In January 2021, a sense of change was in the air. There was hope among many that a career politician would restore a sense of stability inside the office of President of the United States following Donald Trump’s tumultuous term.
Democrat Joe Biden had broken the record set by Barack Obama for the most votes accrued by any presidential candidate in the country's history and he pledged a raft of ambitious reforms, including overturning some of Mr Trump’s most controversial policies.
But he was inheriting a divided nation hit harder by COVID-19 than anywhere else in the world, and just six days into the New Year - before he was even officially sworn in as president – the US was shaken to its core when throngs of protestors attacked the US Capitol Building to try and prevent the certification of his election win.
It’d prove to be a sign of how difficult his first year in office would be, with the Democrat going on to face a series of legislative setbacks and backlash to key decisions at home and abroad.
Joe Biden (left) fist-bumping Vice President Kamala Harris (right) after their inaugurations. Source: AAP Image/Kevin Dietsch/Pool Photo via AP
Mr Biden’s approval rating in his first six months as president hovered above 53 per cent - and disapproval near 43 per cent.
By the start of 2022, those statistics had flipped.
“There’s been a whole change of tone from who the President is and what the President stands for,” said Bruce Wolpe, a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and former Democratic congressional staffer.
“At the same time, in the election of 2020, Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and the Democrats only have the narrowest control in the Senate.
“Biden as President, he knows what he wants to do. He’s worked hard at it. But getting his program passed has been difficult so you have this mix of leadership and choppy political waters.”
He took action on COVID but hasn't got on top of it
US Joe Biden giving a coronavirus update Source: AAP
Mr Biden took office and swiftly rolled out a raft of measures to suppress the virus, which initially appeared to have made an impact.
But fast forward to now, and record levels of the virus pervade the country.
In early January 2022, the US recorded one million daily infections of COVID-19. The new wave, driven by the Omicron variant, has seen test shortages, overburdened hospitalisations and school closures.
While Mr Biden’s AU$2.6 trillion COVID relief deal was hailed a success, like in many parts of the world, a return to normality has not occurred.
“There are huge numbers of infections and people are scared and uncertain about what the future is,” Mr Wolpe said.
“People elected Biden for a return to normalcy. The US is not normal yet. He’s suffering because of that.
People elected Biden for a return to normalcy. The US is not normal yet. He’s suffering because of that.
“People are the economy. [If you have] people wrapped up with infections and staying away from work, the economy is also choppy and you have inflation.”
This month in the US, inflation hit its highest point in 40 years.
Mr Biden has also faced legal challenges to some of his COVID-19 measures, with the US Supreme Court only last week blocking a rule requiring workers at large companies to be vaccinated or be masked and tested weekly.
While vaccines were developed during Mr Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration has been responsible for the rollout. And although vaccine uptake steadily increased in the initial months of Mr Biden’s leadership, the vaccination rate has now plateaued at 70 per cent.
How people feel about vaccines has become a political issue and the country remains heavily divided on a partisan basis, Mr Wolpe said.
“In Republican states with Republican governors, the vaccination rates are much lower than elsewhere in the country - and that means the US can’t get on top of COVID.”
“There’s a structural impediment in the vaccination rollout … which means that COVID may be with the United States longer than it may be with Australia
“That is a drag on the Biden presidency.”
He withdrew from Afghanistan, leading to devastating scenes
Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Source: Verified UGC/AAP
In April 2021, Mr Biden made the decision to order all US troops out of Afghanistan by 11 September, the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But what happened next brought Afghanistan to its knees, shocked the world, and saw Mr Biden come under enormous international criticism.
With the presence of troops from the US and its allies, including Australia, diminished, the Taliban went on a lightning offensive to reclaim control of Afghanistan. It also saw the unexpected collapse of the Afghan security forces that US troops had trained and funded.
“I think the decision to leave Afghanistan and the so-called ‘endless war’ was well received and people were exhausted by it and are happy that America was out,” Mr Wolpe said.
“But the evacuation from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s ability to take over the country in such a short period of time was not anticipated.
“It was a surprise to the White House and the Defence Department and the CIA - and that really hurt because it was very messy and meant that there was not an orderly transition and a lot of people were initially left behind.”
Mr Biden deployed 6,000 troops to coordinate the evacuation of thousands of people, including US and allied foreign nationals, as well as Afghan citizens. And despite a torrent of criticism of the chaotic end to two decades of US-led military intervention, he stood firm.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," . "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces."
Mr Wolpe said the overall verdict on the decision has been “mixed”.
“It raised questions about the capability of Biden’s foreign policy team to execute something so important.”
More than 75,000 Afghans have arrived in the US through its Operation Allies Welcome operation, with many resettled across the country. But millions of refugees remain around the world.
He looked to a more 'humane' migration policy, but border numbers have risen
Migrants walk in a caravan in Honduras, aiming to reach the United States. Source: Getty Images
Under the presidency of Mr Trump, the building of the border wall with Mexico and his administration’s zero-tolerance approach to undocumented migrants formed a policy that separated thousands of children from their families.
On his first day in office, Mr Biden signed an executive order to reunite the separated children with their families and has refused to deny entry to unaccompanied minors.
But the number of migrants at the border and children crossing the border increased after Mr Biden took office, a rise that conservatives say is due to a plan to offer legal status to an estimated 11 million undocumented people in the US. That plan has since been diluted.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell accused Mr Biden in October last year of running an “intentionally unsecure border”.
