Jan 20, 2022

Biden's first year (a review).

Photo: Gage Skidmore
Photo: Gage Skidmore

A look at his promises made, kept and broken.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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One year ago today, President Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States of America.

At the time of his inauguration, the country was still reeling from the events of January 6. His opponent in 2020, former President Donald Trump, had just conceded the election (admitting that he wasn't going to serve a second term). The country was averaging 195,000 new Covid-19 cases per day, still pushing through trillions of dollars of pandemic relief, and bracing for the transition to a new administration.

Around that time, I wrote a review of the Trump presidency. The premise for that review was similar to the premise we’ll use for this one: What did President Biden promise, what did he run on, and what has he accomplished?

Obviously, reviewing a presidency one year in is a lot different than reviewing a presidency with a full four year term completed. If I were to have graded Donald Trump's presidency after just one year (Tangle did not yet exist), it would have almost certainly been a much different review than it was by the time he left office. It's also worth pointing out that Biden is, in some ways, handicapped in a fashion Trump and former President Barack Obama weren't: He has thinner majorities in the Senate and the House than either of his predecessors did. Meaning, in simple terms, he had less political power to muscle through his agenda in year one.

Regardless, it's worth taking stock of where we are. Three major pollsters in the last three days have had Biden's disapproval rating at 56%, which is underwater by any measure. Politico/Morning Consult recently asked voters to grade Biden's first year, and — like after Trump’s first year — more voters gave him an "F" (37%) than "A" or "B" combined (31%). Not only that, but in an Associated Press poll, just 28% of respondents said they want to see Biden run for reelection in 2024, including only 48% of Democrats.

That's not exactly a sterling report card.

For our purposes, I'm going to start by evaluating some of Biden's main promises — and then ranking them on the same “promise meter” I used for President Trump's review: a scale of 1 to 10 — with 10 being the highest rating for a promise kept (meaning completely fulfilled), and 1 being the lowest (not fulfilled in any way).

I am not trying to evaluate whether these are good or effective policies, but instead whether Biden accomplished what he said he would. For the sake of my inbox, I'm just going to repeat that once more, since every time I do an issue like this I inevitably get people conflating a "promise kept" rating with me endorsing a policy: If I say Biden has kept his promise on something, I'm not saying I am endorsing the policy — only that Biden has done what he said he would.

Then, I'll share some of the one year anniversary commentary on Biden from the right and left, and then my take.

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We might as well start with the granddaddy of them all.

Biden made a lot of promises about Covid-19, so it's hard to encapsulate them all in one place. He promised we'd have normalcy by Christmas of 2021 (broken), that 100 million Americans would be vaccinated in his first 100 days (kept), and that he'd get one billion tests distributed (he just launched a government website that will ship 500 million).

Fundamentally, though, Biden's central promise related to coronavirus was to get the pandemic "under control." It's hard to see this promise as anything but broken: The country was averaging fewer than 200,000 Covid-19 cases a day when Biden became president. Today, we're averaging over 700,000. Depending on where you draw the line, more people have already died from Covid-19 under the Biden presidency than under Trump, and it’s nearly certain more people will have died under Biden in the coming weeks. Over 1,000 people are still dying every day, and the count was rising in the last week.

Of course, as I said during the Trump presidency, I have a hard time laying this responsibility at the feet of any president — Covid-19’s spread is much more about the personal decision making of the citizenry and nature than anything else. The case numbers aside, the timeline of the vaccine rollout happened more quickly than I expected, something both Trump and Biden deserve credit for, so some points are scored there. Covid-19 has flummoxed every world leader, and Biden is no exception.

Promise meter: 3 out of 10

The economy.

Tied very closely to the pandemic were promises about the economy. President Biden assured Americans he would pass a wave of pandemic relief legislation (kept), help state and local governments cover shortfalls (kept), and support small businesses with packages to stay afloat (kept).

Generally speaking, he said his administration would address the Covid-19 pandemic and thus help bring down the unemployment numbers and revive the economy.

