Joe Biden Promised Change. He Hasn’t Delivered.

From immigration and foreign policy to the pandemic and climate, Joe Biden promised a break with the policies of the Donald Trump era. What we've mostly gotten, however, is a change in rhetoric and the status quo in substance.

President Joe Biden speaks during the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington on January 21, 2022. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

What was the point of Joe Biden’s presidency?

When he was running for president, there was a platter of rationales. Progressive groups insisted Biden really was planning a transformational program to fix the country’s many long-simmering ills. Television talking heads told us he would turn around the deadly pandemic with a science- and expert-based approach quite unlike Donald Trump’s. For many, just getting rid of Trump was enough, with the added hope of simply erasing the last four years of policy and continuing on as before. Biden himself pitched his presidency in quasi-mystical terms, as if electing him alone would serve as a kind of nationwide exorcism of all the cruelty and bigotry of the Trump years.

Well, none of that happened. One year in, the most striking thing about Biden’s presidency, given the various threads of anti-Trumpism that powered his win, is the fundamental continuity between the two administrations in nearly every field of policy. Just as striking is how few are aware of this, with both die-hard blue and red voters convinced Biden’s White House is the antithesis of Trump’s, and an almost radical experiment in left-wing governance.

After a year, Biden can take credit for a resounding economic recovery. But just as under both Trump and Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, the spoils of that economy remain unevenly shared, with the underlying conditions that fed Trump’s rise fundamentally unchanged, true to the pledge Biden made to his core constituency of elite donors more than two years ago. Having entered the White House well-placed to make the kind of transformational change the country is desperate for, the president quickly fell sway to his most self-defeating impulses, with his conservatism squandering the opportunity in front of him.

A Very Trumpian Presidency

For a president that seems to perennially lose control of the narrative, Biden kicked his term off with a canny public relations move. Pairing lofty Rooseveltian rhetoric and a flurry of exciting-sounding executive orders with a co-option of progressive pressure groups and liberal commentators, Biden took only a few days to firmly set in the public mind that he was leading a bold, New Deal–style transformation of American life and politics.

In reality, many of the orders either just walked back Trump actions or were carefully crafted to be conditional and loophole-ridden. But for the army of newly politicized voters Trump’s 2016 win had activated, it signaled that it was safe to stop paying attention again, with the media consumption that had reached new heights under Trump swiftly plunging across the board.

As a result, few are aware that, some worthy but marginal tweaks aside, US policy under Biden has headed substantially in the same direction Trump set it to. This was maybe most dramatic in immigration, where Trump’s actions had provoked the most sustained, passionate, and vocal outcry. While soaking up positive press for reversing some of Trump’s most high-profile outrages, Biden kept in place others that were widely denounced as cruel, racist, and even fascist and white supremacist: the “Remain in Mexico” policy that condemned asylum seekers to violence and other danger while they waited for a decision; the Title 42 measure that’s effectively (and illegally) ended asylum at the southern border, and which Biden has used to expel more people than Trump; and the ongoing caging of migrant children.

Despite officially “pausing” construction of Trump’s border wall — the most visceral, outrage-inducing symbol of Trump’s immigration vision — Biden has, in reality, kept on building it, and will be passing it on to the next Republican president to finish the job. While deportations have slowed, Americans who have spent their whole lives in the United States are still being banished to “homelands” they never knew, and for relatively minor crimes. At one point, Biden even attempted to keep Trump’s record-low refugee cap of fifteen thousand, having to reverse course upon a rare instance of backlash. He’s doubled that number since, in a similarly rare instance of following through on a campaign promise.

On press freedoms, Biden’s inconsequential rhetorical shift from Trump has distracted from notable policy overlap. Biden continued and saw through the prosecution of a drone whistleblower that Trump had started, and stubbornly continues to torture and prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an action that, if similarly seen through, will make publishers and journalists on US soil and around the world fair game for imprisonment if they reveal US government secrets. He also quietly intensified a Trump-era effort to seize reporters’ records, even putting out a gag order on New York Times top brass to keep the effort under wraps, only reversing course and ruling it out once reporters exposed it. A highly disciplined set of operatives, the administration has walled the president off from the press and maintains tight control on what information gets out.

