David Remnick: In 2020, in the presidential campaign, Joe Biden managed to unify the Democrats behind him as a reassuring figure in the center of the party, and at the very same time, he put forward one of the most progressive and transformational agendas ever seen in modern Washington. Now a year in, it's time to take stock of the successes and the failures of this administration. I'm going to turn things over now to staff writer, Evan Osnos, who reports from Washington. Evan covered Joe Biden's campaign, and more recently, he profiled West Virginia's Joe Manchin, perhaps the second most powerful person in Washington right now. Here's Evan Osnos.
Evan Osnos: When Joe Biden came into office, it was a moment of extraordinary turmoil. It was just two weeks since the violence of January 6th, and under those circumstances, just a return to normalcy would've been challenging, but he had all along been promising something more. I covered his campaign, and over the course of it, Biden began to talk in larger and larger terms about what was possible, the sense that the only way to push back Trumpism was for Democrats to go big economically and politically. There was something incredibly ambitious about that vision, and I think to some, it seemed impossible. To others, it was an inspiration, but he has really been wrestling with that ever since.
I called up my colleague, also a Washington correspondent, Susan Glasser. Susan, President Biden didn't quite set out to be FDR, but he hung a portrait of FDR on the wall, the Oval Office, and he clearly invited the comparison. Looking at that now, it feels like a very long time ago. I wonder what you make of those ambitions that he had as you look at it now.
Susan Glasser: I guess there's many different FDRs, and I think there's the FDR as crisis president, which is almost certainly what Biden meant to channel by hanging that up. Then there is this FDR, LBJ as architects of a new American progressive order. I think that it was the morphing of aspiration that we saw in the first spring of the Biden presidency that did take me and I think others to a certain extent by surprise given the obvious gap between the political abilities of Biden to enact anything like a transformative progressive agenda, but I think, again, he came into office as a crisis president. Remember that the model that a lot of people had in mind back in the 2020 election campaign really was Trump as this evil reincarnation of Herbert Hoover, that he was the guy who plunged American society into chaos and seemed completely unable to master the crisis or to give Americans a view for a way out of it.
Evan Osnos: In some ways, Biden talked elliptically about crisis for a long time, and then he gave a speech on the anniversary of the January 6th capital attack and you wrote, and I'm reading here that, "It was a powerful speech, an angry speech, a necessary speech. It was also a speech that Biden wanted very much not to deliver." Why is that?
Susan Glasser: That still is actually one of the mysteries to me. Although I think I understand it, here in Washington, there is conventional wisdom among some Democrats that basically Donald Trump remains a third rail of politics for Democrats in terms of their public messaging, that Democrats won elections in 2018 in the midterms, not by talking about Donald Trump, but by talking about things like healthcare and what they were going to get done for middle-class voters.
One has to assume that Biden subscribed to that to a certain extent, at least the political analysis because he spent so much of his first year in office not talking about Donald Trump who assumed this Voldemort-like quality of being he who shall not be named. Interestingly enough, Biden finally comes out and gives this full through to January 6th speech. 16 times, he refers in that speech to the former president, never once does utter his name, although the words are crystal clear and very scathing, but basically, Biden and his White House, their strategy seemed to put him above the fray and to let the Democrats on Capitol Hill be the ones wielding axes and hatchets and subpoenas, if you will.
Evan Osnos: Was he wrong really to wait as long as he did to come out swinging against Trumpism? Was that instinct, in a sense, misplaced, do you think?
Susan Glasser: Well, what we can certainly say in this early date of the Biden presidency is that it didn't help him at a time when he desperately needed political help, and what is so striking and certainly we don't know how this ends, but people will look at Biden's first year and the line is pretty unmistakable. You had him coming in, all things considered actually at quite a high level of popularity, around 60% of Americans approving certainly a collective sigh of relief, even from a decent-sized chunk of Republicans who bought into as many Democrats did Biden's promise of normalcy and return to a sense of competence, governance, status quo, anti-ism if you will.
Then boom, by the middle of 2021, Biden's numbers started going down, and that's when independence day from COVID 19 did not happen as he had promised. It wouldn't even held a party on the White House lawn for July 4th, and it started down then, and it never really went back up. Look, it's not Donald Trump's fault anymore that we weren't prepared for this Omicron wave. It's not Donald Trump's fault that the testing infrastructure in the United States was not ready, that we didn't have an easy way to reopen things. Biden imposed mandates that might have blocked both the Delta wave on the Omicron wave far too late after the politics of it had solidified in a very debilitating way.
