Biden’s first year: Did anything fundamentally change?

Responding to pressure from people’s movements, Biden set lofty goals for his administration. How many of these promises has the administration fulfilled?

January 22, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Was Biden able to enact any of the promised and seemingly necessary changes in his first year (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

While campaigning for the presidency in 2019, Joe Biden assured his wealthy donors that if he were to be elected, “nothing will fundamentally change.” This statement came shortly after Biden attended an event hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign, where he had claimed that poverty is “the one thing that can bring this country down.” A day later, he would go on to promise to the ultra-rich that “no one’s standard of living will change” under a Biden presidency.

The United States has the world’s largest prison population, wealth inequality in the nation has doubled from 1989 to 2016, and shortly after Biden’s comments in 2019, the people of the United States would be plunged into one of the worst public health crises in history. 

The people of the United States largely agree that there is a need for fundamental change. Reforms such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and government regulation of medicine costs have majority support, and the recent mass movements such as the uprisings against racism in 2020 and the recent wave of strikes are powerful indicators of public opinion.

Was Biden able to enact any of the promised and necessary changes in his first year? Let’s take a look:

  1. Mismanagement deepens pandemic crisis

The US entered the Biden presidency with almost 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day, around 122,000 hospitalizations per day, and a positivity rate of around 11.3%. As of today, as the country continues to suffer the effects of the Omicron surge, there are around 740,000 new cases per day, over 150,000 hospitalizations per day, and a positivity rate of 46.8%.

A closer look at Biden’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, especially in comparison to other nations, indicates that these numbers could have been avoided. An example: while the United States suffered 415,000 deaths last year. China suffered two.

What went wrong? The Omicron variant surge has resulted in the largest wave of COVID-19 cases to date in the nation, and has exposed key systemic failures of Biden’s pandemic policy. Those failures existed far before the surge. An important case study is the unchecked growth of a dangerous, far-right anti-vaccine movement, in part due to misinformation spread rapidly online and by far-right groups such as the Proud Boys. The costs of this movement are deadly. Unvaccinated people die of COVID-19 at far higher rates than the vaccinated. In June and November of last year alone, a study estimated that 163,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US could have been prevented by vaccination.

Biden’s administration has not taken any real steps to address this movement: no massive public education campaign, no large-scale filtering of misinformation. However, comparisons to other countries such as Cuba, show that transformative policies could severely weaken the anti-vax movement, if not eliminate it entirely. The Cuban government has not enforced a vaccine mandate on the island, and yet the vaccination rate is around 90%, compared to the US vaccination rate, which hovers around 60%. Cuba has built a robust public health and education system, which maintains the people’s trust by constant outreach in the community.

The Biden administration has fallen short of its stated goal of increasing popular trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC, bowing to pressure from corporations that want workers back at their workplaces, has decreased recommended isolation time after contracting COVID from ten to five days. Most recently, each household is eligible for only four free COVID tests from the government, a reactive policy coming only after the peak of the Omicron surge and after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki laughing off the proposal and insisting this was not possible.

In a recent gaffe, Vice-President Kamala Harris told those looking for free testing sites to simply use Google.

  1. Inaction widens gap between campaign promises and reality

In his first 100 days, Biden signed a slew of executive orders, many reversing Donald Trump’s overtly racist policies. These included lifting the ban on transgender people joining the military, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, revoking the permit on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and halting construction on Trump’s border wall. These were not insignificant reforms.

The Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats also signed into law the American Rescue Plan, which enacted crucial but temporary relief measures such as direct cash payments, an extension of federal unemployment, and a temporary child tax credit (which has since expired).

However, there were more than a few promises which Biden simply did not invest the necessary energy and time to fight to make reality. At the COP26 summit, Biden pledged that the United States would reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Days later, he auctioned off 80 million acres to fossil fuel companies in what became the largest federal offshore drilling lease in US history. Biden campaigned on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and had planned to include the measure in his American Rescue Plan. However, once the senate parliamentarian (an unelected position that most people in the US know little about) ruled that the $15 minimum wage provision could not be included, Biden backed down immediately, despite the fact that legally, Vice-President Kamala Harris could overrule the parliamentarian.

When Biden appeared unwilling to fight for the extension of a nationwide eviction moratorium that would keep millions of Americans in their homes, newly-elected Representative and activist Cori Bush joined others in camping outside the entrance to Congress. The moratorium was extended, but was struck down shortly after by the Supreme Court, leaving millions of people behind on their rent due to the pandemic to fend for themselves.

Regarding Biden’s immigration policy, many were shocked to see the pictures of Haitian refugees trying to cross the border, only to be physically beaten back by Border Patrol agents. The images were such a visceral example of a racist immigration policy, exemplified by Biden’s continued denial of asylum rights to these migrants. Later in the year, Vice-President Harris explicitly told Guatemalan refugees to “not come” to the United States. To many, this was a remarkable about-face for an administration that promised to break away from Trump-era immigration doctrine.