One relative bright spot has been foreign policy. What might end up being the most important and long-lasting Biden measure is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a genuinely politically courageous act that earned him a major black eye. US airstrikes around the globe have plunged 54 percent under Biden, too, giving the Middle East and North Africa a much-needed respite from endless US bombing. The president has also for the most part resisted the hawkish demands of the press corps and national security establishment when it comes to Russia, though his refusal to limit NATO expansion to Russia’s borders — the root of the current Ukraine crisis — shows how limited the definition of “restraint” is in the context of Washington.

In fact, the dearth of upsides mostly underscores how little foreign policy has changed from the previous four years. Biden has kept up Trump’s intensified blockade on Cuba and maintained his deadly sanctions on Venezuela, and his refusal to pull back from his predecessor’s sanctions on Iran has both poisoned negotiations over reentering the nuclear deal and brought hardliners to power in the country, hurting prospects for a renewed agreement. If you add his vindictive sanctions on Afghanistan, currently causing mass starvation among the people he and Washington claimed to be fighting for, Biden is currently driving humanitarian catastrophes in no less than four countries.

Biden’s pledge to end Trump’s friendliness with autocrats has gone predictably unfulfilled, unsurprising since the only notable thing about Trump’s approach was how much outrage it garnered for what was routine US foreign policy. Biden broke his promise to punish the Saudi crown prince for his assassination of a Washington Post columnist and dissident, continued US military cooperation with the brutal Egyptian dictatorship, and despite a headline-grabbing executive order, hasn’t stopped giving vital support to the Saudi-led genocidal war in Yemen. And for all the talk of restoring trust with US allies, those allies have, amusingly, complained there’s little difference in Biden’s unilateral decision-making from the kind that elicited establishment outrage at Trump.

As usual, the only thing that’s changed is the rhetoric, suddenly peppered with paeans to democracy, largely as a jab at China, with which Biden has enthusiastically pursued Trump’s new Cold War. Hostility to China, once interpreted as a clever strategy for selling Biden’s domestic agenda, turns out to have been an end in itself for this administration, with Biden pushing nuclear proliferation in the South Pacific, passing a record, budget-busting giveaway to the military-industrial complex, and facilitating what could end up a new Red Scare aimed at Asian immigrants. Meanwhile, even with troops out of Afghanistan, the wasteful and counterproductive US “war on terror” shows no sign of ending more than twenty years after it began.

In fact, Biden has used the January 6 Capitol riot to bring this war on terror home, launching a domestic anti-terrorism strategy that’s officially directed at far-right extremists but is quietly taking aim at left-leaning protesters and activists. The Capitol Police were rewarded for their staggering security failure by being expanded into a national anti-terror force immune to public record requests, the FBI has doubled its number of domestic terrorism agents and, consequently, its caseload, and there is talk of more government spying powers and a domestic terrorism statute to come. These will be a major gift to whichever right-wing authoritarian takes power next, with the inflammatory, divisive Trump never mustering the popular legitimacy to expand his powers of repression while in office.

After a summer of breathtaking violence against protesters and journalists outraged at yet another police murder, Biden has funneled yet more money and military equipment to law enforcement around the country while quietly shelving the meager police accountability reforms he promised. Police continue to murder people in extraordinarily high numbers, and mass protest is certain to break out yet again — with the police now even better equipped to brutally suppress it.

The public corruption that both fed into Trump’s rise and which he took to new, brazen heights has carried on unchecked. The Democratic Party is still raising large amounts of money and staffing key posts from business interests, while major campaign promises that threaten those interests — the public health insurance option chief among them — have simply never been spoken of since the election. While the president can’t even bring himself to take a position on whether or not lawmakers should be trading stocks while they legislate, his son has suddenly become a best-selling painter, to the horror of government ethics experts.

