December 6, 2021
So Biden has not accomplished much? Let’s take a look at what he has done
By Heather Cox Richardson
On Nov. 27, Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times that the policies President Joe Biden and the Democrats are putting in place are hugely popular, and yet Biden’s own popularity numbers have dropped into the low 40s. It’s a weird disconnect that Cohn explains by suggesting that, above all, voters want “normalcy.”
Heaven knows that Biden, who took office in the midst of a pandemic that had crashed the economy and has had to deal with an unprecedented insurgency led by his predecessor, has not been able to provide normalcy.
In her own piece, the journalist Magdi Semrau suggests that the media bear at least some of the responsibility for this disconnect, since they have given people a sense of the cost of Biden’s signature measures without specifying what’s in them, focused on negative information (negotiations are portrayed as “disarray,” for example), and ignored that Republicans have refused to participate in any lawmaking, choosing instead simply to be obstructionist. As Semrau puts it: "Democrats want to fix bridges, provide childcare and lower drug costs. Republicans don’t. These are political facts and voters should be aware of them."
To this I would add that Republican attacks on Democrats, which are simple and emotional, get far more traction and thus far more coverage in the mainstream press than the slow and successful navigation of our complicated world.
In illustration of the unequal weight between emotion and policymaking, Biden’s poll numbers took a major hit between mid-August and mid-September, dropping six points. That month saw the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was widely portrayed as a disaster at Biden’s hands that had badly hurt US credibility. In fact, Biden inherited Trump’s deal with the Taliban under which the US promised to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, so long as the Taliban met several requirements, including that it stop killing US soldiers.
When Biden took office, there were only 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a high of 100,000 during the Obama administration. Biden had made no secret of his dislike of the US involvement in Afghanistan and, faced with the problem of whether to honor Trump’s agreement or send troops back into the country, committed to complete the withdrawal, although he pushed back the date to September.
What he did not know, in part because Trump’s drawdown had taken so many intelligence officers out of the country, was that as soon as Trump’s administration cut the deal with the Taliban, Afghan troops began to make their own agreements to lay down their arms. The Biden administration appears to have been surprised by the sudden collapse of the Afghan government on Aug. 15. As the Taliban took the capital city of Kabul, Afghans terrified by the Taliban takeover rushed to the Kabul airport, where an attack killed 13 US military personnel who were trying to manage the crowd.
Republicans reacted to the mid-August chaos by calling for Biden’s impeachment, and the press compared the moment to the 1975 fall of Saigon. That coverage overshadowed the extraordinary fact that the US had airlifted more than 124,000 people, including about 6,000 US citizens, out of Afghanistan in the six weeks before the US officially left. This is the largest airlift in US history – 7,000 were evacuated out of Saigon—and evacuations have continued since, largely on chartered flights.
By comparison, in October 2019 under Trump, the US simply left Northern Syria without helping former allies; the senior American diplomat in Syria, William V. Roebuck, later said the US had “stood by and watched” an “intention-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.” And yet, that lack of evacuation received almost no coverage.
Complicating matters further, rather than agreeing that the withdrawal was a foreign policy disaster, many experts say that it helped US credibility rather than hurt it. According to Graham Allison, the former dean of Harvard Kennedy School, “The anomaly was that we were there, not that we left.”
And yet, in mid-September, while 66 percent of the people in the US supported leaving Afghanistan, 48 percent thought Biden “seriously mishandled” the situation.
Aside from getting the US out of Afghanistan, is it true that Biden has not accomplished much?
Biden set out to prove that democracies could deliver for their people, and that the US could, once again, lead the world. He promptly reentered the international agreements Trump had left, including the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization, and renewed those Trump had weakened, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Biden set out to lead the world in coronavirus vaccinations, making the US the world’s largest donor of vaccines globally, although US vaccinations, which started out fast, slowed significantly after Republicans began to turn supporters against them.
Under Biden, the US has recovered economically from the pandemic faster than other nations that did not invest as heavily in stimulus. In March 2021, the Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus package to rebuild the economy, and it has worked spectacularly. Real gross domestic product growth this quarter is expected to be 5 percdent, and the stock market has hit new highs. Two thirds of Americans are content with their household’s financial situation.
The pandemic tangled supply chains both because of shortages and because Americans have shifted spending away from restaurants and services and toward consumer goods. The Biden administration mobilized workers, industry leaders, and port managers to clear the freight piled on wharves. In the past three weeks, the number of containers sitting on docks is down 33 percent —and shipping prices are down 25 percent. Major retailers Walmart, Target, and Home Depot all say they have plenty of inventory on hand for the holiday season.
With more than 5.5 million new jobs created in ten months, unemployment claims are the lowest they have been since 1969, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to tweet, “Armstrong Walks the Moon!... Wait, sorry! That’s a headline from the last year unemployment claims were this low.” Workers’ pay has jumped as much as 13 percent in certain industries, and there are openings across the labor market.
The American Rescue Plan started the reorientation of our government to address the needs of ordinary Americans rather than the wealthy who have dominated our policymaking since 1981. It provided more than $5 billion in rental assistance, for example, and expanded the Child Tax Credit, so that by the end of October, $66 billion had gone to more than 36 million households, cutting the child poverty rate in half.
Over the course of the summer, Biden negotiated an extraordinarily complicated infrastructure package, winning a $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill that will repair roads and bridges and provide broadband across the country, and getting the larger, $2.2 trillion Build Back Better bill through the House. Now before the Senate, the bill calls for universal pre-kindergarten, funding for child care and elder care, a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and protection against climate change.
Has the Biden administration accomplished anything? It has created a sea change in our country, rebuilding its strength by orienting the government away from the supply-side economics that led lawmakers to protect the interests of the wealthy, and toward the far more traditional focus on building the economy by supporting regular Americans.
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American history at Boston College. This article was first published on her online newsletter, Letters from an American. Visit heathercoxrichardson.substack.com to read her daily entries.