Joe Biden’s first six months were dramatic. Two-thirds of Americans are at least partially vaccinated. The economy is experiencing the fastest recovery since the 1980s. And, as polls show, the world no longer sees America with the fear and pity it felt during the Donald Trump years. This was the best presidential start in most Americans’ lives.
But in politics, such runs are the exception. Biden’s coming trials — the stalling of most of his reform laws, Covid-19’s stubbornness and worries about murder rates and border crossings — are largely out of his hands. It’s easy to forget that Biden appeared to be a limp until Democrats won the Georgia special election in January, which put them in control of the Senate. Things could have been so much worse.
Yet Biden is now entering a much more difficult phase of his presidency. One of his problems stems from an unforced mistake – the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s hard to understand why he felt the need to withdraw the US skeletal force of 2,500 troops before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. The cost of a stay is minimal – there has not been a single US combat death in Afghanistan in the past 17 months.
On the other hand, the risks of leaving Afghanistan are great. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban regain control. The fall of Kabul would probably prevent Chinooks from chasing the last Americans away, as happened in Saigon in 1975. But it will nevertheless damage America’s prestige. The signal of American risk aversion will cloud Biden’s hopes of winning hearts and minds in a democracy-versus-autocracy contest with China. This setback is self-created.
Biden’s window to execute his domestic agenda is shrinking. It’s much better to have 50 Democrats in the Senate than 49. But at least two of them, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are good-weather friends. Neither intends to repeal the Senate filibuster rule that forces Biden to seek at least 10 Republican votes. This means that most of his bills, such as strengthening voting rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants and making it easier for unions to organize, have almost no chance of success. Even one Republican vote would be a miracle.
He may get 10 Republicans to vote for his bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the cost of negotiating with them is increasing. After refusing to consider any form of tax hike to foot the bill, Republicans have now torpedoed funding from the Internal Revenue Service, which has been badly exhausted budget cuts and staff turnover over the past 15 years. Biden could have used this moment to broadcast Republican cynicism about the rule of law. All he asked for was the means to enforce the existing tax laws.
Biden is so invested in his quest for a bipartisan moment that there are few concessions he won’t make. Still, there’s no guarantee he’ll get 10 Republican votes at the end. The echoes of 2009, when Barack Obama squandered the Republicans’ summer meeting midway through health care talks, only for them to unanimously reject the bill are real. Biden has largely escaped the demonization to which Obama was subjected, perhaps because he is white. But the Republican strategy of denying him wins is unchanged.
The story of Covid-19 is a microcosm of Biden’s presidency. In his opening period, he reaped the low-hanging fruit with a rapid mass roll-out of vaccines. Death rates plummeted when the number of daily shots exceeded 3 million. What’s left of the fruit—the tens of millions of Americans who are suspicious of the vaccine—is hard to reach. Daily vaccinations have fallen to just over 500,000 and infections are on the rise again. Companies and colleges are going through the same anxious cost-benefit analyzes as they were a year ago.
Can Biden do something about it? He could copy Boris Johnson from the UK and effectively say, or follow, hell with the restrictions The French Emmanuel Macron and implement a stricter vaccination policy. Neither step is completely within the power of an American president. In practice, he will have to muddle through and hope that the third Covid wave is not strong enough to disrupt the economic recovery. As long as Biden has that, his presidency will stay on track.