WASHINGTON - Jan. 20, 2022, will mark President Joe Biden’s first year in office, one filled with many highs and lows for his administration.
Biden entered the Oval Office facing both an unrelenting pandemic and the disease of a deeply-divided U.S. society, having campaigned on a "return to normalcy" in the White House. In his inaugural address, he spoke of how Americans prevailed through "struggle, sacrifice and setbacks" during dark times of the past, including previous wars, the Great Depression and the Sept. 11th attacks.
"In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And, we can do so now," the new president said on Jan. 20, 2021, from the U.S. Capitol, the site of a deadly insurrection just two weeks prior.
"We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors.
We can treat each other with dignity and respect.
We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.
For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.
This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.
And, we must meet this moment as the United States of America.
If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail."
One year later, some of his lofty ambitions have hit setbacks — still dealing with the ongoing pandemic, a harrowing end to America’s longest war in Afghanistan and roadblocks in his legislative agenda.
Now with the 2022 midterms looming, Biden still faces divisions and intense pressure to help push voting legislation through Congress, opposed by Republicans. Voting rights advocates are increasingly anxious about what may happen in 2022 and beyond, following the enactment of Republican-pushed ballot security laws coming off former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 and his subsequent push to overturn the results — despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
"These are polarized times, as we know," Sarah Binder, Brookings Senior Fellow and professor of political science at George Washington University, said during a recent webinar examining the president’s performance over the past year.
Binder noted the "intensely competitive political parties" in the U.S. and how, if the party’s control is just around the corner, "why go to the bargaining table? Why not hold out until you are in control?"
Biden, like his predecessors, has also found that events somewhat beyond his control can also shape the public’s opinion of him.
Here is a look at some highs and lows of Biden’s first year in the White House:
Legislative agenda and policies
In March, Biden was able to pass his landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which included $1,400 direct payments to many American adults and extending emergency unemployment benefits through the summer. He sought to ask for more as part of his legislative agenda — including the additional $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and jobs, and another $1.8 trillion for families.
After long negotiations, a bipartisan version of his infrastructure plan was finally signed into law in November with more than a dozen Republican votes in the Senate, which Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, noted as "one of his bigger legislative accomplishments."
But Biden’s sweeping "Build Back Better" program of social and environmental spending has not had the same success. The plan includes a wish list of Democratic priorities, such as an extended child care tax credit, climate legislation, paid family leave and universal prekindergarten.
Republicans have not been won over on this, and it has even turned into a months-long disagreement between more progressive and moderate Democrats on what should be included in the measure, including a holdout by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
"I think that most of President Biden’s wounds have been self-inflicted," said William Galston during the Brookings webinar. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow.
"President Biden knew exactly what the legislative margins and numbers were the day he took office, and the job of a leader is to function effectively within constraints, not to pretend that they don’t exist," Galton added.
Meanwhile, Biden issued a number of executive orders after taking office, including the end of a transgender ban in the U.S. military that was enacted by the Trump administration.
"Certainly there have been some accomplishments, particularly if you didn't like some of the policies President Trump had, there has been a reversal," Jewett said.
Biden also capped his first year in office with the confirmation of 41 federal judges, more than any of his recent predecessors at the same time in their presidencies. Of those, 80% are women, and 53% are people of color, according to the White House.
The U.S. Department of Education in October also unveiled major changes to a troubled student loan forgiveness program designed for borrowers working in public service jobs, like teaching, social work, the military and more. The program had been criticized for its complex requirements, and the new temporary changes were said to bring an estimated half a million borrowers closer to being debt-free.
The ongoing impact of COVID-19 has been a "mixed bag" for Biden’s presidency, according to Jewett, who noted the massive vaccination campaign that occurred in 2021 while also a somewhat premature declaration of "independence from COVID-19" in the summer.
As a candidate, Biden promised to restore normalcy and said his slate of scientific advisers would lead with "science and truth" to combat the virus.
At the start of his presidency, the country’s vaccination campaign was just getting started with only 1% of U.S. adults fully vaccinated, according to data shared by the White House. A year later, more than half a billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered and 74% of American adults are fully vaccinated.
Overall, nearly 63% of the total U.S. population, including the youngest ages who are not yet eligible, are inoculated. Among that group, 38.1% have also received a booster dose.
While many in the U.S. got their COVID-19 shots, challenges still remain despite his best efforts — including vaccine hesitancy, a tidal wave of cases fueled by the omicron variant, and recent criticism over testing shortages.
Earlier this month, the president pledged to make 1 billion at-home COVID-19 tests free to Americans that will be shipped through the mail. Biden also announced that for the first time, his administration is planning to make 400 million N95 masks, which are most effective at preventing transmission of the virus, available for free.
Throughout his first year in office, Biden has repeated the call to get inoculated and eventually to receive a booster shot, saying recently on Jan. 13 that the "most important thing to determine your outcome in this pandemic is getting vaccinated."
But earlier this month, the Supreme Court blocked a major push by the Biden administration to boost the nation's COVID-19 vaccination rate — a mandate that employees at large businesses get a vaccine or test regularly and wear a mask on the job. At the same time, it allowed the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S.
Meanwhile, many parents across the U.S. received monthly payments in 2021 as part of the expanded Child Tax Credit program built into the COVID-19 relief package. Studies have suggested that the child tax credit expansions could cut child poverty by 40% — with 9 of 10 American children benefiting, according to an analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
"Presidents, when times are good, get too much credit. And presidents get too much blame when things are going badly," Jewett noted. "The president is just one person in a political system."
