‘And now history has delivered us to one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced.

Four historic crises.

All at the same time.

A perfect storm.’

— Candidate Joe Biden, August 2020

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden sold himself as prepared to address four crises that were roiling American life in 2020. He laid them out clearly: fighting the coronavirus, restoring the economy, combating climate change and making the country more equal.

“History has delivered us to one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced,” Biden said at the Democratic National Convention in 2020. “Four historic crises, all at the same time. A perfect storm.” Biden repeated those challenges often on the campaign trail and ticked through all four during his inaugural address.

Those four issues remain central to Biden’s presidency. “I think if you take a look at what we’ve been able to do, you’d have to acknowledge we made enormous progress,” President Biden said Wednesday of his first year in office.

But unforeseen issues and staunch Republican opposition have hampered his efforts to resolve or make progress on them, and left many who clamored for the changes Biden promised feeling that not enough has been done to this point. On the first anniversary of his inauguration, four Washington Post reporters, plus activists and other experts, assessed Biden’s performance in each of the four areas he emphasized during his campaign.

‘The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.’

— Candidate Joe Biden, August 2020

From defeating the virus to living with it

By Annie Linskey, White House reporter

One year after Biden confidently said in his inaugural address that “We can overcome this deadly virus,” the country is struggling with a fifth surge of infections and familiar problems.

Hospitals in some areas are struggling to treat patients, medicines to treat covid-19 are in short supply, and tests are difficult to come by. “Most people are going to get covid,” Janet Woodcock, the acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, predicted during a recent Senate hearing.

The Biden administration has had to shift its approach over the past year, from trying to beat the virus to figuring out how to live with it.

The good news is that the vaccines — which the Biden administration made widely available — have prevented deaths from matching the pace of that upward trend. But the country is still enduring more than 1,500 deaths per day on average.

White House officials maintain they’ve made huge strides: Unlike this time last year, shutdowns are rare, and most school systems are operating, despite disruptions. Tools and medicines now exist, they note, to turn covid from a deadly disease to a manageable one.

The vaccines keep most people out of the hospitals but not free of infections, as previously thought. The initial two-shot regimen that most Americans received as immunizations has become a three-shot ordeal and could require even more jabs.

J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ticked off the problems: “Communication is still a wreck. Testing is still a wreck. Getting therapies out to market is not happening.”

Health experts give the White House credit for quickly ramping up distribution of the shots, which have proved effective at preventing hospitalizations even as the virus mutated.

But Biden and his team didn’t plan for the possibility that a sizable minority of Americans would resist taking them.

The stalled uptake prompted the Biden administration to issue a series of mandates this year, including a directive requiring large businesses to require that employees either be vaccinated or regularly tested. The White House estimated it would affect 80 million Americans. But the Supreme Court struck it down this month.

The court allowed more-limited mandates to stand, determining that Biden could insist on vaccinations for health-care workers at institutions that receive federal funds. The White House estimates 17 million Americans fit into this category. Biden has also required members of the military and federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated.

One of the starkest recent problems has been a lack of coronavirus tests. This could have gone differently — the Biden administration moved quickly to approve new rapid tests for widespread use, working with businesses to help do so. But they then failed to plot out a national strategy that allowed for a scenario where millions of Americans would need to test multiple times a month.

Several covid treatments have been approved for emergency use. The Biden administration cut red tape and made raw materials available to help Pfizer develop its antiviral pill, which has shown to be highly effective. But there are not enough doses of the pills in the short term, so it won’t be the workhorse that doctors were hoping for to combat the current wave of the omicron variant.

Biden’s covid team also struggled to communicate at key moments. They offered mixed messages on whether boosters would be needed before coalescing around a message that they’re necessary. Guidance about when to wear masks — and what kind of masks to use — has zigged and zagged.

And most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its advice on how long to isolate and under what circumstances the exposed can return to work.

“Two years later, the pandemic was not what we expected,” said Morrison. “They’ve been in power for a year now. And guess what, they own this.”

While experts blame Biden for a patchwork response, they also understand many factors are beyond his control. In addition to the Supreme Court gutting Biden’s most significant vaccine mandate, Republican governors have blocked mask mandates and riled up voters against masking, which is a highly effective way of controlling viral spread.

