"Politics," it's often been said, "is the art of the possible." It is, to crib another famous phrase, a constant tension between campaigning in poetry, while governing in prose — and perhaps nowhere more so than in the White House, where a president's every action (and inaction) is scrutinized for signs of deeper significance and political import.
For President Biden, the dissonance between promise and accomplishment seems particularly stark, with a new Washington Post-ABC poll that indicates a significant majority of the country — more than 60 percent — sees his time in office as having accomplished little to nothing. Compounding that bad news for Biden is a separate report from Monmouth University that shows a fifth straight year of declining faith in the state of the union "from 55 percent in 2018 to 39 percent in the current poll," suggesting that "fundamental faith in the American system continues to erode, even when taking into account the fact that partisan views shift depending on who occupies the White House," according to Monmouth Polling Institute director Patrick Murray.
Those measures of public sentiment, however, seem at odds with the reality of Biden's tenure in the White House. Despite having a "lot of things to tout," the Biden administration's triumphs have "not penetrated the American public" NBC's Chuck Todd noted recently.
So what has Joe Biden accomplished, anyway?
Isn't it the economy, stupid?
When longtime Democratic election strategist James Carville coined his now-infamous aphorism in the early 90s, it was intended to help keep then-candidate Bill Clinton's campaign team on message in their race against President George H.W. Bush. Since then, Carville's oft-repeated (and frequently parodied) statement has become political shorthand for why Biden's list of economic accomplishments has hardly seemed to move the needle in his administration's favor. Indeed, on the economic front, the Biden White House has notched a number of historic victories, particularly when it comes to adding jobs to the U.S. economy. In his first year in office, employers added 6.6 million jobs, an all-time record for a president's initial 12 months in office — a trend that's continued throughout the president's term, including through this past January, in which the country's unemployment rate dropped to its lowest point in more than half a century.
In spite of Biden's robust gains, public sentiment around the administration's economic achievements has ranged from underwhelming to overt hostility. A suite of recent polls shows Biden's economic approval well below his general approval score, while more than half disapprove of his handling of the economy. The disparity is likely the result of an "ongoing focus on inflation" rather than the complete — and much more optimistic — economic picture, according to Yahoo's Ben Werschkul.
Acknowledging the challenges of imparting a more holistic sense of Biden's various economic gains, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed during a recent appearance on NBC's Meet the Press that "it can be difficult to list them in a distilled way."
Okay, but what about inflation?
Despite taking a significant polling hit over weakening purchasing power, the Biden administration has indeed addressed the country's growing inflation — most pointedly with the $750 billion 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law this past August, which featured a host of tax policy modifications, clean energy initiatives, and Medicare pricing reductions. All told, the bill represents "one of the most significant laws in our history," Biden said during its signing ceremony. As the Post noted in its recent poll, however, "many of the laws [Biden] signed during the first half of his term are just now being implemented." Put another way: despite the historic significance of the Inflation Reduction Act — it contains the largest investment in green energy and climate change legislation in the country's history — the average consumer has yet to really feel the full effect of the bill.
Planes, trains, and automobiles?
During former President Donald Trump's administration, the phrase "infrastructure week" became something of a running joke thanks to the many, many unfulfilled promises to roll out a comprehensive plan addressing the nation's aging bridges, highways, and beyond. Less than one year into his term, Biden signed a $1.2 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure package into law, the effects of which have finally begun to be felt some two years later.
Throughout January and February leading up to his State of the Union address, Biden traveled the country touting the various projects underway, or set to begin, thanks to funding from the infrastructure law. The president's various appearances were, in part, a conspicuous lead-up to both his annual speech, as well as what's expected to be the launch of his re-election campaign in the coming weeks. Beyond the tangible impact of repairing the various crumbling tunnels and byways, the White House is betting that by highlighting the Infrastructure bill in particular, they can bolster Biden's deal-making "success (in) bringing Republicans and independents and Democrats together" as administration Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed recently.
As a candidate in 2020, Biden campaigned on the promise of sweeping gun control legislation akin to that passed under Bill Clinton in 1994. As president, however, Biden's ambitions to curb firearm violence have been trimmed considerably, and by the time he signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in June 2022, it had been stripped of the assault weapons ban, high capacity magazine ban, and universal background checks that he'd discussed on the campaign trail. Nevertheless, the bill — the first major federal firearms legislation since the 90s — was hailed as both a bipartisan victory (14 House Republicans supported it) and a significant step forward for the long-stagnant push for tighter gun laws.
Although the bill "doesn't do everything I want," Biden admitted during the signing ceremony, "it does include actions I've long called for that are going to save lives." Among those actions were increased funding for mental health programs and school security, as well as legislative measures to close the "boyfriend loophole" that let domestic abusers purchase guns, and expanded background checks for certain types of prospective gun buyers.
So what has he left undone?
Despite campaign promises in both 2020 and 2022 to codify federal abortion access ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson, Biden has thus far been unable to deliver legislative action to ensure reproductive healthcare stymied, in part, by the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, and the unwillingness from members of his own party to circumvent filibuster rules.
Biden has also failed to deliver on his effort to deliver comprehensive immigration reform, which he'd prioritized on his first day in office with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, arguing during a recent speech that "congressional Republicans have refused to consider my comprehensive plan." And while legislators are still working on their own possible immigration plan, "my own personal sense after having dealt with this for years, and most recently in the last Congress, is that Republicans want the issue more than they want a solution," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said last month.
Biden also conspicuously removed his campaign proposal for free community college from its massive spending bill, admitting in late 2021 that "I don't know of any major change in American public policy that's occurred by a single piece of legislation." But, he stressed at the time, "I'm not going to give up on community colleges as long as I'm president."
Still, no matter which priorities Biden's administration has left undone during its time in office so far, the president himself is choosing to focus on his wins. Asked after the midterms whether he planned to change tactics to convince the public that he has, contrary to popular sentiment, accomplished a lot, Biden said he'd change "nothing, because they're just finding out what we're doing."
"The more they know about what we're doing," he continued, "the more support there is."