“Biden wants a more humane immigration policy,” Mr Wolpe said.
“The fundamental issues of changing the laws ... to enable more asylum seekers to come to the United States, that legislation is still deadlocked in Congress.
“The desire of so many, particularly from Central America and South America to come to the US is undiminished and the border in the south has not been under control - and that is a hot political button that Republicans push against Biden.”
He stepped up climate action but is awaiting its execution
US President Joe Biden speaks during the COP26 UN Climate Summit, Tuesday, 2 November, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. Source: AAP
Re-joining the Paris climate accord was high on the list of priorities for Mr Biden and formed one of his first acts as president. Since then, he and his administration have been vocal on the need for world leaders to curb climate change and .
Although Mr Biden’s approach came under scrutiny when it did not include signing up to the COP26 pledge to end the use of coal power, it has since unveiled a 100-country pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030.
The US also signed an agreement to end deforestation and ordered its government agencies to stop financing overseas carbon-intensive fossil fuel projects.
“Biden made [climate change] the highest priority. He appointed John Kerry, the former Secretary of State as his climate envoy [and] he was very well received,” Mr Wolpe.
But, he says, Mr Biden’s climate agenda, like so many other changes he wants to make, has been met with opposition in Congress.
“The aspiration is terrific but the execution is not there yet - and it hurts.
The aspiration is terrific but the execution is not there yet - and it hurts.
“The US was a major voice in Glasgow, but the underlying legislation that would really give teeth to American promises as to what it’s going to do to control carbon before 2030 and then to 2050, that legislation has not passed Congress. He can’t get it through the Senate yet.”
“Everyone knows from the fires that occurred in Colorado over New Year’s weekend, to the wildfires in California, the storms that ravished the Gulf Coast and the hurricanes that hit New York - people have made the same conclusions in their minds as they did in Australia with the fires; climate change is responsible.”
He pushed to protect voting rights but minorities are still locked out
Another Biden reform currently stuck in congressional limbo are the voting rights bills he says are needed to “save US democracy” from Republican laws “designed to suppress your vote and subvert our elections”.
Joe Biden has been looking to pass voting rights bills he says are needed to "save US democracy". Source: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA
Democrats accuse Republican state legislatures of enacting laws aimed at restricting the voting rights of minorities and curtailing early voting and mail-in voting in an effort to suppress Democratic support. Many of the Republican laws were passed in the wake of Mr Trump's false claims the 2020 election he lost was fraudulent.
The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seek to expand voting access and prevent practices used to historically suppress black voters. Changes include making Election Day a holiday, registering new voters and enhancing the US Justice Department’s oversight of jurisdictions with historic discrimination.
“Biden feels in his bones that racial justice needs to be done in the United States,” Mr Wolpe says.
“Particularly for People of Colour and poor people [having more access] to vote - having universal access to voting in the United States, that dream has not been met yet.
“Biden was elected with the strongest support from the African American community and from other voters of colour. That promise has not been delivered yet and that is a source of great frustration.”
Voting rights was an issue that widely appealed to black voters, as was widespread police reform. But as things stand, progress on either hasn't eventuated.
“Those voters, their level of enthusiasm for Biden has declined. [They’re saying], 'you got your infrastructure bill passed, your emergency COVID relief passed - where are our voting rights?'”
Mr Biden has also pushed to change the Senate filibuster rules to ensure the voting rights legalisation passes. But Republicans say that a supposedly one-off maneuver could open the door to lifting the filibuster on all sorts of issues, thereby ending any semblance of bipartisanship in the chamber.
He shifted the US foreign policy approach but the Ukraine test remains
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets with Joe Biden in September 2021. Source: AFP
Soon after winning the election, Mr Biden vowed to move away from his predecessor's “America First” approach to foreign policy and “restore dignified leadership at home and respected leadership on the world stage”.
“America is back,” he told the country.
He and his team have been meeting with Western allies around the world and differentiating between authoritarian and democratic leaders.
“Biden has drawn firm lines there, he is not afraid to stand up to Putin, he’s not afraid to stand up to Xi, or the generals in Myanmar about human rights abuses in their countries and what they control,” Mr Wolpe said.
“He has strengthened the alliances in Europe with the G7, NATO and so forth, the Quad in Asia Pacific, and he has aggregated US allies to act in concert.
“When he sits down with China, it’s not just Biden sitting down with China, but a dozen Asian allies behind him.”
Mr Biden also signed the US up to the , the defence and intelligence pact that triggered a major diplomatic row between Australia and France.
Outside Afghanistan and the AUKUS pact, the US has sought to make China a top foreign policy priority, revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and in recent weeks, increase pressure on Russia to halt the troop build-up along the Ukraine border. The latter is now reaching fever pitch.
“Ukraine is in the balance … and there is a really fundamental issue as to whether Putin will invade Ukraine or not, and Biden has made clear the consequences of what happens if he does invade Ukraine,” Mr Wolpe said.
“If that can be managed successfully that will be a real tribute to Biden’s execution of foreign policy.
“If Putin, taking into account everything that Biden has said, decides to invade Ukraine, the debate in the country will immediately become ‘who lost Ukraine’ and that will become a very ugly political matter at home for Biden.”
- With AFP.