Joe Biden’s first six months were dramatic. Two-thirds of Americans are at least partially vaccinated. The economy is enjoying its fastest recovery since the 1980s. And, as polls show, the world no longer sees America with the fear and pity it felt during Donald Trump’s years. This was the best presidential start in the lives of most Americans.
But in politics such races are the exception. Biden’s next tribulations – the grind to stop most of his reform projects, Covid-19’s stubbornness and concerns about the homicide rate and border crossings – are largely out of his hands. It’s easy to forget that Biden seemed to be a lame duck until Democrats won Georgia’s special election in January, giving him control of the Senate. Things could have been so bad.
Yet Biden is now entering a much tougher phase of his presidency. One of his problems stems from a forced error – the recovery from Afghanistan. It’s hard to understand why he felt the need to shoot down America’s skeletal force of 2,500 troops before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Living costs are minimal – there has not been a single U.S. combat death toll in Afghanistan in the past 17 months.
On the contrary, the risks of leaving Afghanistan are strong. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban regain control. The fall of Kabul would probably avoid scenes of Chinooks fleeing the last Americans outside, as happened in Saigon in 1975. But it would nevertheless damage America’s prestige. The signal of US risk aversion will shake Biden’s hopes of winning hearts and minds in a democracy versus autocracy contest with China. This contrast is self-created.
Biden’s window to promulgate his domestic agenda narrows. It’s much better to have 50 Democrats in the Senate than 49. But at least two of those, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Cinema of Arizona, are fairweather friends. Nor does it intend to rule out the Senate filibuster rule, which requires Biden to seek at least 10 Republican votes. This means that most of his projects, such as the strengthening of voting rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants and facilitation for the organization of trade unions, have almost no chance of passing. Even a Republican vote would be a miracle.
It is possible that he will get 10 Republicans to vote for his bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the cost of negotiating with them is rising. After refusing to consider any kind of tax increase to pay the bill, Republicans have torpedoed funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which has been badly impoverished by staff cuts and attrition in the last 15 years. Biden could have used this moment to convey Republican cynicism about the rule of law. All he demanded was the means to enforce existing tax laws.
Biden is so invested in his research for a bipartisan moment that there are few concessions he will make. However, there is no assurance that he will get 10 Republican votes by the end of this. The rumors of 2009, when Barack Obama squandered the summer meeting of Republicans halfway through health care negotiations, only for them to unanimously reject the bill, are true. Biden has largely escaped the demonization to which Obama has been subjected, perhaps because he is white. But the Republican strategy of denying any victory has not changed.
The story of Covid-19 is a microcosm of Biden’s presidency. During its opening period, it tore off the slightly sticky fruit with a quick application of the mass vaccine. Death rates dropped when the number of daytime strikes exceeded 3m. What remains of the fruit – the tens of millions of Americans who suspect the vaccine – is difficult to reach. Daily vaccination has dropped to just over 500,000 and infections are returning. Businesses and colleges go through the same anxious cost-benefit analysis as they did a year ago.
Can Biden do anything about it? I could copy Boris Johnson from the UK and effectively say to hell with the restrictions, or follow up. The Frenchman Emmanuel Macron and adopt a more coercive vaccination policy. No step is full in the power of a president of the United States. In practice, he will have to shift and hope that the third Covid wave is not strong enough to defeat the economic recovery. As long as Biden has this, his presidency will stay on track.