  1. Manchin & Sinema: No fightback, only appeasement

And what of the policies and promises that the Biden administration has spent more time working towards? Many of Biden’s policy goals were consolidated into one mammoth social spending bill: Build Back Better. Build Back Better is a multi-trillion dollar piece of legislation that would introduce reforms that could change the lives of working class people: free pre-school education, regulation of out-of-control drug prices, and monetary relief for childcare and the elderly, among others. 

Unfortunately for working people in the United States, Build Back Better is currently stalled in the Senate and appears dead in the water. Why? Right-wing Democratic Senator Joe Manchin opposes the bill, and with the Democrats holding only a slim majority in the Senate and all Republicans staunchly opposing the bill, it will not pass. Just like that, $1.75 trillion dollars of relief for the working class in the midst of a pandemic is abandoned, leaving many unable to get by.

This turn of events has played out many times this year: Biden proposes pivotal reforms for the working class, right-wing Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin oppose those reforms, and the Biden administration concedes without putting up much of a fight.

What has been surprising to many is Biden’s willingness to appease these Senators. Regarding Build Back Better, Biden sunk massive amounts of time into backroom negotiations with Manchin, whittling down the bill from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion, gutting key elements such as paid family and sick leave for workers. Despite months of back and forth, Manchin ultimately decided to pass on the bill anyways.

Most recently, Biden attempted to pass what would have been a historic voting rights bill, that would reactivate elements of the Civil Rights Act to protect Black voters from suppression, and would open up voting to millions of working people by making Election Day a holiday, among other provisions. However, right-wing Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema dealt the bill a death blow when she refused to support eliminating the filibuster, an archaic rule that enables a minority party like the GOP to stall legislation indefinitely. Her reasoning? According to her, eliminating the filibuster would be too “partisan”.

Both Manchin and Sinema receive donations from interests such as large pharmaceutical companies, fossil fuel companies, and conservative donors. Manchin himself has made millions off of the coal industry. Each of these interests would be jeopardized by progressive legislation, and many point to this as an unspoken reason why Manchin and Sinema are shutting down these bills.

Biden and Democratic Party leadership seem unwilling to truly fight back against these Senators, despite having numerous ways to do so, such as withholding campaign money or presenting a primary challenge during election season.

  1. Money for imperialist wars never runs out

Although Biden and the US Congress seem unwilling to fight for social spending, the support for funding for war and occupation never runs out. Last month, the Senate passed a defense budget of $768 billion, roughly $24 billion more than Biden had initially requested. Only 11 Senators out of 100 voted no on this bill. 

The Biden administration has continued performing military exercises in Chinese territory in the South China Sea, bombing West Asia, particularly Iraq and Syria for supposed collaboration with Iran, and has upheld devastating sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela.

Trump’s hawkish policies towards China have continued under Biden, at times even escalating tensions even further. Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has focused energies on reestablishing relationships with traditional allies and even created new military pacts and security agreements with countries such as Australia, Japan, India, and South Korea in order to form a united front against China. 

Biden, along with other leaders, especially those of former colonizer countries such as the participants of the G7 summit, has fomented unfounded conspiracies such at the theory that COVID-19 originated from a lab in China, or that the Chinese government is carrying out a genocide of Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang. Most recently, the Biden administration escalated tensions with another superpower, Russia, by attempting to expand NATO influence into Crimea.

Biden has not attempted to adopt the Obama administration’s softer approach towards Cuba. Instead, Biden tightened sanctions on the island nation after a one-day protest in Cuba in response to the economic problems created by the US blockade. Despite Cuban Miguel Díaz-Canel meeting with protesters himself, Biden took it upon himself to call for the overthrow of the Cuban government. 

Earlier this year, the Biden administration oversaw the disastrous withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan following the takeover by the ultra-conservative Taliban whose rule poses a threat to rights of Afghans across social sectors. In response to this, the Biden administration led a global initiative to freeze Afghanistan’s currency reserves, depriving the current government of the ability to feed Afghan people or provide basic services and plunging the fragile country into a humanitarian crisis.

After one year, the Biden administration has enacted very few major reforms. Despite hope for a reprieve after the presidency of the far-right demagogue Donald Trump, many people in the US are losing faith, plunging Biden’s approval rating below his disapproval rating around the middle of last year. 

The people of the US, who have faced wave after wave of pandemic crisis, wait with bated breath for necessary reforms. However, even if Biden seems unwilling to “fundamentally change” things or to fight back, this has not stopped them leading their own struggles for change. In the absence of a push for change from above, there are growing movements applying steady pressure from below, whether it be on issues of labor, voting rights, immigration, or anti-imperialism.