufacture microchips in the United States, provide additional health care to soldiers exposed to burn pits and reduce gun violence. But the gun control legislation is largely toothless, which is why Republicans were willing to let it pass. The microchips and burn pits provisions are useful policies but not broad, sweeping legislation.

Biden and his allies seem to think passing any bipartisan bill is a huge success. But bipartisan legislation on smaller-scale legislation happened even under presidents like Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who were hated by the opposition party.

What the United States really needs is for the parties to come together on big issues such as climate change — and that’s not happening under Biden, just as it didn’t happen under his predecessors. Nor are the bipartisan policies he actually is passing gaining him much good will from Republican voters and thereby boosting Democratic hopes in the midterms.

The huge problem is many issues haven’t been meaningfully addressed over the past two years: democracy concerns such as voting rights, election subversion and gerrymandering; abortion rights; substantive gun policy changes; major initiatives to reduce income and racial inequality; legislation to lower the costs of child care, housing and higher education; measures that really rein in the power of corporations and the rich; anything to combat a Supreme Court that increasingly just executes the goals of the Republican Party. On so many of the issues that dominated the Democratic primary debates in 2019 and 2020, or were very prominent in the news over the past two years, Biden and Democrats haven’t been able to do much.

Before the midterms, Biden and Democrats in Congress might revise the presidential election certification process to prevent the kind of maneuvers Trump and his allies tried in 2020. The president is expected to announce this week forgiveness of some students loans. But those policies are also more incremental changes than fixing the underlying challenges of higher education affordability and threats to democracy.

It’s mostly not Biden’s fault that not enough has passed. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), among others, have balked at some policies. They also won’t change the filibuster rules to ease the passage of many policies they claim to support.

Even if Biden’s policy record isn’t as great as I would have hoped, he has one huge, historic accomplishment: getting elected in the first place. That victory prevented a second term for a terrible president and ensured normal U.S. governance again, which was particularly important because of the covid-19 pandemic. By far the best reason to vote for the Democrats this November is that the Republicans, even without Trump in office, remain a much worse alternative.

The positive case for the Democrats is more complicated. Biden and the Democrats have passed many bills. They haven’t passed enough bills or the right bills, considering the nation’s problems.

Biden so far isn’t the next FDR. Perhaps neither he nor anyone else should have been suggesting that, especially considering the Democrats’ tiny majorities in Congress.