Biden ends year in office with grand ambitions and humbling defeats

AP’s White House team looks at the first 12 months of a US president who was seen as able to restore normalcy, but soon discovered that events were beyond his control

US President Joe Biden speaks before signing an executive order to improve government services, in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
US President Joe Biden speaks before signing an executive order to improve government services, in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 13, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Joe Biden’s long arc in public life has always had one final ambition: to sit behind the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office.

He achieved it — albeit, at 78, as the oldest person to assume the presidency. of the United States. After the turbulence and chaos of his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden was seen by voters as one who could restore a sense of normalcy and a reassuring tone to the White House.

But Biden also found out, as all his predecessors have, that events beyond his control would shape his time in office and the public’s assessment of him.

Takeaways from The Associated Press’ White House team on Biden’s first year as president:

Big ambitions

Biden started his presidency with more than $4 trillion worth of big ideas — his eyes larger than what the Senate could stomach.

$1.9 trillion worth of coronavirus relief passed in March, which in many first years in office would have been considered a signature achievement.

US President Joe Biden speaks to the media after meeting privately with Senate Democrats, Jan. 13, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But Biden kept asking for more: an additional $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and jobs, and another $1.8 trillion for families.

After some tortuous negotiations, he got a version of his infrastructure plan passed and even got more than a dozen Republicans in the Senate to vote for it.

But attention spans are short. Biden’s $1.8 trillion package, which he labeled “Build Back Better,” had elements that included a wish list of Democratic priorities for the past decade — a child care tax credit, climate legislation, paid family leave and universal prekindergarten, among other provisions.

So far, it looks like the bill was not, to turn the expression on its head, too big to fail. Republicans abandoned him on this, and several Democrats were also skeptics. Then inflation surged, and the plan’s chances plummeted.

He still thinks like a senator

Biden was a senator for nearly four decades, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he brings a legislator’s mindset to his presidency.

Known as an adept negotiator from his time in the Senate, Biden still immerses himself in legislative negotiations and is versed in the minutiae of his proposals. He believes in the value of personal connections and face-to-face conversations in negotiating details, frequently calling key senators or having lawmakers meet with him at the White House.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks with reporters as she arrives for a closed-door meeting with House Democrats at the US Capitol September 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Biden emphasizes the need for bipartisanship, a value he held dear in the Senate. But it’s one that, in today’s sharply divided Washington, feels out of touch with the moment.

Biden also keeps the schedule of a senator: He’s often late to events and likes to get out of town on the weekends, returning home to Delaware.

One major difference? Now he’s riding Air Force One instead of Amtrak.

Shooting high and falling short

Biden inherited a long list of unfulfilled Democratic policy priorities when he took office, but despite his best efforts, most remain so.

Taking office after Trump’s efforts to subvert the will of voters, no issue seemed so urgent for Biden as the push for legislation on voting protections.

Biden’s attempt to break a logjam on the legislation by pushing for the Senate to change its rules to pass bills by a simple majority was quashed before it even really began by two moderate members of his own party.

Supporters of former US president Donald Trump cheer as he speaks at a Save America Rally, Jan. 15, 2022, in Florence, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It was emblematic of how Biden’s central rationale for his presidency — his nearly four decades in Washington uniquely positioned him to deliver on an immensely ambitious agenda — seems increasingly out of step with today’s politics.

Biden bet unsuccessfully that personal relationships, private cajoling and public arm-twisting could overcome years of increasingly bitter partisan divisions and ideological disagreements.

The lack of progress on voting rights, immigration, climate change, gun control and abortion protections remains an unmet burden.

No Obama 2.0

Biden came to office trumpeting “America is back,” his shorthand message to allies and adversaries that the days of Trump’s inward-looking “America First” foreign policy were over.

But his approach to the world has also been notable for its determination to avoid some of the missteps of his old boss, Barack Obama.

Biden stood by his pledge to meet an August deadline to end the war in Afghanistan even as military commanders and some political allies urged him to slow down what ended up being a chaotic and bloody US military withdrawal. As vice president, Biden had opposed Obama’s move to surge more US troops into the country. But the exit Biden presided over was widely criticized for its haste and execution, which included US troop casualties.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, watches then-US president Barack Obama, center, at Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, on January 4, 2017 (AP Photo/Susan Walsh/File)

Biden also came to office with a greater deal of skepticism than Obama — and Trump and George W. Bush for that matter — about Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama sought to “reset” the US-Russia relationship. By 2014, after a series of earlier disappointments, Obama’s hope for a reset had evaporated when Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.