Misinformation about covid and vaccines has spread widely on social media, with limited controls from tech companies. These platforms became fertile ground for unfounded worries about the vaccines to spread.

“I’m starting to believe that as far as covid-19 is concerned, the nation is virtually ungovernable,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University’s law school, citing the environment the Biden White House has confronted. “You’ve got a hostile court, a hostile political opposition and a large swath of the American public that will do the opposite of what you ask them to do.”

‘The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.’

— Candidate Joe Biden, August 2020

Interventions that worked — perhaps too well

By Jeff Stein, White House economics reporter

The Biden administration has largely resolved the economic crises it set out to confront, as 6 million Americans have joined the workforce, and economic growth has snapped back sharply.

But a new economic force that emerged in the early months of the presidency has proved much harder to address, and the White House has struggled to confront it: inflation.

As Biden took office, his economic team was determined to quickly get the country out of the scenario that plagued the nation both during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that began in 2008. In both instances, the U.S. economy contracted severely as consumers, firms and investors pulled back spending, creating a devastating cycle that took years to reverse.

The economic crisis created by covid appeared for many reasons to resemble these historic shocks. When the pandemic began, demand plummeted nationwide as Americans stayed at home and stopped their normal routines. Businesses affected by new patterns of behavior shuttered at alarming rates. Unemployment spiked, and the country was staring at a prolonged downturn.

The precedents set by the Great Depression and Great Recession were front of mind for many economists, including those at the White House. Democrats wanted to avoid a repeat of the recovery under President Barack Obama, where slow progress contributed to enormous Republican gains in Congress. They were determined to jump-start the economy with an infusion of federal cash that would fuel more economic spending, more hiring and more growth. In March 2021, after months of wrangling, the Biden administration approved a $1.9 trillion rescue plan that did exactly that.

“Nearly a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty and fear,” Biden said in his speech at the 2020 Democratic convention. “Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail, and he believed America could, as well. And he did. And so can we.”

The intervention worked. But if anything, it may have worked too well, according to many economists. Biden’s plan flooded the economy with so much cash that it has effectively started to overheat, exacerbating inflation that has increased prices for consumers.

In 2021, the U.S. economy’s total output — known as its gross domestic product — surged far beyond what was expected and may have grown by an astonishing 6 percent.

The unemployment rate plummeted to 3.9 percent, the fastest single drop on record.

More jobs are available than at any point in U.S. history, as workers take advantage of unprecedented leverage to find new opportunities elsewhere in the labor market.

The White House has said new applications for starting small businesses is up 30 percent.

But the spending spigot may have gotten out of control, with too much money chasing too few goods, in turn leading to price spikes known as inflation. Boosted by demand, inflation rose by 7 percent year over year — the biggest increase in four decades — as families faced higher prices for gas, food, housing, medicine and other essentials.

Supply chains were stretched beyond their capacity and struggled to accommodate the new demand. Also exacerbating matters has been the pandemic, which has continued to wreak havoc on the labor market and driven wage pressures higher.

“They were correct in focusing on wanting to ensure American families were getting back to work,” Matthew J. Slaughter, an economist at Dartmouth College, said of the White House. “But there were a lot of voices at the time saying we’ve already had a massive amount of fiscal stimulus and ongoing monetary stimulus.”

For months, the administration insisted the inflation was “transitory” and would fade as post-pandemic normalcy returned, a framing critics panned as Americans continued to feel the effects of rising prices. By the summer, Biden himself began to take on the issue more directly, and the administration launched a range of efforts to combat it. But the White House is still projecting optimism that inflation will level off.

There were some signs inflation decelerated at the end of 2021. If inflation cools quickly next year — as many forecasters believe it might — then the administration’s fiscal interventions will appear more justified. But if it does not, voters may be prepared to punish Biden in the 2022 midterms.

“In hindsight, they could have left out some of that spending,” said Chris Rupkey, a market and financial analyst. “But I think everyone on the planet misjudged the speed of this economic recovery.”

‘The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.’

