At Joe Biden’s Wednesday press conference, a reporter cited a list of recent misfortunes before asking mournfully: “Did you overpromise to the American public what you could achieve in your first year in office?”
He might as well have asked Biden, “Have you been sitting at a desk in the Oval Office?”
Overpromising is what presidential candidates do. You don’t get 81 million votes, as Biden did, or even 74 million, as his opponent did, by informing people of all the problems you won’t be able to solve.
Biden stoutly denied having led people to believe he would lead them to the land of milk and honey. “I didn’t overpromise, but I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen,” he insisted.
Judging from the polls, the president is a chorus of one in making that claim. Presidents rarely exceed expectations, particularly in their first year, and Biden has not smashed the template.
Ronald Reagan saw his approval rating sink steadily in his first year, and again in his second. In Barack Obama’s first year, his approval rating dropped by 18 points. Donald Trump didn’t suffer as big a decline in popularity only because he was so unpopular from the start.
The notable exception was George W. Bush, who had a gaudy 84% approval rating at the end of his first year. But that wasn’t because of what he did; it was because of what Osama bin Laden did. The 9/11 attack instantly rallied the country behind Bush, who proceeded to spend the rest of his presidency squandering that support.
Biden’s failure to live up to his own hype is not really in dispute. The website PolitiFact provides a list of his 100 most important campaign promises and determines that he has managed to keep just 16 of them — with 70 either “stalled” or “in the works.”
Granted, he didn’t say he would fulfill them all in his first year, but some promises have evaporated like the morning dew. Decriminalize marijuana? Amend the Constitution to ban private financing of political campaigns? Eliminate cash bail? Not gonna happen.
In some ways, though, Biden has been bolder than anticipated. The generous child tax credit in his American Rescue Plan went beyond anything he proposed as a candidate. His decision to withdraw from Afghanistan came as a surprise because it would have been politically safer to stay.
But presidents are judged less on what they do than on what happens while they happen to be in office. Biden gets blamed for inflation, which is mostly the product of policies fashioned by others, such as Trump and the Federal Reserve. He gets blamed for the persistence of the pandemic, which is equally persistent in countries where he wields no power. He gets blamed for not forging compromises with Republicans who damn him as a power-mad socialist election thief.
Biden is the latest victim of the unrealistic vision many people have of the office he occupies. Presidents don’t guide the economy like a pilot flying a plane. Often, they have about as much control over it as a bull rider has over the bull.
Nor do presidents have the means to extinguish a highly contagious virus that has repeatedly confounded the world’s most learned medical experts. Presidents can’t effortlessly impose their will on Vladimir Putin, Central American migrants or oil-producing nations.
Nor do they command the obedience of Congress, particularly when they barely control either chamber. Biden may bestride the executive branch like a colossus, but it takes just one member of Congress — say, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — to thwart his legislative plans. The Supreme Court, which doesn’t answer to voters or anyone else, has the power to upend his most treasured policies, as it did in striking down his vaccine mandate on large private employers.
Biden, of course, has inflicted some of his own wounds, as when he casually suggested that he could tolerate a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. The Afghanistan pullout was no one’s model of how to end a futile war. His conviction that he could sweet-talk Manchin into supporting his Build Back Better bill rested on fond hope and fairy dust.
But most of the things that have gone wrong in the past year are not Biden’s doing — and the same is true of most of the things that have gone right. He’s not Superman, Santa Claus or Satan. He’s just a president.