So far, many of these promises have been kept — though not without caveats. The unemployment rate is once again below 4% and Biden oversaw consecutive months of job growth. However, inflation has also spiked — wiping out wage gains for many workers — and the economy has gone through fits of labor shortages and supply chain issues.

In other words: Biden has kept many of his specific promises on the economy, but his general promise that Americans would be in a better place now than they were a year ago is not reflected in how Americans are feeling about the economy. He gets docked pretty significantly for that.

Promise meter: 5 out of 10


Throughout his campaign, and from his first day in office, Biden promised to pass a sweeping infrastructure bill that would invest in roads, bridges, waterways, and better prepare the country for the impacts of climate change. He said he'd get Republicans on board and he said it'd be historic.

On this, he basically hit every note he said he would. It may be the easiest of all his promises to evaluate. The infrastructure package allocated over $1 trillion and, in just about every way, ended up as a historic piece of legislation that enjoys widespread support from the public and members of Congress.

Promise meter: 10 out of 10.

Reopening schools.

When Biden took office, one of the biggest issues facing the country was the prevalence of remote schooling. Most grade school children were still in remote classes, and Biden leaned into a campaign promise to reverse this trend.

Throughout his time campaigning, Biden focused a lot of his energy on K-8 schools specifically. Heading into 2022, this campaign promise was mostly accomplished: The majority of schools across the country were back to in-person learning or at the very least operating on a hybrid schedule. However, the omicron surge over the holidays led many schools to delay reopenings — either due to teacher shortages or concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

As president, Biden never really had direct authority to fulfill this promise. It was almost entirely tied to whether the country could slow the spread of Covid-19, which it hasn't. But things are still much improved from the time he was inaugurated: Some estimates put the number at over 90% of schools nationwide back to in-person learning. Omicron and teacher shortages complicated things early in 2022, but there is no doubt we’re in a much better place now than a year ago.

Promise meter: 8 out of 10

Unifying the country.

From the campaign trail to his victory speech, Biden made a promise to unify the country. For the most part, he focused on attempts to pass bipartisan legislation and to turn the temperature down from the Trump years, in an effort to "unify rather than divide."

Of all the issues in this newsletter, this is probably the hardest one to grade. For one, it's a little bit abstract. How do we define and measure unification? Biden's approval rating? In this case, his approval rating has tanked — but doesn't that mean we all kind of agree? What about polls showing happiness about the country or optimism about the future? Or legislation passed on a bipartisan basis? Or support among Republicans and independents?

Anecdotally, my feeling is that Biden has turned the temperature down quite a bit from the days of Trump. With fewer Twitter ramblings and over-the-top hyperbolic language about Democrats and media being the enemy of the country, it feels like things are a bit calmer. But plenty of Republicans and Trump supporters I've talked to feel the opposite: That Biden has broken his promises to work across the aisle or unify the country by shifting far to the left. At the same time, this goes both ways: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell promised openly that he would do everything he could to obstruct Biden and ensure his presidency is a failure.

There's also the fact that Biden hasn't even unified his own party. In fact, even Democrats are more divided now than they were when he took office, with party fractures along progressive and moderate lines more pronounced, and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema essentially operating in their own bubbles.

Given all this, I'm not really sure how one could even make the argument the country is more unified now. It's not really a promise I ever thought Biden could keep, but I certainly don't think he has.

Promise meter: 1 out of 10

Criminal justice.

The fundamental beliefs of Biden's criminal justice plans are still live on his website. "We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime... Our criminal justice system cannot be just unless we root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system... Our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation... No one should be profiteering off of our criminal justice system.

These are big, broad, admirable goals. But they were tied to real policy ideas that — for the most part — have not been put into place. Biden promised to decriminalize marijuana, end cash bail and end mandatory minimum sentences. PolitiFact rates all three of these promises as "stalled," which is their second lowest rating (behind promises broken). Biden's promise to study reparations is also stalled.