Meanwhile, the administration pilfered the ranks of Wall Street, big tech, military contractors, industrial agriculture, and the rest of corporate America to staff his administration. Among such appointees is Jeff Zients, the man in charge of the federal pandemic response, who came out of Mitt Romney’s vulture capitalist firm Bain Capital and once advised CEOs, “The social contract is never coming back, and your employees know it.”

American Carnage

Maybe nothing was more important to Biden’s victory than the pandemic and Trump’s disastrous handling of it, with his own advisor calling it “the best thing that ever happened to him.” So it’s here the vanishingly small gap between the two administrations has been especially marked.

After resting his campaign on rejecting Trump’s disastrous vaccine-only pandemic response, Biden turned around and adopted what was in some ways an even more aggressive version of it. Some laudatory politically risky measures like vaccine mandates aside, the administration has comprehensively failed to fulfill the very pandemic strategy it campaigned on.

While a short-term stay-at-home order is still the most effective proven way to halt the spread of the virus, there were many ways short of it the administration could have mustered to mitigate the effects. Yet on basics like data collection, contact tracing, testing, protective equipment, worker protection, and school resourcing, the United States continues to woefully lag behind other developed countries, making a mockery of Biden’s often deployed clichés about the limitlessness of American possibility.

The administration has been single-mindedly devoted to vaccines as a silver bullet at the expense of a proactive, comprehensive mitigation plan. After criticizing Trump for being stingy with the Defense Production Act (DPA), a Government Accountability Office assessment this year found Biden neither developed a plan to use the law for medical supplies (masks, ventilators, and the like) in the future nor placed a single priority-rated contract for such medical supplies — and placed fewer of them for testing than Trump. As late as December, when more than a thousand Americans were dying a day, Biden’s chief medical advisor, Anthony Fauci, explicitly ruled out invoking the DPA to make more tests.

Worried it would undermine the impetus for vaccines and create a mask shortage, Biden officials rejected an expert proposal in October for a “testing surge” to cope with the coming winter and resisted calls to supply Americans with N95 masks. In the ensuing, predictable holiday shortages that left Americans even in large, wealthy cities unable to find tests, administration officials resorted to actions that read like a parody of ineffectual, do-nothing neoliberalism.

The vice president instructed people to simply “Google ‘COVID test near me’” to access them, a practical impossibility in vast, largely poor swaths of the country. It ordered insurers not to provide but reimburse people for tests, and in a country where nearly 30 million are uninsured. As the nation prepared to enter another death-filled winter, Zients scolded the unvaccinated and told them they’d be rewarded with death and sickness — unconscionable, and particularly so given their ranks are made up of millions of people of color, whom Biden’s team spent two years treating as a political prop when it suited its interests.

All the while, the administration has spread exactly the kind of misinformation and politicized health advice that was once the cornerstone of liberal critiques of Trump’s pandemic response. Early on, to widespread media applause, Biden falsely told millions of CNN viewers that kids rarely contracted the virus and couldn’t pass it on to their parents. He declared “independence” from the virus just as a new, more virulent strain began taking hold, and rolled out sudden, confusing changes in public health guidance with little consultation with leaders. He kept Fauci in place as the face and voice of the federal response, despite the fact that he’d discredited himself in the eyes of all but the most ardent Democratic partisans.

But what might be Biden’s greatest pandemic failure is his steadfast refusal to put public health ahead of corporate profits. In a move typical of this administration, Biden’s highly publicized May decision to back an intellectual property waiver on the vaccines — and so allow largely unvaccinated poor countries to make their own versions of the vaccines on the cheap — has in practice meant nothing, with the administration declining to actually push for the measure behind closed doors. The resulting massive pool of the world’s unvaccinated produced the Omicron variant that’s currently tearing through the United States and the world.