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, reversing the pullout ordered by Trump. The U.S. officially rejoined the climate pact in February and the president later convened a virtual summit on climate change with various world leaders. He also set a target of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
In January 2021, Biden also canceled the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit over longstanding concerns that burning oil sands crude could make climate change worse and harder to reverse. Construction on the 1,200-mile pipeline began in 2020 when Trump revived the long-delayed project after it had stalled under the Obama administration amid determined opposition to the line from environmentalists and Native American tribes along its route.
It would have moved up to 830,000 barrels of crude daily, connecting in Nebraska to other pipelines that feed oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had objected to Biden’s recent move, raising tensions between the U.S. and Canada.
FILE - President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the COVID-19 response and vaccination program on Aug. 18, 2021, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)
"It depends on where you stand politically as to whether you think these were good things or bad things," Jewett said, speaking broadly about Biden’s policies in office.
Biden received heavy criticism in August for his handling of the United States’ complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ending America’s longest war almost two decades after it began. Following the Taliban’s swift return to power, American troops faced the harrowing task of protecting the airlift of tens of thousands of Afghans, Americans and others seeking to escape the country.
"I will say that a lot of conservatives, certainly Trump supporters, thought that leaving Afghanistan was not a terrible idea," Jewett said, noting that the way it was executed ended up being "probably one of the biggest foreign policy failures" for the Biden administration.
The final pullout fulfilled Biden’s pledge to end what he called a "forever war" that began in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania. His decision, announced in April, reflected a national weariness of the Afghanistan conflict.
But he faced criticism at home and abroad, not so much for ending the war as for his handling of the final evacuation that raised doubts about U.S. credibility. The speed with which the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15 had caught his administration by surprise and forced the U.S. to empty its embassy and frantically accelerate the evacuation effort.
The troops suffered threats by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, including a suicide bombing on Aug. 26 that killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans — something Jewett called "the saddest moments of his presidency." More died in various incidents during the airport evacuation.
The chaotic withdrawal brought more than 124,000 to safety but also stranded thousands of desperate Afghans who had been loyal to the United States and hundreds of U.S. citizens and holders of green cards.
"We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety," Biden said in remarks from the White House about the U.S. withdrawal. "That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible. No nation, no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history."
"I was not going to extend this forever war," Biden said. "And I was not going to extend a forever exit."
The nation’s unemployment rate fell in December 2021 to 3.9% — a pandemic low — and could be viewed as a highlight of Biden’s first year.
The president took on a coronavirus-upended economy with unemployment at 6.4%. Employers added 6.4 million jobs last year as unemployment dropped well below the 4.6% that the Congressional Budget Office had anticipated for the end of 2021.
Meanwhile, inflation has reached a nearly 40-year high with higher prices for things like gasoline and groceries leading to some disapproval of Biden’s economic leadership.
Fueling inflation has been a mix of factors resulting from the swift rebound from the pandemic recession: A flood of government stimulus, ultra-low rates engineered by the Fed and supply shortages at factories in the U.S and abroad, experts say. Manufacturers have been slowed by heavier-than-expected customer demand, COVID-related shutdowns and overwhelmed ports and freight yards.
Employers, struggling with worker shortages, have also been raising pay, and many of them have boosted prices to offset their higher labor costs, thereby adding to inflation.
Migrants began streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border once Biden became president. There were 1.78 million encounters with border agents during his first 10 full months, a four-fold increase compared with Trump's last 10 months in office, according to data shared by the Associated Press.
On his first day in office, Biden ended Trump’s policy requiring people seeking asylum in the U.S. to remain in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed — otherwise known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy — and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas formally ended it in June. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has reiterated that Biden believes the program is "ineffective" and "inhumane."
Mayorkas said in October that the "Remain in Mexico" policy likely contributed to a drop in illegal border crossings in 2019 but with "substantial and unjustifiable human costs" to asylum-seekers who were exposed to violence while waiting in Mexico.
But a lawsuit by Texas and Missouri forced him to put the policy back into effect, and by December, the Biden administration struck an agreement with Mexico to reinstate it.
"I think that a lot of Americans feel, and even some of his Democratic supporters feel that ending the policy of ‘Remain in Mexico’ that Trump had negotiated, was a big mistake," Jewett said, noting the influx of migrants who then sought to get across the border.
Also shortly after taking office, Biden created a task force to attempt to reunify hundreds of children and parents separated at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration. The policy was in place for several months during 2018 and sparked a domestic and international outcry.
The Department of Homeland Security announced in December that 100 children, mostly from Central America, had been reunited with their families and said about 350 more reunifications were in the process after it took steps to enhance the program.
"Even though conservatives want to crack down on illegal immigration, a fair number of people are uncomfortable with the thought of separating children from their parents, even in that situation, so I’d say that was probably a victory," he added.
The day before Biden’s one-year anniversary, the president delivered remarks reflecting on the past year. He delivered a message of hope to people, promising that America’s best days are "still ahead of us, not behind us."
"We have faced some of the biggest challenges that we've ever faced in this country these past few years. Challenges to our public health. Challenges to our economy. But we're getting through it, and not only are we getting through it we're laying the foundation for a future where America wins the 21st century by creating jobs at record pace; now, we need to get inflation under control. We have developed extraordinarily effective booster shots and antiviral pills; now need to finish the job to COVID-19 under control.
"I've long said, it's never been a good bet to bet against the American people or America. I believe that more than ever today."
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.