Criminal justice reform activists are growing impatient. The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March but the bill hasn't had much movement since. Bipartisan efforts to put new federal regulations on policing have fallen apart. But the Justice Department banned chokeholds, restricted no-knock warrants and expanded body camera requirements for federal agents. The department also still says it is committed to ending the use of private prisons and no longer asks federal prosecutors to mete out the harshest penalties.

Frankly, with the pandemic, economic issues and infrastructure as a major focus, it was probably never realistic to expect sweeping criminal justice reform to break through in the first year of a Biden presidency. It just wasn't the central tenet of what he ran on, which was a major focus on the pandemic. So, for now, this has gone almost entirely unfulfilled. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him spend some political capital here in the next year.

Promise meter: 2 out of 10

Climate change.

Addressing climate change was front and center throughout Biden's campaign. On this, he's had more wiggle room to use his executive authority, and he hasn't been shy. One of the first things he did in office was rejoin the Paris climate agreement. In late December, the Environmental Protection Agency acted on Biden's demand to release ambitious new fuel economy standards that mean car makers' fleets will have to average 40 miles per gallon by 2026.

The infrastructure bill was also threaded with climate change policy, including an expansion of electric vehicle charging stations and our mass transit systems, which are viewed favorably by environmentalists. He also rescinded the Keystone XL oil pipeline permit, protected the Arctic National Wildlife reserve, and has embraced all sorts of policy proposals to reduce harmful chemicals like hydrofluorocarbons.

A huge chunk of Biden's climate policy relies on Build Back Better passing, and with that bill dead in the water Biden is going to have to try to break it up and push through elements of what would have been included. He's also broken his promise to ban new oil and gas leases on federal lands and offshore waters, though he has proposed reforms to the system we have now. His promise to ban new fracking is caught up in legal battles.

All in all, Biden has probably done more on climate than he gets credit for after just one year, but there's a lot more on the docket, too. He's certainly following through on making it a priority, and has already scored some pretty important wins.

Promise meter: 6 out of 10

Student loans.

One of the more popular promises Biden made for young people was a pledge to forgive at least $10,000 in federal student loans per student. Reforming student loans and canceling large portions of debt became a pretty central tenet of his economic promises for young people.

So far, it's been a mixed bag. On the one hand, Biden has kept federal student debt payments on pause for his entire first year. In other words, nobody has had to pay a dime of student loans during Biden’s presidency, which is a pretty good notch in the "promise kept" department (the pause is scheduled, right now, to be lifted in May).

His administration has also focused a lot on programs that already exist to relieve borrowers. The education department erased over $5 billion of debt for more than 300,000 borrowers with disabilities. Students who have been defrauded by for-profit schools are getting full relief after many half-measures were executed under the Trump administration. And the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which forgives debt after 10 years of public service and is "notoriously stingy," has loosened its rules and more aggressively helped students forgo loans.

All told, the Biden administration says it has discharged or is in the process of discharging $12.7 billion in student debt that covers more than 638,000 borrowers.

On the other hand, Biden's promise to forgive at least $10,000 for millions of others is still unfulfilled. Given that this was his central and explicit promise, it's hard to rate him too high on this issue, even though he's made a lot of progress in the student loan space. Given the changes above and the fact that student loan payments remain paused, I think Biden deserves a good bit of credit here for the work done in year one even with that core promise largely unfulfilled.

Promise meter: 5 out of 10.

Ending wars.

One of the promises very few people thought Biden would keep was his pledge to end "forever wars" in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Past presidents, including both Trump and Barack Obama, made similar pledges, but neither followed through.

Ironically, Biden did follow through in a big way — but it may have been one of the most costly few weeks of his presidency. Ever since the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which dominated the news for weeks as chaotic scenes on the ground went viral and the Taliban took over from a rapidly fleeing Afghan government, Biden's approval ratings have fallen and not recovered.