In practice this has meant a staggering scale of suffering virtually unknown elsewhere in the developed world. The administration’s inaction has pushed an already severely strained health sector to the brink, with record-high COVID hospitalizations putting at least three-quarters of states’ hospitals to 80 percent ICU capacity or beyond. Basic services like garbage collection, schools, and various emergency services have broken down around the country under the weight of mass infection. Businesses, too, are facing staff shortages and uncertainty nationwide — ironic given this hands-off approach is supposed to be for their benefit. More people have now died from the virus under Biden than under Trump, and double the total Biden said last year was grounds for the resignation of a sitting president.

The Buck Stops at the Next Guy

But Biden’s greatest failure is his failure to act on the climate crisis at what may be the last political chance to do so this decade. It’s in fact worse than this, because Biden has, like his predecessor, actually worked to accelerate the disaster, all while misleadingly assuring the public it takes the threat seriously.

That most people are unaware of this is a testament to the PR operation of Biden’s early days. Executive orders on climate that merely reverted things to the Obama-era status quo — re-cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, reentering the Paris Climate Accords that few countries abided by in practice — were sold as bold new moves. Exciting-sounding measures, like those ordering federal agencies to address Trump-era actions that clash with “environmental justice,” or mandating a “government-wide approach” to lower climate pollution and conserve biodiversity, turned out to mean little when the cameras stopped rolling, with the administration moving to weaken and eliminate protections for endangered species by the end of the year.

Biden’s pause on new oil and gas leases, the most concrete climate measure he took in those early days, was carefully calibrated to sound as far-reaching as possible while doing the least he could get away with. A fossil fuel industry that had plenty of leases but feared a clampdown on drilling permits celebrated the decision, and was positively ecstatic as Biden proceeded to approve more permits than Trump had in any of his first three years.

Once the inevitable court challenge struck down the pause, Biden returned from the UN climate summit in Glasgow, where he’d told attendees he was “working overtime to show that our climate commitment is action, not words,” and then promptly held the largest oil and gas lease sale in US history, auctioning off more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico. The administration’s rationale was that it was legally bound to do so, something it later admitted in court wasn’t actually true.

Production on the leases will begin in around seven to ten years’ time, the exact period human civilization needs to be well on the way to radically scaling back fossil fuel emissions to prevent disaster, at which point it’s estimated to lock in the equivalent of a year’s worth of emissions of 130 coal-fired power plants. The administration resorted to bald-faced climate denial to justify this, asserting that increasingly alarming scientific warnings about the consequences of the failure to curb emissions “does not present sufficient cause” to rethink the sale.

Meanwhile, Biden has backed several pipeline projects that entirely cancel out the benefits of redoing Obama’s Keystone cancellation. The president has steadfastly refused to cancel the permit for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, and undermined Michigan’s Democratic governor by continuing to back its Line 5 pipeline, advancing the company’s scheme to create an unbroken path of Canadian tar-sands oil — some of the dirtiest, most pollutive fossil fuels on Earth — from Alberta to the Gulf, the very thing that made Keystone so controversial. It’s only a matter of time before the spill-prone company poisons a vast swath of land and water sources, protest over which federal forces have met with dangerous crowd-control tactics.

This could have been partly offset by Biden’s climate spending legislation, which, while not remotely on the scale of what the crisis demands, had important provisions for at least getting the ball rolling. But true to his history, Biden’s obsession with striking a deal, any deal, with corporate-controlled Republican elites derailed his entire legislative agenda. The prospects for future climate legislation in Biden’s term now look dim, and his decision to double down on Trump’s new Cold War with China threatens to not just undermine global cooperation on the crisis but fuel that crisis through record spending on the US military, a climate polluter worse than many countries.

As the United States enters the second year of the world’s pivotal decade for arresting the crisis, with scientists warning of a “code red for humanity” and a “ghastly future of mass extinction” if governments fail, Biden’s response has been worse than nothing. If the climate crisis was treated by the political and media establishment with anything remotely approaching the seriousness it calls for, this would be one of the scandals of the century. Unless something drastically changes, the “eyes of history” Biden has spoken about will view him less like Franklin D. Roosevelt and more like one of the string of little-remembered presidents who failed to stop, and even sped up, the national crisis over slavery.

