Biden’s Boring First Year

Joe Biden’s first year as president was exactly the same mushy noburger he campaigned for. This was a popular choice, and it was surprisingly common after Donald Trump’s four years of high-variance antics. As every lamprubber has learned, be careful what you wish to get.

With bipartisan support, the so-called infrastructure bill passed in November. The $1 trillion of new spending was supported by 19 Senate Republicans and 13 House GOP lawmakers. This bill, which was quite unlike Biden’s first, absurdly elephantine spending suggestions, was nothing to be proud of. It successfully exploited the baseline fondness of nearly all American politicians—and the nation’s dads—for spending on roads and airports. Although it is a modern bill for spending, it doesn’t have to be filled with billions in unrelated pieces.

In Washington, moderates have ruled since Biden was elected. Specifically, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has—as of press time—aligned himself with the Republican half of a divided Senate and stymied the additional $2 trillion Build Back Better spending bill that contained the entirety of Biden’s remaining policy agenda.

Republicans are now largely abandoning the fiscal discipline lip service that they used to pay. Multitrillion dollar mishmash bills without any convincing argument for how they will be paid for is also normal business for the federal government. Biden has demonstrated the same nonthreatening policy leadership that Washington had expected him to show.

Biden, however, is not focusing solely on Build Back better. He allows many aspects of federal policy as well as executive authority to run on autopilot. While this may be acceptable moderation, it is not an admirable one. His immigration policy, for instance, has been nearly indistinguishable in effect—if not in intent—from his many predecessors’. For hundreds of thousands seeking asylum and refugee status, it is still not clear what to do. It is possible to rescind executive orders that have already been passed, allowing for congressional discussion and action on the legal status of children who were brought by their parents. Biden has vowed to oppose previous wall-building attempts, but Eminent Domain at the Border continues. Many work visas are not being issued due to bureaucratic rigidity that Washingtonians love like Biden. Biden was voted in by some Americans because they believed that he would eliminate Trump’s policy “kids-in-cages”. However, their modest hopes for reform have mostly been disappointed.

It is continuing unabated in the war on drugs. Biden is refusing to give instructions to the bureaucratic machinery he supervises regarding rescheduling marijuana. This was just like Obama, who talked big but did very little. Biden has refused to conform federal policy with the vast majority of state laws. Biden has not chosen to be a leader of his party’s examination of harsh sentencing and pending reforms in criminal justice. Biden has used the pardon power in a very routine manner. He has only issued two pardons so far, one for Peanut Butter, and one to Jelly for the Thanksgiving turkeys. Trump issued three during the same period of his presidency—two birds and Arizona ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Biden pulled out of Afghanistan. He fulfilled a promise made more than once by his predecessors. However, it seems that Biden failed to convince his team until too late.

COVID-19 follows. Kamala Harris, the soon-to be Vice President of USA, tweeted on November 2, 2020 that she and @JoeBiden would do everything in their power to control this virus. This is a great idea. As Matt Welch’s masterful cover story (and Groundhog Day We are approaching the second anniversary “two weeks to slow down the spread”, with no sign of an end. Biden will likely continue his fight against COVID during the rest of his presidency. But, prior administrations have eliminated the armoury of COVID in terms of available spending and public healthcare nudges.

Although widespread vaccination has been an amazing success, most of it was achieved by Trump. Trump himself is very pro-vaccine, with many of his supporters being amongst the most immune to vaccination. Trump said that the vaccine was “a great achievement” and stated so in December. He had just revealed that he’d received his booster earlier that week. He declared that the vaccine “worked” and that if anyone does get COVID-19, it is “very minor”: “People don’t die when they receive their vaccine.” Trump’s policy choices set the stage for the success of the producers of vaccines. He offered promises of intellectual property protection, guaranteed a large market and cleared away any regulatory hurdles that might have caused more death.

However, it was always a mistake to believe that a president can “control” the virus. He cannot control oil prices and employment rates. He may be able to control some people’s behavior, but not enough to make a significant difference in the overall economy. The modern American president does not have the power or the will to take the extreme economic and COVID policy approach that was seen elsewhere. We are grateful.

Biden voters supported him because they thought he would bring back “norms.” Biden needs to hire an airplane carrier and put on a flightsuit. He also should have a banner stating “mission accomplished.” Biden’s speeches are bland—enlivened only by his signature gaffes—and his social media presence is painfully predictable.

Of course, he often claims things that are not true. He claimed recently that Manchin had misled the American people regarding his support of Build Back Better. This was a clear falsehood and it needed to be retract. However, at this point politicians making self-serving claims are an accepted national trend. With a giant Hunter Biden–shaped asterisk, this president’s corruption and venality so far seem less than Trump’s, though it would be hard to match Trump’s lifelong appetite for such things. And Biden’s support have not stormed Capitol so that’s good.

Biden, however, has continued to implement policies that he suspects are unconstitutional. This includes supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s prohibition on most COVID evictions and the federal employer vaccination mandate. Biden had declared these as illegal and inadvisable right up until the executive order.

Biden’s vision of radical positive change seems dim. Biden campaigned primarily on the return to the pre-Trump status, and not for a new bold future. It is possible that the nominally biden-led congressional Democrats won’t be as committed to these historical precedents. Instead, they will move to abolish or disable filibuster and pack the Supreme Court to drastically change the nomination process.

If Biden and his fellow partisans manage any of this, he will not only have unambiguously violated norms and process protections, but he will also have betrayed many of those who voted for him—the people who wanted Biden to be boring. If they fail to manage it they will be able to keep their promises of being dull at any cost of meaningful change.