Evan Osnos: It obviously doesn't all happen in a vacuum, and what has been going on offstage in effect has been this very sustained effort by conservative broadcasting in many cases by the former president's allies and the former president himself to muddy up the process. Was there something that the Biden administration do you think could have done that might have short-circuited that strategy, which has turned out to gum things up so dramatically?
Susan Glasser: Look, you've written about that and so have I. I do believe it's very important to say that Republicans made a self-fulfilling prophecy out of vaccine denialism and refusal to take public health measures, and that has clearly influenced the political trajectory of the Biden presidency so far. That seems absolute and unequivocal.
I also think that they have been remarkably successful, Biden's opponents and this kind of right infrastructure, at shaping the terms at every step along the way of the debate and the discourse. It's the fear of further stirring up this hornet's nest that seems to have shaped a lot of the Biden decision-making around the virus and the pandemic, for example, on mandates.
Why is it today that we don't have a mandate for airline travel that you have to be vaccinated as basically all other comparable countries have? We are literally allowing people to fly around the country right now who are unvaccinated and spread the virus. If you were serious about stopping the pandemic and believing that that was the foundation of success for your administration for this country, not to mention your political standing, that is a clear cut measure that you would not only take now but would've taken many, many, many months ago, and many more people would not have died as a result of it.
Evan Osnos: You can't talk about politics today, Susan, without talking about Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He comes up constantly on every issue, it feels like, and he's obviously a major point of frustration for this President and for Democrats. Strategically, it's been impossible to move him, but what options do you think there are now for Biden when it comes to appealing to the public, appealing to Manchin's particular needs, his political reality? How do you think he moves forward with something like the Build Back Better Bill in the coming months?
Susan Glasser: It's interesting. I think we're now in a situation, which I think has some echoes with the Washington past where Manchin won't even take the deal that he himself offered a couple of months ago. I was just saying the other day, this reminds me very much actually of the failed Clinton healthcare plan back in the 1990s. Remember, that was the very first thing that Bill Clinton wanted to do. He very controversially assigned his wife, Hillary Clinton, the first lady, to oversee task force. There were huge negotiations. Everybody started out expecting that, of course, some bill would be passed even if it wasn't everything.
Bob Dole did something that is basically what Joe Manchin is doing. He negotiated and negotiated and negotiated, put down various offers which had Clinton seized that offer, said yes to it, even though it wasn't everything he wanted, he would've passed a bill. By the time months later when Bill Clinton got around to trying to accept Bob Dole's deal, it was no longer on offer, and Bob Dole himself would not accept the deal. To me, that's where we are with Joe Manchin. Joe Manchin won't even accept the deal, the $1.8 trillion Build Back Better Bill that he himself offered six weeks ago. I'm very skeptical or at least doubtful at the moment that Biden has a path forward there.
The other thing I would say is that the Manchin, Manchin, Manchin thing, in some ways, has I think contributed to the downgrading and demeaning of the Biden presidency by making Biden seem once again as just another Senator and he's just negotiating with this single Senator. I think it's shown that one guy can come up the works and diminish the power of the office. It's been surprising to me that Democrats have focused so much, except that they're Democrats, so it's not surprising. They focused so much on attacking the one Senator of their own. In a 50-50 Senate, what they haven't talked about is the united wall of Republican opposition. That's the reason that this bill isn't passing is Republicans, it's not one Democrat, it's 50 Republicans.
Evan Osnos: After the Build Back Better Bill stalled, Biden turned to voting rights, that became the new focus. In a bid to get that passed, he endorsed changing the filibuster rules this week, which is something that, as a former senator, he had always resisted.
Susan Glasser: Barack Obama had endorsed a change even back in the 2020 campaign, that was one of the things that he did, but Biden held back until now. I think the frustration, the very real prospect of losing both the House and Senate, all of those things have spurred and given new energy to a last-minute push by Democrats on voting rights.
