It’s been one year since President Joe Biden was sworn into office with more votes than any presidential candidate in history. But a majority of voters does not make a mandate in deadlocked Washington, where the Democrats’ razor-thin majority has not bolstered President Biden’s agenda. In fact, after running a campaign filled with promises to address the myriad structural inequalities facing the country today, it’s clear his to-do list has become more of a wish list.
President Biden came to power at a critical juncture; a raging pandemic, widespread police brutality, and an unpopular president helped propel him to the White House. The day the networks announced the winner of the 2020 election, people literally danced in the streets. It wasn’t necessarily excitement about the man himself, but the possibilities.
Well, after one year, many of Biden’s biggest promises have either been broken or thwarted. The country is slogging through its third major coronavirus surge, and the president’s party can’t even coalesce around getting rid of the filibuster for the sake of voting rights. The midterm elections are in the fall, and Biden’s approval ratings are tanking. Was Biden’s first year a failure?
That question, of course, obscures a more important one: Can a president even fix what ails modern America?
Biden’s critics on the left see a first-year of diminishing returns, one where the threat to our democracy is no longer on the horizon but now knocking on our doorstep. The only way to fix the coming disaster is to ensure true equality for everyone, regardless of who they are.
But trying to install a multiracial democracy in a country that has historically resisted just that is quite the feat. This country has yet to understand, accept or heal from its original racial wounds. The same people that designed the Senate that’s hobbling Biden are the same people who subjugated and enslaved African people — until there was a war over it.
The Confederates lost the Civil War, but they didn’t stop battling. Afterward came the violent rejection of Reconstruction, the backlash to the civil rights movement, and today the moral panic of police brutality protests or critical race theory or whatever dog-whistle they’ve given to the repackaged racism du jour.
Can a president fix that?
If any president has truly been transformative, it certainly hasn’t been in the last half-century. Donald Trump didn’t usher in a new era so much as his presidency revealed what had been there all along.
Biden cut his political teeth in an era where the two major parties would occasionally work out deals together, and Senators couldn’t fire off 140 characters that reduced serious policy questions into inane culture war squabbles. Perhaps that’s why he’s still holding on to the idea that his Republican colleagues will have a sudden change of heart and care about legislating any day now.
“I did not anticipate that there would be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden said at a press conference earlier this week. I guess he forgot that it was the same playbook they used on Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president for eight years.
To everyone else, the U.S. Senate’s structural mess is pretty evident at this point. The upper chamber acts more as a place for politicians to spout talking points than to legislate. There are only two major parties; the Republicans hellbent on obstructing and the Democrats too timid to make changes out of fear of upsetting the Republicans and the imaginary moderate centrist white voter.
One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand that a legislative body that can be taken hostage by one man is a disaster waiting to happen. Or how about the fact that the party in the majority doesn’t even have to represent the majority of the people?
This is certainly not to give President Biden a pass. Like any president, he’s made his fair share of missteps and blunders. But let’s imagine a world where a president supports the most popular legislation like student loan debt cancellation or major climate change programs. Would President Imaginary still not have to deal with the dumpster fire of the Senate? The conservative Supreme Court? Or how about the loud minority of right-wingers whose only beliefs seem to be owning the libs and spreading misery?
If the GOP manages to win back the Senate next year, it’ll be because of a toxic combination of structural issues with elections and a widespread acceptance that this current failing system is actually working well. And then there’s the very real possibility that Trump could return to the White House. All of this signals that America hasn’t even accepted that it’s broken yet, and no single president can fix that.