Biden made it clear early on that his highest hope for the Putin relationship was finding a measure of stability and predictability. With his administration pressing Putin to step back from Russia’s current troop buildup on the Ukraine border, it remains to be seen if Biden’s approach will net better results.

A gilded age

For a man who wanted to get to the White House in the worst way for decades, Biden doesn’t seem that enamored with the place.

Over his first year in office, he’s spent at least a portion of 99 days in his home state of Delaware, mostly during weekend trips and amounting to more than a fourth of his presidency. It’s a short jaunt that requires a massive operation involving security contingents, press pools, helicopters and buses.

As for the White House, Biden calls his accommodations on Pennsylvania Avenue a bit of a “gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things.”

US President Joe Biden talks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Jan. 11, 2022, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

“I said when I was running, I wanted to be president not to live in the White House but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country,” he said in a CNN interview.

The vice presidential residence in Northwest DC, which sits on 80 acres (32 hectares), was very different, he said.

“You can walk off a porch in the summer and jump in a pool, and, you know, go into work,” he said. “You can ride a bicycle around and never leave the property.”

All about Beau

Biden’s late son, Beau, sometimes seems as much a part of Biden’s presidency as Biden himself.

Biden works references to his son into speeches and other public remarks, and sometimes wears a baseball cap bearing the logo of Beau’s child protection foundation.

Beau was being groomed to follow his father into national politics — and perhaps one day be president. He was a Delaware attorney general, served in the state’s Army National Guard and advised his father politically.

Joe Biden, right, is seen with his son Beau Biden in Denver, Colorado, on August 25, 2008. (AFP/Paul J. RICHARDS)

Brain cancer took him away from his wife and two young children in 2015 at age 46. He’s the second child Biden has buried; a 1972 car wreck killed the president’s first wife and baby daughter.

Biden said during his 2020 presidential campaign that Beau should have been the candidate.

On the eve of his swearing-in, a tearful Biden said his “one regret” was that Beau wasn’t alive “because we should be introducing him as president.”

Better at being a VP than having a VP

Obama did not choose Biden because the two were personally close. He chose him because he added some foreign policy heft and experience and could serve as a bridge to Congress.

But over time, the two became personally closer. Obama tasked Biden with being the “sheriff” to oversee how money in the 2009 stimulus bill was spent during the financial crisis. He also assigned him to help fashion a plan to end the war in Iraq.

When Biden was considering a run to succeed Obama in 2016, the president was cool to the idea and his vice president bowed out in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Still, Obama’s regard for his vice president was on display at the end of their tenure, when he presented Biden with the Medal of Freedom in an emotional ceremony.

Kamala Harris bumps fists with Joe Biden after being sworn in as the 49th US Vice President on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (JONATHAN ERNST / POOL / AFP)

Biden’s relationship with Vice President Kamala Harris hasn’t been nearly as smooth.

Her role in the job is historic: She’s the first woman and first Asian and Black vice president. But she’s struggled to find her footing, and Biden hasn’t been much of a guide, though the two insist publicly that their relationship is solid.

Biden has assigned Harris some of the administration’s most difficult issues, including immigration and voting rights. And while Biden himself served as top cop on the stimulus law, he gave the task of overseeing spending from his $1 trillion infrastructure law instead to a former mayor, Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, rather than his vice president.

All the president’s czars

From infrastructure to COVID-19 response, Biden has hired White House coordinators to marshal the resources of the federal government to implement his policies. In the case of combating climate change, Biden went so far as to put two in place — Gina McCarthy to lead the domestic initiative and former secretary of state John Kerry to lead it globally.

Biden knows a thing or two about czars: He was one, when he led the implementation of the American Recovery Act for President Barack Obama. But it’s telling that rather than relying on Cabinet secretaries or his own vice president, he’s chosen experienced and often politically connected managers like Gene Sperling, who leads implementation of the COVID-19 relief bill, and Jeff Zients, who runs the government response to the virus.

This reflects not just the Biden White House’s technocratic streak but also the centralization of power within the West Wing.

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