Here too, I think it's very similar to the Build Back Better, you basically have this political question for Democrats, which is, do you want to push forward measures that are very popular potentially with your voters but are impossible in the gridlock situation you face in the Congress today, or do you want to find out, here are the things that we actually can get done? Biden, by inclination, is the latter, but in terms of where the politics of today is, it's all about the former in both parties.
That is a big reason why it took so long to get something like the Infrastructure Bill done, and I have to say, a year ago, before the horror of January 6th, the thing that happened that morning was that Democrats won control of the Senate that they were not expected to win because Donald Trump had turned off all the Republicans in Georgia by saying essentially, "Your votes won't be counted, you can't be trusted," and he basically handed control of the Senate to Democrats. What have they done with it?
Evan Osnos: I think this is what mystifies people so much about Joe Manchin frankly is that here is a bill that would literally provide child tax credits for tens of thousands of children in one of the poorest states in the country, and yet he has objected to it, and yet he has said, "No, I'm not going to do anything." [crosstalk]
Susan Glasser: Why not bring up a vote then, Evan, on child tax credits? Why not bring up a vote on all of these individual things? It's not just Joe Manchin, but plenty of people including me by the way, who says, "I don't know what's in this bill, I don't know what's in this bill." You're just going to spend billions of generic dollars, nobody understands what it is, and we're going to wrap everything into one piece of legislation. Why not take the politically popular aspects of it where you could get some Republican votes as well, by the way, on many of the provisions of this. That was an alternate course available.
Evan Osnos: The perfect is the enemy of the good in this case.
Susan Glasser: Always.
Evan Osnos: Susan Glasser, thank you very much.
Susan Glasser: Thank you, Evan.
Evan Osnos: That's the New Yorker, Susan Glasser, who writes the column letter from Biden's Washington, and I'm Evan Osnos, the staff writer. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, we'll continue looking at year one of the Biden administration in just a moment, stick around.
David Remnick: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. We've been talking about the Biden administration in its first year and all the challenges that lie ahead. Steering us through this is Evan Osnos who's a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and is the author of Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, which came out in the fall.
Evan Osnos: Biden has faced a huge array of challenges left by his predecessor. No area has been more vexed for him than immigration. The Trump administration was laser-focused on changing policies around asylum and immigration quotas, changing them in ways that would not be easy to undo, not to mention the long shadow of family separations at the border. Hey, Jonathan Blitzer.
Jonathan Blitzer: Evan, how are you?
Evan Osnos: Good to see you.
Jonathan Blitzer: Likewise.
Evan Osnos: My colleague Jonathan Blitzer followed immigration policy throughout the Trump administration and into Biden's. What were the key promises that they made as a campaign, and where do they stand on those now?
Jonathan Blitzer: The biggest promises the Biden administration made coming into office had to do with asylum at the border. That was both literally and symbolically some of the ugliest stuff that the Trump administration had done over the last four years. For one thing, the Biden administration said it was going to reverse a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Orwellian term that basically described a policy that turned 60,000 asylum seekers away and forced them to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims were processed by backlogged American Immigration Courts. Of course, to wait in Mexico indefinitely is an extremely dangerous proposition.
Before the music stopped, before the courts blocked the administration from going any further, the White House successfully managed to parole in about 13,000 people. That's no small fee under the circumstances, but when you look at the number of people who in theory were eligible to be brought in, you're looking at a population of some 60,000 people.
The other giant policy that really matters is a policy called Title 42, which basically, the Trump administration contrived during the pandemic to justify expelling in mass, anyone who showed up at the southern border seeking asylum on the grounds that they post a public health risk.
Evan Osnos: A COVID risk in effect.
Jonathan Blitzer: A pandemic-related risk. What's become clear in the months and now years, since that order was first put in place, was that a number of scientists at places like the CDC and elsewhere have said that there's no actual scientific benefit or public health rationale for keeping this policy in place. The Biden administration has clung to it mostly because they're scared to lose this tool that allows them to basically expel anyone who shows up at the border without giving them any hearing.
It's a very seductive policy and a tragically seductive policy for the Biden administration because it's not really a process. As one administration official described it to me, it's a non-process process. It gives the administration the illusion of being able to clear the border and seemingly take the border out of the news by expelling people in mass. What's happening, as a result, is they're not building up a policy to begin to deal with these numbers. Instead, they're just expelling anyone who shows up.
Evan Osnos: Jonathan, how much of Trump's policy is expected to stay in place for the foreseeable future, and what really can't be unwound?