There's also the fact that Biden has basically ended America's drone wars, something nobody even seems to have noticed.

While we are "officially" out of Afghanistan, we're still giving financial aid. And when it comes to Biden's other big promise — terminating the U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war — things are a lot less rosy. In November, Biden announced the administration was going to sell another $650 million worth of air-to-air-missiles to Saudi Arabia.

What's interesting about this rating is that Biden's fulfilled promise (a withdrawal from Afghanistan) earns him major points without really addressing the fact many viewed that withdrawal as a chaotic disaster. Still, when it comes to keeping his promise, I think Biden deserves a strong rating for actually withdrawing and for essentially ending our drone program.

Promise meter: 8 out of 10


This one is a little bit harder to decipher, but I think it's a good bucket to include.

Core to Biden's entire message was "I'm not Trump." This was a major reason suburban swing voters, independents, and moderate Republicans swung to Biden in 2020. There was just a general promise that Biden was going to undo some of the things Trump did and, generally speaking, not act like the other guy.

Of course, attitude wise, this is a bit harder to gauge. Biden's online presence is obviously much different from Trump's, and he takes a different posture with the media and his colleagues in Congress. But on a policy level, there were some decidedly anti-Trump changes Biden promised that we can check in on.

Let's start with what he has not done: He promised to roll back Trump's 2017 corporate tax cuts, which he hasn't. He promised to implement a more "humane" asylum system on the border, but little has changed for migrants crossing from Mexico. He promised to raise the refugee cap from 15,000 (under Trump) to 125,000, but hasn't come close (it is at 62,500). He promised to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal that Trump pulled out of, but so far talks have not progressed.

He has ended funding for the border wall, the family separation policy on the border, travel restrictions from Muslim-majority countries, and reversed the ban on transgender people joining the military. Many of the other policy advancements above were also decidedly “anti-Trump,” but I don’t think Biden’s administration has distinguished itself from the former president nearly as much as he hoped it would have by now.

Promise meter: 4 out of 10


The final bucket for promises from Biden are things that I would consider "long-term reforms." These are not small issues, in fact they're some of the biggest core issues of his presidency: Voting rights, health care reform, and the child tax credit are at the top of the list. They are issues so vast and complex that Biden was unlikely to resolve them in his first year anyway, but I do think it's important to take stock of where things are.

Healthcare is a good example: Biden promised to offer a public health insurance option like Medicare. This kind of policy is one of the hardest things to draft in politics, and was never going to come to fruition in year one. But Biden did make some historic improvements to Obamacare in the American Rescue Plan. That bill expanded federal subsidies and increased subsidy amounts for millions of middle income and low income Americans, marking the largest expansion of the Affordable Care Act since it became law.

We've also seen an end to surprise medical billing and the Biden administration has stopped Medicaid work requirements. These were all core promises from the Biden administration. In the meantime, he's failed to lower prescription drug prices because most of that legislation is part of Build Back Better.

On Voting Rights, Biden is similarly jammed up. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has support from just one Republican in the Senate, so Biden's effort to update the Voting Rights Act is basically stuck. Last night, Democrats failed to change the filibuster rules to advance that bill. Far from advancing the kinds of voting rights Democrats support, Biden has instead overseen an era where dozens of Republican-run states are pushing through voting rights legislation Democrats oppose.

Finally, the child tax credit was one of the crowning achievements of the Biden presidency. But now it has lapsed, and it’s unclear how (or if) it will become law again. Reducing child poverty, the cost of parenting, and encouraging families to have kids was something the Biden administration was adamant about. Expanding the child tax credit was a great way to check all those boxes — and a couple of months ago, it may have been one of the most important parts of Biden's year one legacy. Now, with it having lapsed, it's unclear what the future holds.

None of these issues are getting a promise meter rating, but they felt worth acknowledging.

What the right is saying.

Unsurprisingly, the right has been quite critical of Biden's first year in office.

The Wall Street Journal expressed dismay that Biden was "full steam ahead" despite being an unpopular president.

