The Democrats’ Unforced Errors
2021 in Review
The past year has been head spinning in political terms. 2021 started out with the unprecedented assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump seeking to disrupt the constitutional certification of the presidential election—an election won fair and square by Joe Biden—followed by Trump’s second impeachment for inciting insurrection, which again ended in acquittal in the Senate. Trump’s election antics and interventions in the Georgia Senate runoff elections unexpectedly helped Democrats gain unified control of government for the first time since 2009 when Barack Obama’s presidency began.
The stage was set for a triumphant first year for President Biden and Democrats.
With the wind at his back, Biden moved quickly on his promised “return to normal” with a series of well-executed policy achievements from the American Rescue Plan and vaccine rollout to new diplomatic efforts and movement on infrastructure investments.
“Shots in arms, checks in pockets.”
The second half of the year, unfortunately, was marked by inexplicable stumbles and self-inflicted political wounds that left Biden and Democrats depleted—and Republicans energized—ahead of critical midterm elections.
What happened? It’s a story of promise and political shrewdness followed by hubris and political obtuseness.
In President Joe Biden’s inaugural address in January, he promised to turn the page on the tumultuous Trump years and to work with people across the country to get beyond our divisions and solve common challenges:
Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.
Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work and rebuild the middle class and make healthcare secure for all…
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue. Rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment stand in their shoes. Because here’s this thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand, there are other days when we’re called to lend a hand.
That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future, and we can still disagree. My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we’re going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.
True to this animating spirit of national unity, President Biden and Democrats proceeded to take on the two most important tasks facing the country: controlling the coronavirus pandemic and getting the economy back on track. Republicans were not interested in helping out, however, even after two previous rounds of bi-partisan relief and recovery efforts passed under President Trump. With zero votes from Republicans in Congress, Biden and the Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan to further jumpstart Covid recovery with money for vaccinations, stimulus checks, support for businesses and schools hurt by the downturn, and aid to states and localities to rebuild. The initial rollout of vaccinations went exceedingly well, and the U.S. economy showed robust signs of life with massive job creation and 6.5 percent growth as businesses, towns, and cities opened again after the long lockdowns.
By June of this year, the president and a bi-partisan team of Senators had also crafted a long-awaited federal infrastructure bill to rebuild America’s roads and bridges, upgrade utilities, expand public transportation, and help the transition to clean energy.
All in all, this was an exceptionally promising start to President Biden’s first year in office with productive action on his main priorities and clear advances for the entire country. Despite a wall of opposition and lack of assistance from most Republicans on most issues—and particularly in GOP-led states—Biden and Democrats were able to produce tangible improvements for Americans on health care and the economy.
The second half of the year is less sterling in terms of policy and more concerning politically for Biden and Democrats. Sadly, the downturn in their fortunes is almost entirely their own fault.
The administration’s haphazard and inept withdrawal from Afghanistan set in motion a cascading set of events that severely diminished Biden’s political standing with Americans, along with Democrats’ congressional prospects heading into the 2022 elections. The decision by the White House and congressional leadership to link Biden’s infrastructure legislation with a massive reconciliation bill combining all the President’s various social proposals also proved to be a major strategic error. The round-and-round discussions and factional infighting produced months of head-scratching and counterproductive delays in terms of both passing Biden’s infrastructure bill and convincing more Americans that Democrats’ social welfare policies are good for the country. To this day, most Americans cannot explain what is in the Build Back Better Act despite numerous health care and family support measures that are well-liked individually.
In the midst of this chaos, Democrats managed to lose the critical off-year governor’s race in Virginia by having no agenda whatsoever and embracing out-of-the mainstream cultural positions on crime and schools that have contributed to Democrats’ deeper branding problems across the country. Capping the ugly second half of the year is the now all-but-certain demise of Biden’s Build Back Better bill with Senator Joe Manchin’s declared opposition this week.
These political stumbles have cost Biden and Democrats dearly. Although America’s economic recovery remains one of the best on record, Democrats are getting little credit for it as inflation worries and a new wave of Covid infections threaten to upend the positive momentum. Consequently, the President’s net job approval margin has plummeted 26 points—from +17 approval at the start of the year to 9 points underwater at the end of 2021. The President’s standing among Independent voters is even more concerning, with disapproval outpacing approval on every important issue facing the country from the economy and jobs to national security and immigration. To add to the Democrats’ troubles, Biden's support among Hispanics, already relatively poor in 2020, has declined especially fast since the beginning of the year.
Is a Third Act Possible?
Normally you see the rise and fall of presidents in the public’s mind over the course of their time in office, or perhaps over their first two years. Biden’s decline is sharper and deeper than any on record and has happened over a very short period. This does not bode well for him in the near term, or for the country over the longer term.
The depth of opposition to Biden from Republicans is startling and appears to go well beyond normal disgruntlement to irrational hatred of the man and his policy ideas. Democrats, of course, can be accused of oppositional irrationality as well given the decrepit state of contemporary public discourse between the two parties. Yet, without changing a thing about their approach to politics, the Trump-dominated GOP could easily ride this wave of voter anger to retake control of both the House and Senate next year, and further cement their rule in the states.
Since Republicans likely won’t provide any support at all going forward, Biden and Democrats must solve their own problems—both with the public and internally in their party.
Unfortunately, the Democrats appear unwilling to confront or even acknowledge their obvious branding deficiencies and shift to a better public face for voters that is pro-worker, pro-family, and pro-America. Likewise, Democrats drastically overestimated their political standing with voters by pursuing grandiose theories about Biden being the next FDR or LBJ without the majorities to back up these policies. So, instead of proceeding with a series of bills to advance jobs, family support, and clean energy, Biden and leadership chose to dump it all in one big package and hope that every single Democrat in the Senate would go along. It didn’t work out.
The White House can blame Republicans or the filibuster or Joe Manchin for this situation but the fault is mostly theirs. Throughout the summer and fall, the White House encouraged factional splits between progressives and moderates that needlessly delayed its own infrastructure bill and failed to craft a politically realistic social spending bill that could pass the Senate. These political stumbles and miscalculations now threaten to eclipse Biden’s numerous accomplishments, and stall momentum on his overall agenda, while simultaneously strengthening Republicans.
If President Biden wants a more successful—or at least more hopeful—second year in office, he will need to get back to the ideas and promises of his inaugural address. This means at least trying to achieve more national unity among voters despite Republican opposition, promoting common solutions to common problems, focusing on Covid and the economy above all else, and taking steps to turn down the heat on America’s cultural wars.
Biden may be down at the end of year one but he is by no means out. Future success, however, will require a serious strategic recalibration of policy and politics in year two.