Jonathan Blitzer: It's overwhelming to me, the lasting impact of what Trump has done. What's interesting to me covering this is that I know inside the administration, there are people who had a clear understanding of how hard it was going to be to unwind some of these things. There was a plan that was laid out, a provisional plan, as these things are, during the transition.
What we've seen happen is a high turnover of people who are expert in immigration policy, who are now no longer in the administration. They started with a sense of high purpose, they got burned out, they got frustrated, they're gone. The people really driving very complex immigration policy at the border are high-level political advisors to the President who look at these issues not from a lens of what's best operationally or from a policy perspective, but who were preoccupied with the political impact of all of this on the President.
We're talking about Ron Klain, Biden's Chief of Staff. We're talking about Susan Rice, the Domestic Policy Council. We're talking about Jake Sullivan at the National Security Council. These are leaders whose portfolios don't typically include granular operational details involving border policy, but because they've judged this issue to be so politically dangerous to Biden, they're calling the shots.
A lot of the plans that had been laid out that would have allowed us to see that the administration was marking out incremental goals, those plans have been frozen. Now it's a little bit of just catch-as-catch-can responding to crises as they emerge at the border, which is honestly surprising this late into the administration.
Evan Osnos: One area Biden hoped to go big, and within which he has a very narrow window to act, is climate change. There were some climate provisions in the Infrastructure Bill, which Congress passed in November, but the vast majority of the big proposals were folded into the Build Back Better legislation, which has stalled. Elizabeth Kolbert is my colleague here at The New Yorker and has written extensively about climate. Broadly speaking, Betsy, how did Joe Biden hope to tackle climate change when he came into office?
Elizabeth Kolbert: It's a several front battle, I guess, if we can use that word. There are regulatory means, there are procurement. The administration has gone pretty big on the let's use the power of the federal government spending. The federal government just buys a lot of stuff. Let's try to use that to push as a push mechanism for clean energy, for electric vehicles. Then, of course, there was legislation, and as you alluded to, on the legislative front, we've gotten bollixed up.
Evan Osnos: How would you, if you had to, give a grade to the administration's performance so far?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that's tough. They have put in place new car standards, vehicle miles, which translates very directly into emission. I think they deserve credit for that. The process Jonathan alluded to in the previous segment, how hard it is to unroll some of these things that the Trump administration did, I think that they are also coming up against that. Rulemaking is laborious, unmaking rules is laborious, it's time-consuming. You want it to hold up in court, everything will be litigated. I think that also hangs over everything the administration does now.
You've got to close a lot of fossil fuel plants, we certainly shouldn't be pursuing any more fossil fuel projects. I think that is where the Biden administration is justifiably getting pushback at this point. They are still handing out a lot of oil leases and things like that. Now, they would argue well, once again, we can't just turn on a dime. They did have a court case. They were trying to stop some of these leases or slow them down, and they had a court case, which they lost to a Trump appointee in a federal court. They do have their hands tied in a bunch of ways, unfortunately, but step one for not making problems worse is stop digging the hole. We haven't even done that yet, unfortunately.
Evan Osnos: Betsy, it won't shock you to hear the name Joe Manchin has already come up in these conversations today, and he's a big force when it comes to climate change legislation, or more specifically, impeding climate change legislation. He is obviously somebody who comes out of a state that mines a lot of coal, he has made part of his fortune from the coal industry. Yet, there was this interesting moment when he proposed his alternative bill to the Build Back Better legislation, there was something in there that might have addressed some concerns about climate. How do you think about the possibility, if there is any, of getting Joe Manchin on board for climate change legislation?
Elizabeth Kolbert: There was a really interesting development just recently where the coal miners in West Virginia came out in favor of some of the provisions of Build Back Better because there's money in there for transitioning mine workers into new jobs, new industries. I think that now you have this interesting situation where you have the mine owners versus the mineworkers, and which side is Joe Manchin going to come down on? It's not a happy thought to think that he would even sell out the miners in favor of the mine owners, but anything unfortunately seems possible right now.
Evan Osnos: President Biden's fortunes are tied, as nearly all presidents are, to what happens in the economy. What happens with jobs, inflation, and the emotional sense that people have about whether things are getting better or getting worse. Because of the pandemic, this administration has really been in uncharted territory since day one. John Cassidy covers the economy and politics for The New Yorker.
