Washington, DC – US President Joe Biden’s first year in office was a rollercoaster, marked by legislative victories and major political setbacks – and with midterm elections set for November, next year promises to be even tougher.
When Biden was inaugurated this past January, outgoing President Donald Trump’s supporters were still angling to overturn election results, the US Capitol was cordoned off by troops, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and the US economy was in shambles.
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Today, Biden’s approval ratings are low and his signature policy proposals bogged down, as Republicans appear set to retake control of Congress.
“Under the circumstances, Biden’s done phenomenally well, getting what he did get done,” James Thurber, a professor of government at American University in Washington, DC, who is writing a book on Biden’s first year in office, told Al Jazeera.
Democrats in Congress pushed through a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus package in March. Bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan in November and a $777bn defence budget in December.
But Biden’s flagship welfare and climate legislation – the $1.75 trillion, 10-year “Build Back Better” plan – has been blocked by Democratic in-fighting and Republican opposition. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused a surge in infections and prices for food and fuel have been rising.
“People will still be disappointed and he will have a rough time in 2022 because it’s an election year,” Thurber said. “It will be an ugly year of confrontation, partisanship and gridlock.”
It would be hard to overstate the stakes of the year ahead for Biden’s presidency. At risk in the November 2022 elections is the Democratic Party’s control of Congress, which will define the political landscape for the remaining two years of Biden’s term.
Democrats hold a narrow 221 to 213 majority in the House of Representatives and a controlling tie vote in the Senate, which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Democratic control of Congress could easily be lost in November when all 435 House seats and a third of the 100-seat Senate are up for election.
Historically, in US politics, the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress in the following election, as the out-of-power party mobilises its voters.
In jeopardy are Biden’s ambitious policy proposals ranging from addressing climate change to investing in childcare, to reforming the immigration system, to protecting reproductive rights for millions of women.
“The Republicans go into this cycle with huge structural advantages,” James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told Al Jazeera.
Declining poll numbers
Biden enjoyed a kind of honeymoon with the American public in his first six months in office, with his approval rating hovering above 53 percent and disapproval near 43 percent. But by August, those trends had flipped.
Today, Biden’s disapproval sits at 52 percent and approval at 43 percent, putting him within range of Trump’s historically bad ratings and below every other modern president at this point in their presidencies.
“The public is increasingly judging Biden relatively negatively. His approval rating is underwater, and strong disapproval is significantly higher than strong approval,” Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Al Jazeera.
The weight that places on Democratic candidates was highlighted in the Virginia governor’s race this past November, when Republican Glenn Youngkin, a businessman endorsed by Trump, defeated Biden-backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Fall of Kabul
While Biden’s job approval was falling slowly during the middle of the year, Afghanistan was a “catalysing event”, Kondik told Al Jazeera.
The sudden and unexpected fall of Kabul to the Taliban, against whom the US had waged war for two decades, raised doubts in voters’ minds about the Biden administration’s competency. A renewed migration crisis on the US border with Mexico, supply chain disruptions and inflation added to Biden’s woes.
Meanwhile, Biden’s inability to woo holdout Democratic Senator Joe Manchin to support his Build Back Better plan amplified voters’ doubts. “Presidents don’t do well with major cleavages in their own parties,” Thurber said. “It’s going to be a messy year.”
A number of possible events could change the political dynamic for Biden in 2022. Biden, who is 79 and has held public office for almost half a century, knows well the institution of the US Senate and has good working relationships with key power brokers.
Biden’s maintained a constructive relationship with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell who holds the keys to a lot of what Biden wants to do. If faced with a Republican Congress, Biden could still achieve successes by pivoting to the centre of US politics.
Meanwhile, Biden has sidestepped the very public rejection by Manchin of his Build Back Better plan, and pledged to carry on, holding out hope for a breakthrough in the New Year.
“A lot of us have underestimated Joe Biden,” Manisha Sinha, a historian at the University of Connecticut, told Al Jazeera. “[But] he clearly understood the moment and has risen to the moment in a way that I did not expect. One year is not enough time to judge a president.”