In just 18 months, his ambitious agenda has been demolished – along with his popularity.
Where did the president go wrong?
– in The New Statesman
July 26, 2022
In the summer of 2022 a trip to Washington DC can seem like a visit to the scene of a disaster foretold. Having removed Donald Trump from office, and with majorities in both chambers of Congress, the Democrats began 2021 with high ambition and the eyes of the world upon them. A year and a half later, they are facing political ruin. A combination of bad luck, ineptitude, internal divisions, the structures of US politics and the ruthlessness of their enemies has put not only the future of the Biden administration but the republic itself in danger.
The fraying of the existing order is visible at all levels. Internationally, Joe Biden has rallied Nato and its allies against Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. But the damage done by decades of misguided US geopolitics cannot be undone and, despite Russia’s flagrant aggression, the kind of global coalition Washington mobilised against Saddam Hussein has proved elusive. Meanwhile, the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine will push weakened institutions of governance to the point of collapse. And as Washington seeks to cajole “democracies against autocracies” abroad, the pillars of the US’s own liberal regime are under attack. The overturning of Roe vs Wade enables the reactionary denial of reproductive rights across red-state America. The Supreme Court is also set on demolishing the legal bases for key environmental regulations.
In 2020 the US was on the brink of constitutional crisis. Though Biden’s election victory, and the Republican Party’s belated decision to recognise it, upheld American democracy, basic questions about the country’s future remain open. How can the US function when one party is not only devoted to overturning key compromises and institutions that have sustained society and government for more than half a century, but is willing to do so by any means necessary, whether or not it has majority support? That so many conservatives, and members of the GOP leadership, believe Biden stole the election is a sign of the wretched state of affairs. Trump, the chief author of that corrosive fantasy, lurks in the shadows and, if he can avoid legal disqualification, whether for his involvement in the Capitol riots on 6 January or other malfeasance, he will likely run again in 2024.
Given this alarming constellation of threats, one might expect liberal opinion to rally around Biden. The stakes could not be higher. His administration can claim some achievements. It has overseen a remarkable recovery from the Covid pandemic. It passed a $1trn infrastructure package, which will improve the country’s degraded transport and communications networks. Unemployment is at record lows in a number of states.
But rather than showing a centrist advance, Biden’s polling numbers are plummeting. Even Democrats are unenthusiastic about the prospect of Biden (seen as old and weak) or Kamala Harris (floundering as vice-president) running in 2024. Those impressions will only harden when the Democrats lose their majorities in Congress, as they are expected to in November. That will allow Republicans to block legislation and to use debt-ceiling negotiations to shut down the government, as they did in Barack Obama’s second term.
If Biden’s plan was to stabilise US democracy with progressive politics – an updated New Deal for the 21st century – the conclusion now is that his presidency has failed.
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