Takeaways from Biden’s freshman year: Big ambitions, humiliating defeats

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

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

But Biden also discovered, like all of his predecessors, that events beyond his control would shape his tenure and the public’s assessment of him.

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

GREAT AMBITIONS

Biden began his presidency with more than $4 trillion worth of big ideas — his eyes bigger than the Senate could bear.

$1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief was passed in March, which in many early years in office would have been considered a landmark achievement.

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But Biden continued to ask for more: an additional $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and jobs, and an additional $1.8 trillion for families.

After some torturous negotiations, he pushed through a version of his infrastructure plan and even got more than a dozen Republicans to vote in the Senate.

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

So far, it looks like the bill wasn’t, to flip the phrase, too big to fail. Republicans abandoned him on this point, and several Democrats were also skeptical. Then inflation jumped and the odds of the plan plummeted.

— By Josh Boak

HE ALWAYS THINKS LIKE A SENATOR

Biden served as a senator for nearly four decades, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he brings the mindset of a lawmaker to his presidency.

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Known as a skilled negotiator since his time in the Senate, Biden always immerses himself in legislative negotiations and knows the details of his proposals. He believes in the value of personal relationships and face-to-face conversations to negotiate details, frequently calling key senators or asking lawmakers to meet him at the White House.

Biden insists on the need for bipartisanship, a value he holds dear in the Senate. But he’s the one who, in today’s sharply divided Washington, feels disconnected from the moment.

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

A major difference? Now he rides Air Force One instead of Amtrak.

— By Alexandra Jaffe

PULL HIGH AND FALL OUT

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

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Taking office after Trump’s efforts to overturn the will of voters, no issue seemed as urgent for Biden as the push for vote protection legislation.

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

It was emblematic of how Biden’s central justification for his presidency — his nearly four decades in Washington has uniquely positioned him to deliver a wildly ambitious agenda — seems increasingly out of step with the politics of today.

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

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

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— By Zeke Miller

NO OBAMA 2.0

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

But his approach to the world was also marked by his determination to avoid some of the missteps of his former boss, Barack Obama.

Biden kept his promise to meet the 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 U.S. military withdrawal. As vice president, Biden had opposed Obama’s decision to send more US troops to the country. But the exit chaired by Biden was widely criticized for its haste and execution, which resulted in casualties among US troops.

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

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Biden made it clear early on that his greatest hope for the relationship with Putin was to find some measure of stability and predictability. While his administration is urging Putin to back down from the current Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s approach will yield any better results.

— By Aamer Madhani

A GOLDEN CAGE

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

During his first year in office, he spent at least part of 99 days in his home state of Delaware, mostly on weekend trips and accounting for more than a quarter of his presidency. It’s a short getaway that requires a massive operation involving security contingents, press pools, helicopters and buses.

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

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“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 an interview with CNN.

The 80-acre northwest DC vice-presidential residence was very different, he said.

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

— By Colleen Long

ALL ABOUT BEAUTIFUL

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

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

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

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

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

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

— By Darlene Superville

BETTER BEING VP THAN HAVING A VP

Obama didn’t choose Biden because the two were personally close. He chose him because he added some weight and experience in foreign policy and could serve as a bridge to Congress.

But over time, the two grew personally closer. Obama appointed Biden to be the “sheriff” to oversee how money from the 2009 stimulus bill was spent during the financial crisis. He also tasked him with helping develop a plan to end the war in Iraq.

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When Biden considered running to succeed Obama in 2016, the president was cold to the idea and his vice president stepped down in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Yet Obama’s esteem for his vice president was evident at the end of their term, when he presented Biden with the Medal of Freedom in a moving ceremony.

Biden’s relationship with Vice President Kamala Harris has not been so smooth.

Her role in the post is historic: she is the first woman and the 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 publicly insist their relationship is solid.

Biden gave Harris some of the administration’s toughest issues, including immigration and voting rights. And while Biden himself was the top stimulus bill cop, he handed over the task of overseeing the spending of his $1 trillion infrastructure law to a former mayor, Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, rather than its vice-president.

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— By Colleen Long

ALL THE CZARS OF THE PRESIDENT

From infrastructure to the COVID-19 response, Biden has hired White House coordinators to mobilize federal government resources to implement his policies. In the case of fighting climate change, Biden has gone so far as to put two in place — Gina McCarthy to lead the national initiative and former Secretary of State John Kerry to lead it globally.

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

This not only reflects the technocratic bent of Biden White House, but also the centralization of power within the West Wing.

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— By Zeke Miller

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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