Part of the puzzle of the economy today is there's actually a fair amount of good news right now, unemployment claims are low, wages are rising, the stock market has been hitting new highs, the highs that Donald Trump would have, of course, crowed about if he was still president, and yet Americans are feeling pessimistic. The measures of the mood are quite clear. Why is that? How do you think that affects politics? Why do you get this combination of factors that produces overall this sense of meh?
John Cassidy: Malaise or whatever we use that.
Evan Osnos: Right. Your word.
John Cassidy: Jimmy Carter's word. That was the famous word from the '70s, which people are starting to dredge up again.
Evan Osnos: The word I would say that the Biden administration is desperate to run away from, but of course, it is the word that are on-- [crosstalk]
John Cassidy: I'm on the other side of the debate here. I think the narrative about the economy is far too negative at the moment. Let's go through a few of them. If you look at jobs, 6.4 million jobs created last year, that's a calendar year record. The unemployment rate down to 3.9%. We did get down to those rates pre-pandemic, but if you look at it over the last 20 or 30 years, that's a very low rate of unemployment, 3.9%. Child poverty rate has fallen by 30% in the last year largely because of the stimulus package which had the child income tax credits, sending people cheques.
Wages, they're are not rising quite as high as inflation overall. We're talking 5% or 6% wage gains are strong growth. Obviously, it's been eaten into by inflation. You'd say overall, real wages are about level or down a bit. In certain sectors of the economy, which we should be more concerned about, low wage industries, especially, we've had huge wage gains over the last year, 10%, 15%. If you look at leisure and hospitality, people have had a $2 an hour roughly raise over the last year, which they were only earning $14, $15 an hour. That's very material. You put all those on one side of the ledger, and it's a long list, and then you put inflation on the other side of the ledger, it seems to me that the narrative is skewed here.
Evan Osnos: The Biden administration would probably say, well, they would put some of this at the feet of our business. They'd say that you reporters are all stuck in this negative mode. Then there is the question of style and of whether or not the administration has figured out how to capture people's attention, force them in effect to acknowledge the good news. Is there something along the way? Are there moments that you look to and say, "This was a missed opportunity. This was a moment when they could have said to people, 'The numbers are indisputable. You have to acknowledge the progress that's been made on the economy,' and they didn't do it"?
John Cassidy: I think they could have done more. They did talk about early on. If you remember, after they passed the stimulus package back in March, there were stories out of the White House that they were going to send the President on the road to promote it. They were going to send the Vice President under their cabinet members out on the road to promote what they were doing. I think they did for a week or two, but then, it just stopped. There wasn't a sustained media campaign over the entire year, as far as I know anyway, to promote the various aspects of the bill, and how it's been working.
Evan Osnos: Yet, it does feel as if one of the things you're identifying is that they have been unable to figure out a way to force people to pay attention. Is that specific, do you think to this administration, or is there a new refelection going on? [crosstalk]
John Cassidy: I've been critical here, but I want to say something in the White House's defense here. The pandemic overrides everything. It's very hard for me to see how given the cost of the pandemic over the last few year, the White House could have somehow changed the story to their domestic policy successes because if you look at the job figures, just to get back to what we're talking about earlier, there's still a shortfall of about 4 or 5 million jobs from the pre-pandemic levels. It's overwhelmingly concentrated in those sectors which were hardest hit by the pandemic like restaurants, leisure, theme parks, things like that. The rest of the economy, just in sheer quantitative terms, has largely recovered.
Evan Osnos: Do you think that will lift Biden's fortunes a bit?
John Cassidy: Yes. It is a game of four innings. We've only had one, so we're only at the end of the first year. Lots of presidents have been very unpopular at the end of the first year. I think it's ridiculous to write off Biden. Who knows what will happen? Now for the midterms, obviously, it's looking shaky for the Democrats, but for 2024, I think it's way too early to come to any conclusions whatsoever. It is three years away. They used to say in England that a week's a long time in politics. If a week's a long time, three years is an eternity.
David Remnick: The New Yorkers Evan Osnos speaking with John Cassidy, and we heard before him from Elizabeth Kolbert and John Blitzer, all of them, staff writers for The New Yorker, and you can find all their work on newyorker.com.
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