— Candidate Joe Biden, August 2020

More symbolism than results for Black voters

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr., White House reporter

The president’s speech on voting rights had all the markings of a monumental moment in the nation’s tumultuous relationship with race.

The audience was full of civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and the children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both Air Force One and Air Force Two were parked at an Atlanta airport as their occupants prepared speeches aimed at putting a congressional debate on voting rights into the greater context of the civil rights movement. The made-for-TV moment was backdropped by an assemblage of students from historically Black colleges and universities, many decked out in school colors.

But just as notable were the people who had opted not to be there: voting rights groups that had spent years mobilizing mostly Black voters before the 2020 election. But now the object of their ire was the president their efforts had helped elect — who they say has done too little to address issues important to Black voters.

“If all they are doing is coming to give a speech, then I might have some Republicans to be fighting with at that time,” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project and one of the boycotters. “What we need is a plan. What we need are marching orders.”

Biden rode to the White House on the backs of Black voters, who resuscitated his primary campaign in South Carolina, gave him a lead he would not relinquish on Super Tuesday and helped him turn states such as Georgia blue for the first time in nearly two decades.

In return, he promised that his tenure would mark a giant step toward a more equitable America months after people had stormed streets to protest the systemic racism that winds its way through many aspects of American life. And Biden had the math to back him up, particularly after Georgia turned its two Senate seats blue. The victories knotted the upper chamber at 50-50, a tie broken by Kamala D. Harris, the nation’s first Black vice president.

But frustrated critics say Biden and the Democrats have squandered the governing trifecta Black voters helped him acquire. A year after George Floyd’s family spoke at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Biden, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act died in the Senate. A bipartisan effort on police reform collapsed before an agreement was reached.

And federal action on voting rights has also been stymied, as a pair of moderate Democrats have shown themselves unwilling to dismantle the filibuster to advance Democratic aims, including efforts to bolster and protect the right to vote.

The Biden administration says it has made great strides when it comes to racial equity, many of them included in a fact sheet that goes on for nearly 5,000 words about the “real and lasting change for Black Americans.” The administration has delivered $5.8 billion in cumulative investment for HBCUs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up 500 vaccination sites in underserved communities to stem a virus that Black people are 1.4 times as likely to die from as White people, and Biden has directed the federal government to use its purchasing power to help narrow the racial wealth gap. The administration says equity is baked into both the covid relief bill passed in March and an infrastructure deal passed in November.

And the administration has unquestionably increased representation of Black people within it: In addition to running with the first Black woman elected vice president, Biden has pledged to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court and increased the diversity of the federal judiciary.

“I’m proud I appointed … more Black women to the federal bench and the circuit courts and more former public defenders to the bench than any administration in American history,” Biden said in December.

But Biden and the Democrats have said ensuring the right to vote was at the top of their agenda, as evidenced in the Atlanta speech, where he said the Senate filibuster had been abused and should not stand in the way of federalizing voting rights protections.

“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be … on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

Days later Biden went to the U.S. Capitol, hoping to back up his eloquence by stirring his congressional colleagues to approve two pieces of voting rights legislation.

But the effort was dead even before Biden stepped out of his presidential limousine. Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) had made clear that they would not vote to dismantle the filibuster.

Acknowledging an all-but-certain defeat, Biden again tapped into the lessons of the civil rights movement.

“I hope we can get this done. The honest-to-God answer is, I don’t know if we can get this done,” he said. “But one thing for certain, one thing for certain, like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try a second time.”

‘The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The most compelling call for racial justice since the ’60s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.’

— Candidate Joe Biden, August 2020

A historic push, but an ‘existential’ problem remains

By Brady Dennis, national environment reporter

On a cold afternoon, one week into his presidency, Biden had the warming planet on his mind.

“It’s not time for small measures,” Biden said, noting the wildfires, hurricanes and floods that had ravaged parts of the country over the previous year.

He signed a stack of executive orders that day meant to steer the federal government sharply away from the Trump era and toward a future of electric cars, cleaner power and shrinking greenhouse gas emissions. It was time, he said, “to supercharge our administration’s ambitious plan to confront the existential threat of climate change. And it is an existential threat.”