"As for the coming year, Mr. Biden is still pitching his Build Back Better plan," the board wrote. "The only concession to political reality is that he will have to break it up as he tries to bully it through the Senate. He still wants a big tax increase, and he is still pushing the fiction that BBB won’t add to the federal deficit.

"Most dispiriting is that Mr. Biden remains hostage to his fantasy narrative on voter suppression," it added. "He even refused to say November’s elections will be legitimate, which is not unlike his predecessor, and he continues to say Republicans don’t want minorities to vote. If Americans were offended by his rhetoric last week in Georgia, comparing his opponents to Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor, well, Mr. Biden said, the fault is with those who misunderstood what he meant."

Charles Cooke called it "Biden's year of failure."

"The president blows the Afghanistan withdrawal; his poll numbers crater in response," Cooke wrote. "The president chases an agenda that he knows lacks the requisite votes; that agenda goes down in flames. The president issues an order that he’s acknowledged as a violation of the law; that order is nixed by the Supreme Court. The president terrifies a close ally; that ally expresses its disgust. And on and on it goes, as if gravity itself were in play. Action, meet reaction...

"Biden’s apologists like to excuse their charge’s shortcomings by pointing to the poisoned chalice he was handed," Cooke added. "And, sure enough, this president did inherit an unenviable landscape. On the day that Biden became president, Covid was still raging, inflation was beginning to materialize, the global supply chain was showing signs of interruption, crime was on the rise, and the debt had hit record levels. The trouble is, Biden has been president for a full year and Covid is still raging, inflation is now at its highest level since 1982, the global supply chain remains interrupted, and crime, somehow, has worsened. As for the national debt? We are worse off than ever before."

What the left is saying.

Unsurprisingly, the left has some mixed feelings about Biden's presidency. Some are hoping for a "reset" of sorts, while others emphasize the hand he was dealt or point to the accomplishments he made and emphasize how much worse things would be if Trump were still president.

The Washington Post said Biden's presidency could use a reset, but also emphasized how lucky we are to have him.

"To be clear: Americans should be grateful every day that Mr. Biden is in office rather than former president Donald Trump and the band of incompetents who used to run the government," the board said. "One can only imagine how much worse off the country would be if Mr. Trump were still dispensing bizarre medical advice from the White House, running a Russia-friendly foreign policy as the Kremlin prepares to invade Ukraine, or continuing to deny climate change.

"Mr. Biden has also restored integrity to the Oval Office, neither lying nor abusing his authority the way Mr. Trump did," it added. "And the president can claim some important accomplishments. Most Americans are vaccinated. His covid-19 aid bill alleviated child poverty during the worst of the pandemic. The country is only beginning to see the benefits of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that will fund massive investments in green energy, highways, bridges and rail, which passed under his leadership."

In Slate, Jordan Weissmann said Biden picked a tough time to become president.

"For starters, the pandemic had a lot more fight left in it than people anticipated, even after the emergence of the delta variant," he wrote. "As far as late June, experts seemed to think that the new, more contagious edition of the coronavirus would lead to 'hyper-regionalized' outbreaks mostly affecting communities with low vaccination rates. This turned out true to an extent—Alabama and Florida got walloped a lot harder than New York and Massachusetts, for instance—but we still ended up with a nationwide wave that crushed hopes of a quick return to normalcy.

"Then there was the Afghanistan pullout, which seemed to have put a permanent dent in Biden’s approval rating... to some extent, Biden had nothing but bad choices when it came to America’s longest war," Weissmann wrote. "Of course there was inflation. You can debate the extent to which this was a self-inflicted injury, and whether the administration should’ve seen it coming (you can go on and on about it for thousands of words, and I have). Suffice to say, the American Rescue Plan’s stimulus checks probably exacerbated things, since so many families spent the money shopping and overwhelmed the world’s supply chains in the process, helping proving those of us who were doubtful inflation could become a serious issue very wrong. But some of the most acute supply chain problems, such as the lingering semiconductor shortage that’s hamstrung auto industry production, have been entirely out of Biden’s hands."

