But suddenly, images of Biden as a frail septuagenarian atop a mismanaged White House have given way to those of a seasoned leader, smiling behind a pair of aviator sunglasses, whose team battle-tested has achieved a number of national priorities. A winning streak does that for you.
It hasn’t happened because of a change in strategy or a change in personnel, although in low moments allies wanted him to take those ritual steps. It has been a combination of good luck, skill and persistence on the part of a president and a Democratic Party determined to act unilaterally where Republicans would not and compromise where Republicans would.
Gas prices, which hurt Biden when they spiked, have fallen for two months. The president made no move. But the turnaround in fortunes has eased some of the inflationary pressures that remain its main political problem.
Late last month, weather conditions cleared the way for a CIA drone to kill al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the balcony of his home in Kabul. The precision strike, planning for which began last spring, vindicated Biden’s claims that the US could fight terrorism in Afghanistan even without troops on the ground.
In Congress, Biden has proven naysayers wrong on both sides. Politicians and pundits describing a failed legislative agenda had written their reviews before the end of the play.
Progressive lawmakers who scorned the former senator’s talk of working with the GOP have seen Congress make bipartisan investments in infrastructure, domestic semiconductor manufacturing and veterans health care. They joined a critical mass of Republicans to pass them.
Others who complained that Biden had veered too far to the left have seen Congress take the biggest government action ever to curb climate change. Not a single Republican voted yes. All Democrats did.
That doesn’t make Biden a modern day FDR or LBJ. It can claim no singular monument to rival Social Security, Medicare, or even the Affordable Care Act, though it has strengthened it.
Proposed investments to expand economic opportunity through daycare, child tax credits, paid leave and universal kindergarten have failed. The bipartisan gun safety law that ended years of congressional gridlock fell short of his call to ban assault weapons. He has not won legislation to safeguard voting rights at a time when Republican extremism threatens democracy and the rule of law.
Partisan mathematics has imposed the fundamental restriction. To go it alone on the small number of top-priority initiatives protected from Republican obstruction, Democrats can only afford a few defections in the House and into the Senate. The climate package prevailed only because Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, after months of resistance, finally agreed to join with party colleagues.
This legislative tightrope makes what Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have accomplished all the more remarkable. Calling them “victories” on the political scoreboard, as if governance were a sporting event, obscures their impact on American life.
The 2021 infrastructure law, which eluded Biden’s two immediate predecessors, calls for $550 billion in new federal investments in roads, bridges, airports, public transit, rail, rural broadband, clean water and charging stations of electric vehicles, among others. The semiconductor bill provides more than $52 billion to spur domestic manufacturing of vital components for products ranging from automobiles to computers, reducing America’s reliance on foreign suppliers. The Inflation Reduction Act, named to appeal to Manchin, although it will have a negligible impact on inflation this year, means Medicare beneficiaries will pay no more than $35 a month for insulin and no more than $2,000 a year from the pocket drug costs. For the first time, Medicare can use its market power to negotiate lower prices from drug companies.
The IRA is also putting $370 billion toward developing clean energy and curbing climate change, which analysts say will help the U.S. cut carbon emissions 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It maintains American leadership at a time when extreme weather events are increasingly putting the world’s dangers in stark relief.
Biden’s weak public standing has begun to rise slightly. Democrats on the 2022 ballot have gained more ground over anger over the conservative Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
But that doesn’t mean voters will reward them in this fall’s midterm elections. Republicans need only a net gain of four seats, well below the historical average for the party that does not hold the White House, to regain control of the House.
Nor does it mean that Biden will follow the precedents of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in recovering from early setbacks to win a second term. At 79, Biden looks like the oldest chief executive in American history, while restless young Democrats see fresh leadership.
But it does mean that the president and his party have taken advantage of the opportunity that control of the government has given them during these two years. They have done much of what a public office wanted to do.