A year later, there’s little doubt Biden is the most climate-focused president in U.S. history. His rhetoric is as ardent, his policy wish list as ambitious as ever.

But the fate of his “whole of government” push to shift from fossil fuels and slash the nation’s emissions at least in half by the end of this decade remains precarious.

His administration is navigating funding opposition in Congress, court challenges and a clock ticking toward midterm elections. The White House has faced criticism from Republican lawmakers and industry representatives, who argue Biden’s climate aspirations will stifle the economy rather than revitalize it. And it has prompted exasperation among allies, who say his actions have not yet lived up to his promises — or to the urgency that science demands.

“If you were to ask me what kind of grade I would give him, I would say: incomplete,” said Jamal Raad, executive director of the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action. Biden has made admirable commitments and some progress, Raad said, but so far, “We have not moved far enough and fast enough.”

Biden quickly rejoined the Paris climate agreement after taking office, tried to rally fellow world leaders at a White House summit and sent his top climate envoy, John F. Kerry, all over the globe in 2021 to push other countries toward bolder action.

He has flexed his executive authority to target or overturn about three quarters of President Donald Trump’s deregulatory energy and environmental policies, while advancing dozens of his own, according to a Washington Post analysis. He proposed tougher tailpipe emissions standards for new cars, sought to jump-start offshore wind farms and halted the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. He mandated that every agency prioritize climate change and that the federal government be carbon-neutral by 2050.

But as Biden begins his second year in office, recent data shows that U.S. emissions are once again rising. A major piece of his climate agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill, where for months the Senate has failed to pass the Build Back Better Act, which contains a historic package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at reducing emissions and boosting clean energy. Without that legislation, advocates worry it will be impossible for Biden to put the country on a trajectory to halve its emissions by 2030.

While Biden has consistently talked about climate change as a national and global emergency, some activists remain baffled that he hasn’t done more to more forcefully use every lever of power at his disposal to tackle the problem.

“It’s strange that people think of Joe Biden as a leader for the climate,” Greta Thunberg told The Post in a recent interview, noting that his administration has continued to approve oil and gas drilling permits on public lands.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case next month that could hamstring the administration’s legal authority to regulate carbon dioxide from U.S. power plants — a significant source of the nation’s emissions. Republicans in Congress have demonstrated little support for climate legislation, and the fossil fuel industry has accused the White House of whiplash, as it pursues an aggressive transition to clean energy but also has sought increased oil production amid rising fuel prices.

“That’s basically, in my opinion, the story of this first year. It’s an inconsistency within the administration over what its true objectives are,” said Lee Fuller, officer for environment and general strategy at the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “Much of the rhetoric of the administration has been fast-paced moves to get off fossil energy that I just don’t think are realistic.”

The president’s top domestic climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, said in an interview that the new administration has made “quite remarkable progress” to put in a place a framework for the profound changes that must happen in coming years. But she said the year ahead will be critical, starting with the need to pass the Build Back Better legislation.

“I don’t blame people for wanting more,” she said. “But you’ve got to celebrate when you make big leaps forward, and we’ve been, I think, pretty successful at doing that.”

To make good on his promises, Raad said, the president who a year ago vowed not to take small measures must find a way to make big changes a reality.

“The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our era and will define President Biden’s legacy — more than any other — decades from now,” he said. “The next year is the make-or-break moment for Biden on climate.”

About this story

Videos produced and edited by JM Rieger with executive producer Tom LeGro, senior producers Peter W. Stevenson and Natalie Jennings and graphics by Danielle Kunitz. Story editing by Natalie Jennings. Copy editing by Carey L. Biron. Design and development by Tyler Remmel. Design editing by Madison Walls.

Annie Linskey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She covered the 2020 presidential campaign for the Post. Before coming to The Post, Linskey was the lead reporter on Democrats for the Boston Globe's Washington bureau during the 2016 campaign. She reported on the Obama White House for Bloomberg News and BusinessWeek.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. is a White House reporter for The Washington Post.
Jeff Stein is the White House economics reporter for The Washington Post. He was a crime reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and, in 2014, founded the local news nonprofit the Ithaca Voice in Upstate New York. He was also a reporter for Vox.
Brady Dennis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy.