President Joe Biden entered the White House amid one of the most challenging and tumultuous circumstances in recent history. As 2021 draws to a close, an assessment of the president’s tenure to date reveals a year with a number of agenda items accomplished along with multiple crises.
With roughly a month left until the first anniversary of his first term in the White House, the president’s approval rating has sunk amid a pandemic that has killed more Americans during his term than during that of his predecessor, an unprecedented surge in illegal immigration, rising inflation, and what has been widely perceived as a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Fenced Off Inauguration
Biden was inaugurated as president of the United States on Jan. 20 while being guarded by thousands of troops. The rationale was that the thousands of Americans that had disrupted the election certification at the Capitol on Jan. 6 could return. Biden is the first president to have been guarded by the military from his own people during an inauguration.
Biden has made “equity” into a “whole of government” issue, inserting the notion “throughout our federal policies and institutions.”
Commonly used in progressive political parlance, equity refers to equality of outcome, rather than equal treatment, and is tied to the Marxist “critical theory,” which divides society into identity groups based on race, gender, sexual proclivities, and other factors, then dividing those groups into the categories of oppressed and oppressors. The underlying ideology assumes that if an “oppressed” group, on average, gets a worse life outcome, it’s primarily because of “systemic” discrimination by an “oppressor” group.
The focus on “equity” has manifested in a variety of the policies of the Biden administration, such as earmarking funding or promising preferential treatment to select identity groups, regardless of individual merit.
Biden has made climate change the organizing principle of his administration. He has directed various agencies to include climate impact assessments into their processes, prioritize projects deemed climate friendly, and shun those that are deemed to be climate unfriendly.
Some experts say that climate science is too complex and uncertain to effectively guide such decisions. They argue that whatever climate rules the government ends up promulgating will likely end up disconnected from any actual effect on climate, spawning waste and corruption.
Climate change has also dominated Biden’s foreign policy, where he’s trying to build an international commitment for reducing carbon emissions, which many scientists say are warming the planet and creating possibly more extreme weather in the future.
Those efforts have been rendered mostly ineffective due to the unwillingness of some major carbon emitters to throttle their economies to further the climate agenda. In particular, some experts say that China, which emits more carbon dioxide than much of the developed world combined, is unlikely to follow through on whatever climate promises it makes.
Relaxing Border Measures
Biden scrapped several key initiatives of President Donald Trump that were aimed at stemming illegal immigration.
Most notably, Biden nixed the “remain in Mexico” policy that made asylum seekers from Central America stay in Mexico while waiting for their cases to be resolved. The policy has been credited by experts for curbing illegal border crossings and related human trafficking operations. A federal court has reinstated the policy with some caveats.
Biden also stopped the construction of border barriers. The Trump administration had built hundreds of miles of new fencing that made it more difficult for trespassers to cross into the United States, giving Border Patrol more time to apprehend them, according to border security officials.
The situation at the border has escalated to historic proportions, with about 2 million people having crossed illegally into the country in the fiscal year 2021—a 20-year high.
As illegal border crossings are often controlled by drug cartels, there are indications that the border surge has been accompanied by an increase in human and drug trafficking. Fentanyl flowing into the United States from China through Mexico has been involved in more than 64,000 overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in April, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Biden has yet to visit the border. His administration issued a rule in August to allow immigration officers, rather than immigration judges, to decide the asylum cases of illegal immigrants. This process is already in place for asylum seekers who enter the country legally.
Biden also wants to send more money to the countries where the largest amount of illegal border crossers originate.
“One of the things that is going to bear fruit, I believe, is … where we provide for funding to change the circumstances on the ground in the countries in Central America,” he said in October.
The countries in question—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—have received more than $1.7 billion in U.S. aid between 2014 and 2020.
Shortly after taking office, Biden discarded several of Trump’s executive orders aimed to reduce federal regulation.
Deregulation was one of Trump’s top achievements, cutting the final rule page count in the Federal Register to less than 21,000 in 2019 from the more than 38,000 left behind by the Obama administration, according to a 2020 report (pdf) by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The incoming administration called Trump’s efforts “needless obstacles to regulating in the public’s interest.”
The first year of an administration is usually slower on regulation, but Biden’s is on pace to beat both the first year of Trump as well as that of President Barack Obama, according to data collected by CEI’s Clyde Wayne Crews. The number of “significant” regulations, such as those with economic effects of at least $100 million, jumped from 79 in Trump’s final year to 345 by Nov. 2, 2021, with still two more months to account for.
Upon assuming office, Biden complained that the previous administration had left him with no plan for vaccine distribution, which Trump and his Cabinet members have denied.
In either case, the Biden administration has generally ensured a smooth rollout of the vaccine, including donating more than 110 million doses to other countries.
American Rescue Plan
One of the first major pieces of legislation Biden managed to have approved by Congress was the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus relief package known as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It served to fulfill Biden’s campaign promise of directly sending Americans another round of checks or direct deposits in COVID-19 relief money.
Yet some Biden voters criticized it for only sending $1,400 per individual, while Biden had promised $2,000. Biden said he actually meant $1,400 because $600 had already been included in the previous package, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was approved by Congress in December 2020.
Biden’s package was criticized for overspending on special interest groups, such as public school teachers, with the argument being that previous measures had already earmarked tens of billions of dollars for such purposes, much of which hadn’t yet been spent at the time of ARPA’s approval. Some experts have argued that ARPA, as well as the previous relief legislation, is at least partly responsible for the current high rate of inflation in the United States.
In August, Biden carried out a plan initiated by his predecessor to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan—where the United States had spent two decades—just in time for the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
However, the way in which the Biden administration conducted the withdrawal was panned as a disaster by both Democrats and Republicans.
In a move that was baffling to experts, the withdrawal started in June, with the U.S. military abandoning the strategic Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night without informing Afghan authorities. The base was then ransacked and looted before the Afghan forces managed to arrive. U.S. troops and officials were then evacuated from Afghanistan, even though tens of billions of dollars worth of military equipment and armaments, as well as tens of thousands of civilians who wanted to leave the country, including Americans, were still on the ground.
The military then returned to mount an evacuation mission, airlifting more than 100,000 people in just two weeks. But the damage had been done. People desperately clinging to planes taking off will likely remain as one of the defining images of the Biden administration.
Despite the administration’s reassurances to the contrary, the Taliban took over Afghanistan in a matter of days, showing the weakness of the Afghan government and its 300,000-strong security force that the United States spent years helping to train. There are indications that the ISIS-K terrorist group has been expanding its presence in Afghanistan as well.
On Aug. 26, bombings at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed more than 170 people, including 13 U.S. soldiers who were conducting the evacuation. ISIS-K later claimed responsibility for the attack.
In November, the Taliban held a military parade showcasing captured U.S. technology, rubbing in the humiliation of U.S. military leadership.
Critics have lambasted the withdrawal as one of the worst military debacles in U.S. history.
Despite the administration initially promising that there would be no CCP virus vaccine mandates, Biden announced in August that all companies with more than 100 employees must have their staff vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19, the disease caused by the CCP virus. Some experts have pointed to the shaky legal standing of the measure, which was subsequently put on hold by a federal judge while the numerous legal challenges to it are being addressed in the courts.
Biden has also required that all federal workers and contractors get vaccinated against COVID-19, including members of the military. However, the order doesn’t cover the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. economy under Biden is currently suffering from its steepest case of inflation in more than 30 years—more than 6 percent for the 12 months that ended in October. On Nov. 30, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told Congress that he expects inflation to remain elevated well into 2022.
On paper, the economy looks rather strong. Unemployment dropped to 4.2 percent in November and household income has exceeded its pre-pandemic maximum, as Biden recently noted.
“Even after accounting for rising prices, the typical American family has more money in their pockets than they did last year,” he said on Dec. 3.
But that calculation only works when looking at overall inflation. Prices have, in fact, increased unevenly, soaring in particular for the necessities of American life, such as gasoline and other fuels, meat, eggs, cooking oil, cars and trucks, furniture, and major appliances, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Some experts had predicted that inflation would be the result of the enormous government COVID-19 stimulus measures, as well as the extremely accommodative monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. On one side, Biden can’t be blamed for excessive money printing, as Congress would have likely approved the relief packages regardless of who was in the White House. On the other hand, Biden is taking steps that are likely exacerbating the problem.
Biden’s decision to nix the Keystone Pipeline and begin the process of “decarbonizing” the economy has stunted enthusiasm for investment in the domestic oil sector, making U.S. oilers less flexible to respond to rising demand after it rebounded from the pandemic recession in 2020.
Also, Biden’s plan is to pile on yet more government regulations and taxes, the cost of which would likely at least partially be passed on to consumers.
Biden ordered the release of 50 million barrels of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but that has done little to lower gas prices which have been at their highest point since 2014.
In recent months, Americans have been increasingly complaining about shortages of various items. The most obvious cause of these shortages is the gridlock at U.S. ports that are handling import shipments from overseas. Biden helped negotiate for the severely backlogged Port of Los Angeles to become a 24/7 operation, but that only helps with one piece of the supply chain. Other parts of the problem include shortages of licensed truckers to pick up freight at ports and warehouse workers willing to take night shifts, as well as the shortage of truck chassis capable of carrying a shipping container.
Labor shortages had been at least partially caused by boosted unemployment benefits, pandemic restrictions, and fear of the CCP virus in general. The number of Americans working or actively looking for a job (known as the labor force) has dropped by more than 2 million people from pre-pandemic levels. Some of Biden’s policies, such as his push for vaccine mandates, have likely exacerbated the issue. Aside from the vaccine mandate for federal workers, the Biden administration has encouraged private employers to impose the mandate on their workers, even as a significant number of them don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines and would rather lose their jobs than be vaccinated against the virus.
Build Back Better Act
Biden’s signature legislation proposal, the Build Back Better Act, would have been the most expensive spending package in U.S. history, bearing a price tag of $3.5 trillion.
The legislation included everything from infrastructure investments to welfare expansion, carveouts for select identity groups, and subsidies for projects to reduce carbon emissions. It would have raised taxes on the rich as well as, indirectly, on the middle class.
The plan capsized in Congress, as key Democrats who saw it as too expensive joined with Republicans who were united against it. Some experts say the plan would have led to gigantic misspending, corruption, inflation, and ultimately lower living standard for Americans.
Biden has so far been able to push through a smaller package focused on infrastructure. Aside from investment in roads, bridges, airports, waterways, and the electrical grid, it also included billions of dollars for public transportation, broadband internet, electric vehicle charging stations, and electric buses.
Biden is now working with Congress to get a slimmed-down version of the Build Back Better Act approved. On paper, the new version would cost $2.4 trillion, offset by $2.2 trillion in new taxes, largely on U.S. companies.
The measure would use a budget gimmick whereby some of its most expensive programs would sunset after anywhere from one to six years, while the extra taxes to pay for them would be spread out over 10 years. If the programs were to be extended to 10 years, the legislation would cost nearly $5 trillion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan fiscal thinktank.
The measure would extend the American Rescue Plan’s expanded child tax credit for one year. It would also expand the earned income tax credit for one year and provide pre-K and child care subsidies for six years. Medicaid benefits extended under American Rescue Plan to those eligible under the Affordable Care Act in states that haven’t taken advantage of the expanded benefits would be available until 2025. The legislation would also allow larger state tax deductions, benefiting the residents of high-tax states. These deductions were previously curbed by Trump’s tax cuts package.
Nearly 400,000 Americans have died with some involvement of a COVID-19 infection in 2021, compared to roughly 385,000 deaths in 2020, according to CDC data. Deaths have declined in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen how the virus will behave during the winter season.
Thus far, Biden’s campaign promise to defeat the virus has gone unfulfilled. In recent remarks, he indicated that it’s not possible to move past the pandemic unless it ends globally.
“In order to beat COVID, we have to shut it down worldwide,” he said.
“In the United States of America, we’re doing everything that needs to be done to take care of the American people within our borders. But look what’s happened. You know, we were starting to make some real progress, and then you find out there’s another strain.”