Two main factors influence presidential legacies: the chief executive’s success in implementing his agenda and the resulting impact. And his handling of the inevitable unexpected events that hit the Oval Office desk.
The first five months of Joe Biden’s presidency have given the 46th president a taste of the challenges in keeping the focus on his priorities – and shown why it is so important to do so.
They’ve been dominated by his efforts to fulfill his top campaign pledges: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring economic growth and re-establishing governmental normalcy at home and abroad. He has mostly succeeded in avoiding major distractions.
Despite some confusion over the Centers for Disease Control’s decision to ease mask-wearing requirements and a slowing in vaccinations, Biden’s war against the pandemic has gone relatively well. New cases and deaths are dramatically down, and the reopening of most closed restaurants, sports events and schools has expanded exponentially in recent weeks.
At the same time, Biden has used the situation he inherited to propose a far-reaching array of policy proposals to deal with long festering issues like the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, economic inequities, the increasing impact of climate changes, and the racial inequities given a dramatic focus by last year’s murder of George Floyd.
Most of those efforts are still in the initial congressional development process where the mind-numbing daily details and the uncertain prospects for compromise have increased concerns over how much of Biden’s agenda will ultimately get enacted. As usual, much of this won’t be resolved until the final days before the mid-summer and end-of-session congressional adjournments.
Rather than a distraction, Biden’s weeklong European trip complements his domestic efforts to restore normality by focusing on U.S. relations with its top European allies.
Meanwhile, the president has gotten a taste of how unanticipated crises contend for a president’s attention. One example was immigration, where Biden and his team should have been better prepared for the flood of asylum seekers pouring across the southern border soon after his inauguration. Another was the inevitable but less predictable foreign policy challenges, like last month’s flare-up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
On immigration, administration officials have had substantial difficulty in explaining how they hope to cope with the illegal influx beyond speeding reunification of children with their parents or other family members and trying more proactively to mitigate the underlying problems south of the border.
Immigration continues to be the area in which polls show the public giving Biden his lowest grades. But the issue seems to have attracted somewhat less attention in recent weeks, the number of unaccompanied minors in government custody has been reduced, and Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Guatemala and Mexico spotlights the administration’s hope of reducing the flow by improving economic conditions in central America.
Another potential distraction was the recent flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Biden’s low-key outreach to such key U.S. allies like Egypt was crucial in easing the situation without over-attention on it detracting from the administration’s broader goals. This may prove somewhat easier with Israel’s expected replacement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though the prospects for the longtime U.S. goal of a permanent two-state agreement seem as distant as ever.
Elsewhere abroad, Biden has been able to keep the focus on his own goals, including countering Chinese economic and military expansionism, a more unambiguous stance against dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and restoration of the allies’ faith that the United States is a reliable partner.
Biden has shown a sense of realism in dealings with dangerous adversaries like North Korea and Russia, recognizing these relationships need to be managed over the long haul rather than become targets for dramatic but questionable headline-making moves like former President Donald Trump’s high-profile initiative towards North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
And despite the inevitable attention on such headline-making events as this week’s European trip and next week’s summit with Putin, the White House hopes to keep much of the president’s focus on events at home.
Like any new president, Biden recognizes that his first year in the White House is crucial to achieving his domestic agenda, since 2022 will be dominated by the midterm elections and there is no guarantee he will retain the necessary congressional support for major initiatives after that.
The recurring emphasis on West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s reluctance to support some Biden initiatives underscores the fact that the president is operating with the barest of congressional majorities.
Despite weeks of efforts to enlist some GOP support for infrastructure legislation, most Republicans seem determined to oppose most of his initiatives, leaving him almost totally dependent on his own party.
Fortunately for Biden, most fellow Democrats seem to realize that, for the most part, their own success in next year’s elections is tied closely to his. Even Manchin, who isn’t up for re-election until 2024, has been careful to keep open the option of supporting key Biden economic initiatives like infrastructure.
There is a reason for their continuing loyalty. Presidential job approval is one of the most reliable predictors of a party’s midterm success. And so far, Biden’s job approval remains comfortably and consistently in positive territory, especially on the issues around which he has staked his presidency.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.