Voters will render a midterm verdict on President Joe Biden as they decide whether to keep Democrats in control of Congress. Forgive them if their views about the president’s record so far are a bit complicated.
In less than two years, Biden has chaotically ended the war in Afghanistan while struggling to bring the nation fully out of a two-and-a-half-year pandemic. Domestically, he’s pursued nothing less than a transformation of the American social safety net, with an agenda comprising a dizzying number of progressive policy goals. Biden has accomplished quite a lot of them—perhaps more than most political observers expected with such narrow Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. Some of his legislative moves, on infrastructure and clean-energy manufacturing, for example, have even been bipartisan victories. But Biden has also failed to achieve many of his most progressive priorities, which have fallen victim to a combination of lockstep GOP opposition and crucial defections in his own party.
Biden’s approval ratings have languished far below 50 percent for more than a year; the end of his presidential honeymoon coincided with the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the prolonged pandemic. Most conservatives, of course, never gave him a chance. Many blame his high-spending policies for exacerbating inflation. The view from Democrats and independent voters is more complex: Will they conclude that Biden’s legislative successes—a record infusion of funds to fight climate change, a major infrastructure bill, action to lower prescription-drug prices, modest gun reform—outweigh his failure to enact promises such as paid family leave, universal pre-K, far-reaching voting-rights legislation, and a ban on assault weapons? In the past few months, Biden has bolstered his progressive record without the help of Congress, unilaterally forgiving student-loan debt for millions and pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession.
The signing of just three enormous bills—the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, and this summer’s climate-and-health spending bill—made Biden’s first two years among the most productive of any president in the past half century. The initial pandemic bill, also known as the American Rescue Plan, was about the size of Barack Obama’s two biggest legislative achievements—his initial economic stimulus package and the 2010 Affordable Care Act—combined. The legislation sent $1,400 checks to Americans across the country, nearly doubled the child tax credit, shored up state budget accounts, and funded testing, treatment, and vaccines to fight the pandemic. The politically named Inflation Reduction Act is actually the largest climate bill in U.S. history and allows Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain prescription drugs for the first time.
Beyond those headline bills, Biden more quietly amassed a bevy of smaller legislative wins, often with bipartisan support. A modest gun-safety bill expanded background checks (although not universally), made it easier to prosecute illegal gun trafficking, and provided federal funding for so-called red-flag laws. Congress also passed the CHIPS Act to boost domestic production of semiconductors, a long-stalled postal-reform bill, substantial military aid for Ukraine, and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act—all with fairly broad support from both parties. Biden’s executive actions on student-loan forgiveness and pardons for marijuana possession answered a pair of progressive demands.
Perhaps Biden’s biggest legislative disappointment in his first two years was the Senate’s failure to overcome a Republican filibuster of a major voting-rights-and-election-reform bill at the start of the year. (Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona memorably refused to support an exemption to the Senate’s rules to pass the bill.) The shrinking of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda sacrificed another large chunk of the president’s initially transformative progressive vision. Democrats jettisoned plans for a $15 federal minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, universal pre-K, free community college, a huge affordable housing initiative, an expansion of Medicare, and an extension of the American Rescue Plan’s child tax credit. They also bowed to Sinema’s opposition to reversing tax-rate cuts enacted by former President Donald Trump.
Some of Biden’s plans never stood a chance. The Senate did not make a serious effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform or more aggressive gun-control measures, such as universal background checks or a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Nor did Congress act on restoring the public insurance option left out of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.