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Joe Biden's rocky first year as president

President Jose Biden appears on a screen as

President Jose Biden appears on a screen as trader Glenn Kessler works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Nov. 29, 2021.  Credit: AP/Richard Drew

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden took office last Jan. 20 promising to guide the country through the "dark winter" of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as he prepares to mark his first year in office, he is again trying to assure the country that the unrelenting virus will not become "the new normal."

"We have so many more tools we're developing and continue to develop that can contain COVID and other strains of COVID," Biden said last Friday when asked if Americans should be prepared to live with the virus long term.

Biden’s first year in office has been shaped by the pandemic.

He's had victories as he secured passage of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package last spring and ramped up distribution of vaccines.

He's also faced a series of challenges, including supply shortages and bottlenecks in the distribution of goods exacerbated by outbreaks of COVID-19 at factories, farms and ports across the globe.

"The Biden presidency started out very strongly in 2021, but the first year has ended with a very mixed evaluation," said Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency.

Bose said Biden "has certainly had some important successes" with the pandemic relief legislation and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package in the fall.

But the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August and Biden's inability to get other key pieces of his agenda enacted have been "disappointing for the president, for the administration and for the president's supporters," Bose told Newsday.

Here are four issues political analysts say have defined Biden’s first year in office:

COVID-19

Before taking office, Biden had promised his administration would administer 100 million doses of vaccines in his first 100 days — eventually meeting that mark by his 58th day in office.

More than 74% of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of three federally approved vaccines, while more than 205 million Americans, or 62% of those eligible, are fully vaccinated, according to federal health data.

But the administration has had to adjust its strategy over the past few months to focus on boosters and testing as the rapid spread of the delta and omicron variants have prolonged the pandemic.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that fully vaccinated individuals receive a booster shot six months after their most recent COVID-19 vaccination.

Biden has promised to make 500 million at-home testing kits available free via a federal website that has yet to be launched.

Still, the administration has struggled to reach the approximately 15% of Americans who have not received any vaccine dose.

"While the Biden administration was very successful in the spring of ‘21 with the distribution of the vaccine, the onset of the omicron variant in the past few weeks, and the realization that there is a lack of testing availability, is showing that in addition to the vaccine, there needs to be a plan for what happens when variants come," Bose said.

Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant who worked on the campaign for the late GOP President George H.W. Bush, said changing federal guidelines have led to frustration with the administration’s handling of the pandemic, particularly among Republicans.

"I think that to a large degree, people are feeling like the guidelines keep changing every day," Dawidziak told Newsday.

"People are feeling that the messages that are coming out are inconsistent … Do cloth masks work, do they not work?" Dawidziak said.

Infrastructure

Biden notched a major victory in November when Congress in a bipartisan vote approved one of his key legislative priorities: A $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill aimed at upgrading the nation’s aging transportation and communication systems.

The bill received the support of 19 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who previously had vowed "100%" of his focus would be on "stopping" Biden’s agenda — and 13 GOP House members.

Biden, who campaigned as a veteran of the Senate who could broker compromises, said the infrastructure bill, "proved we can still come together to do big things, important things for the American people."

Biden’s victory lap was short-lived, amid infighting between the left-of-center progressive wing of the Democratic Party and moderate legislators.

They fought over the size of a second bill — dubbed "Build Back Better" — which focuses on social infrastructure such as providing universal prekindergarten and expanding Medicare benefits for the elderly.

Progressives had pushed for a larger $3.5 trillion package that would include paid family medical leave and offer dental and vision coverage to seniors enrolled in Medicare.

But because of pushback from moderate members of the party, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va), the package was whittled down to $1.75 trillion.

Former Long Island Rep. Steve Israel, who served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the public fighting has hurt Biden’s ability to capitalize on overall public support for infrastructure investments.

"In any other climate Democrats would be crowing about the fact that even under Mitch McConnell they passed a historic, sweeping, bipartisan bill to create jobs and rebuild our infrastructure," said Israel, director of Cornell University’s nonpartisan Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

"Instead, Democrats have been sniping at one another, about their failure to pass an even bigger bill, and that's hurt the narrative," Israel said. "That also reinforces the perception people have that maybe things aren't going as well as they should."

Presidential historian Jeffrey Engel said despite Biden’s success in passing a major piece of bipartisan legislation that will upgrade the nation’s roads, railways and airports, the administration has struggled with explaining to the public how the package will impact their everyday lives.

"The Biden administration, in large part because they were swinging for the fences, failed to do something that is not just critical in politics, but critical for major reform of the kind" that Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson succeeded at, said Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

" … The Biden administration never made clear to the average American voter what was in these packages for them and their families individually," Engel said.

Afghanistan withdrawal

In April, Biden announced the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan," Biden said in a White House address. "Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth."

The Trump administration in 2020 had negotiated an exit agreement with Taliban leaders that called for the U.S. and foreign allies to withdraw by May 1.

But Pentagon officials at the start of the new Biden administration delayed the deadline, asserting that the Taliban had not yet met commitments to stop terrorist threats emanating from the region.

In July, Biden moved up the timeline to draw down troops, announcing in a White House speech that the United States would complete its withdrawal by Aug. 31.

Within weeks the Taliban regained its foothold in provinces throughout the country.

By Aug. 16, the U.S.-backed Afghan government had fallen to the Taliban.

A crush of civilians — including interpreters and workers who had assisted the U.S. military and allied forces for nearly two decades — descended on Kabul’s main airport seeking a way out.

Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in a pair of suicide bombing attacks outside of one of the airport’s main gates, while more than 60 Afghan civilians died in the attack.

Biden defended the exit strategy, saying "I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit."

The chaotic exit coincided with an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the United States driven by the highly transmissible delta variant.

Biden has yet to recover from the downturn in his poll ratings.

"The vast majority of Americans for several administrations now have been saying ‘Why are we still in Afghanistan? Why can't we get out of the Afghanistan?’" Engel said.

"What they didn't want was the embarrassing scene at the airport," he said.

The economy

Over the past year, the U.S. economy has added a record 6.4 million jobs as the nation recovered from the shutdowns of 2020.

The United States has recovered nearly 84% of the jobs lost during the onset of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Labor said in December.

Also, the stock market has posted record gains over the past year, and once-stagnant wages in several service industries have grown gradually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But rising consumer prices combined with product shortages have dampened confidence in Biden’s handling of the economy, according to public opinion polls.

An analysis by the website Real Clear Politics of polls conducted between Nov. 30 and Jan. 4 showed an average 56% of Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of the economy.

In his first week in office the average disapproval rating among polls Real Clear Politics looked at was 36%.

White House officials have argued that the pandemic exposed long-standing problems with the international distribution of goods.

They note that the delta variant’s spread worldwide led to the shutdown of operations at various key ports, delaying shipments of goods.

Officials including Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen say the high inflation levels are temporary, and will subside as businesses ramp up production.

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