My take.

It's still so early.

That's one of the overarching reactions I have when watching this presidency. We are one year in, and people are already talking about who is going to run in 2024, whether Biden's agenda is dead in the water, or how much more he could have achieved before a presumed 2022 midterm wipeout.

Of course, there's some truth to all this stuff: Democrats don't really have an obvious backup plan if Biden doesn't run in 2024. Biden's agenda does seem to be entirely stalled in Congress. And if his approval ratings don't budge, Democrats will get obliterated in the midterms.

But a lot can happen in a year. And a lot has happened in this last year.

What's most dispiriting for me personally, as someone who has mixed feelings about Biden's agenda, is that the Biden policy wins I was most happy about have somehow turned into things that are emblematic of his presidency's failures. The child tax credit expansion is a policy I strongly supported and was thrilled to see become law, only for it to lapse. The pullout from Afghanistan was something I called for before and supported after, but now it's mostly considered a story of incompetence and chaos. The fact that over 90% of American adults now have at least one vaccine shot is beyond my wildest expectations, yet Covid-19 is still upending everyday life and spreading like wildfire.

I will say, though, that the uniformly negative reviews of Biden's presidency have surprised me. One could easily look at the anger on the progressive left and in conservative media and conclude that Biden is, actually, closer to running "in the center" than some people imagined. Given some of the advancement on climate change issues, health care, and anti-war policies one might imagine progressives would be thrilled with Biden’s success. But they really don't seem to be.

Meanwhile, you'd think that a massive infrastructure bill, unapologetic advocacy to reopen schools and a constant celebration of capitalism would earn some credo among at least 5% to 10% of Republicans. But it hasn't.

Instead, Biden's first year has been defined in the press mostly by his misses on major, sweeping progressive policy, inflation, a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and the persistence of Covid-19.

If you're on the left, I think one good thought experiment to recognize how much worse things could be is imagining if Democrats had not swept the Georgia Senate race. Everyone seems to forget Democrats were this close to not even having a 50-50 split in the Senate, and if they had failed in either of those races the picture would be decidedly more grim for left-of-center politics than it is right now.

The truth is Biden's first year is about what I would have expected. He certainly cleaned Trump out on a national, popular vote level, but Democrats have thin majorities in the House and a split Senate. This is not the stuff of mandates, and yet Biden promised (and often acted) as if it was. There were plenty of self-inflicted wounds — like stubbornly believing Manchin or Sinema were going to fold on filibuster rules or the Build Back Better plan — that the president could have avoided.

And, if he's willing to internalize those errors, there is plenty of room to move forward on his agenda. Breaking up Build Back Better and focusing on a permanent child tax credit, health care expansion and climate change would win back a lot of Democratic support (and maybe some Republicans, too). The options on criminal justice reform, an issue best solved locally, were always fairly limited. But, from a purely political perspective, legalizing cannabis federally would probably be a huge win for the president.

Reforming the Electoral Count Act would be a bipartisan slam dunk, and then pursuing a more robust voting rights reform package is probably something Biden could get a few Republicans to join him on — though it'd have to be pretty skinny to pass without filibuster reforms.

In other words: There are a lot of options for Biden. I don't think his agenda is doomed and I don't think his presidency has been quite the disaster many on both sides have portrayed it as. But it'd be foolish to call his first year anything but rocky.


In yesterday's newsletter, I wrote that the 190-year-old tortoise Jonathan had become the oldest "land mammal" in the world. I meant to write land animal, obviously, since tortoises aren't mammals (they're reptiles). This is, inarguably, one of the silliest corrections in Tangle history. Which is why I took the unusual, never-before-seen step of placing it at the end of today's issue and not the beginning.

This is the 51st Tangle correction in its 130-week history, and the first correction since January 6th. I track corrections and (usually) place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.
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