Promises kept? Joe Biden’s first year at home and abroad

Some of the early optimism about the new president’s prospects in terms of governing also neglected the fact that a majority of his own party are on the center right.

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When President Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was followed by the election of two Democratic senators in Georgia, it looked like his Democratic Party, with total control of the country’s federal government, would be able to make big changes demanded by a majority of American voters. It also appeared that the progressive wing of the party was growing in influence, adding new members and reforming its own caucus within the House of Representatives to make it more focused and representative of modern progressivism. 

There were still obstacles to be faced by the party, from the rightwing Supreme Court consolidated by the last administration to Republican efforts to attack mail-in voting and find other ways to disenfranchise citizens, especially marginalized communities in states the previous president lost.

The trajectory of a pandemic is obviously not something even a president can control and there is little doubt the uncertainty around it has hurt the president’s popularity. Still, with vaccinations becoming widely available it seemed that there was light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the health crisis.

Some of the early optimism about the new president’s prospects in terms of governing also neglected the fact that a majority of his own party are on the center right. This was made obvious by a group of so-called moderates in the House of Representatives who argued that ideas around police reform and democratic socialism popular with the progressive left were the biggest threats to the party rather than a still powerful current of far right populism steeped in science denial on everything from climate change to public health measures. 

By year’s end, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona swung the Senate in favor of Republicans and seem to have killed the Build Back Better Act. The bill demanded by the party’s progressives was meant to focus on social and climate related spending not covered by the infrastructure bill that passed with some Republican help.

The failure to pass the BBB also killed the enhanced child tax credit that had cut child poverty in the country by almost 50% during the pandemic. 

In explaining his reasoning in not supporting the credit for working people with children, Manchin reportedly said privately that he felt that those receiving the aid couldn’t be trusted not to use it on ‘drugs’. The wealthy senator kept this opinion out of his public pronouncement on what progressives referred to as a social infrastructure bill that would have benefited many of the working poor in his own state.

Hope remains that the Biden administration will bring forward a more modest version of the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill that will probably not include a lot of the social spending like the enhanced Child Tax Credit but will salvage some of the climate related provisions in it. Whether these two senators (and probably others who are unwilling to make their opposition public before a vote) will continue to oppose the effort remains to be seen. 

Regardless, even if a more modest BBB is passed, it’s doubtful it will have much impact on upcoming mid-term elections that may return Republicans to power in one or both houses of the country’s Congress making further progress in terms of legislation unlikely.

While Manchin’s significant connections to the coal industry, including millions in dividends paid out to him each year by Enersystems, a company he founded in 1988,  make his opposition to the more environmentally focused aspects of the BBB easy to understand, Sinema’s roots in the Green Party and Arizona’s activist community must seem like more of a betrayal to many of those who supported her. 

After starting last year by voting against including the $15 an hour minimum wage as part of the Biden administration’s Covid relief bill, Sinema ended it protecting the filibuster in the senate, a Jim Crow era procedural relic, all but ensuring that the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts would not pass.

To add insult to injury, Sinema made an absurd speech filled with the usual bromides about families at sitting at their kitchen tables that might have made sense 50 years ago but doesn’t take into account the growing radicalization of the Republican opposition, telling her colleagues the obvious, “Eliminating the 60-vote threshold – on a party line with the thinnest of possible majorities – to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office.”

Considering his long record of siding with the status quo, some commentators have argued that President Biden never really wanted to see the Build Back Better Act pass, but in public he’s been a strong advocate of voting rights legislation.

In the area where a U.S. president is least constrained by domestic forces, foreign policy, Biden at first seemed to be following through on his campaign promises. While the country did rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the promise to bring back the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran nuclear deal has not yet happened and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently told reporters there are just “a few weeks” left to save it. 

The embargo on Cuba lifted when he was vice-president then re-imposed under the last president continues to strangle that tiny nation, a troubling continuity between the Biden and Trump administrations.

Promises to hold the leadership of Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi and end support for the country’s ongoing war in Yemen have not been kept. Instead, the administration announced a new $650million arms deal with the kingdom, allowing it to replenish its supplies of weapons and continue to pummel its poorer neighbor. 

More positively, though marred by chaos due to what seemed like a lack of planning on the part of the administration and its NATO allies, was the withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war after 20 years. Unfortunately, almost unreported, the war has continued through other means, with sanctions leading experts to warn the country is on the verge of mass starvation.

By rolling back its commitments in the Greater Middle East, the American government has turned its attention to more conventional nuclear armed rivals China and Russia. Not content with completing his former boss Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ to work with allies to ‘contain’ China, President Biden has also continued a risky war of words with the Russian Federation over Ukraine.

There’s a lot that can be criticized about the leadership of the Russian Federation but their fear of NATO forces inching ever closer to their border is not unreasonable considering the Cold War has been over for 30 years. It’s also important to note that the leadership in Ukraine is little better than Putin’s Kremlin, run by oligarchs who accommodate fascist militias like the Azov Battallion and praise as war heroes those who collaborated with Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War.

This Azov Battalion has also welcomed far right enthusiasts from around the world for training, including some from the United States. This creates a risk of domestic terrorism in the years to come so it might be a good idea for NATO countries to look into who they are arming. 

Although it seemed at first that Biden wanted to be a president who changed the country like FDR, in the end, whether he intended to or not, he’s mostly kept his campaign promise made to donors at New York’s Carlyle Hotel that he wouldn’t “demonize” the rich and that “nothing will fundamentally change”. Both in the United States and abroad, these are promises he seems to be keeping.

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