A Halting Activist Government

Ironically, Biden’s biggest divergence from his predecessor has been in the area probably most ignored by the outrage-mongers of the Trump years: economic policy. Yet even here, the results have been remarkably limited, given the scale of suffering and disruption the country has lived through.

At this stage, other than the Afghanistan withdrawal, the positive legacy of Biden’s presidency is most defined by the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, the part pandemic response, part economic stimulus package he signed all the way back in March. While establishing no permanent new program, the bill — more than twice as large as Obama’s stimulus twelve years earlier — is rightly credited, along with the vaccine rollout, with rebounding the US economy, lowering poverty rates, and inadvertently transforming the nature of the economy for a while, with the infusion of government financial support facilitating the “Great Resignation” and helping temporarily shift the balance of power from employers to workers.

The bill’s impact was somewhat weakened by delegating relief payouts to the states, an approach not taken when it came to pandemic-era financial support for businesses, that deprived millions of support by forcing them to navigate unwieldy and overwhelmed state systems. Still, its passage was the high-water mark of this administration so far, with the law attracting broad support across party lines, rare in the post-Trump era, and all made possible by Biden’s decision to do several un-Biden-like things: put deficit concerns aside and eschew bipartisan dealmaking in favor of urgent action to deliver for the American people. All this made it doubly inexplicable that he then rejected this strategy as he moved on to the legislative centerpiece of his presidency, opting instead to repeat the exact mistakes of the previous administration he’d served in, with much the same results.

His own limitations as a leader only further hampered his agenda. By October, a chronically absent Biden had done a mere three town halls, all of them on CNN, and, by the end of the year, by far the fewest press conferences and interviews of the last six presidents in their first year. Only Ronald Reagan, who was shot and hospitalized, did fewer interviews, and, even then, only three less, and he still managed to do double the number of Biden’s press conferences — a deliberate strategy by the White House, which feared the president’s tendency to misspeak. With polls consistently showing the public didn’t even know what was in the Build Back Better bill, it was left to Bernie Sanders and various Democrats to travel the country to rally support for it, while Biden spent anywhere between 89 and 101 days at home in Delaware. The president simply left his bully pulpit sitting empty.

The resulting death of the Build Back Better bill — a smorgasbord of human investment and social safety net expansions meant to cement Biden’s presidential legacy — has led to a collective memory wipe of the stark limits of the president’s ambitions to begin with. The aforementioned public option was never even considered, and Biden refused to fight for a $15 minimum wage, one of his core and most broadly popular campaign promises, falsely claiming he couldn’t pass it through budget reconciliation. The tax hikes he offered were not even a return to the Obama-era status quo, setting corporate rates at the level put forward by the 2012 GOP ticket, and led to fierce (and ultimately fatal) business opposition to the bill anyway. And its universal childcare provisions were highly flawed and surprisingly regressive.

Meanwhile, the legislation it was sacrificed for, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, is far from what it’s been sold as. While its trillion-dollar size is a further thumb in the eye of deficit scolds, it’s less than half the investment shortfall in US infrastructure, and part of its funding comes from a privatization scheme that would let Wall Street gouge the public with more road tolls and other user fees — not much different from Trump’s own infrastructure proposal, which was widely denounced at the time.

Antitrust enforcement is one area that could prove a bright spot. Genuine bipartisan support, combined with Biden’s appointment of key posts to actual progressives instead of corporate representatives, could see some real action in the near future to dismantle the monopoly power that dominates Americans’ lives and picks their pockets. How much will happen in the next year, when the midterm elections dominate, and how far it will offset the steep cost rises that long predate the current supply chain crunch remains to be seen.

But more often than not, the claims that Biden has ushered in an era of bold and unapologetic activist government haven’t matched reality. Enormous pressure has often been required to force the administration to take basic, even politically beneficial actions like fighting for the eviction ban, extending the pause on student loan repayments, and sending COVID tests to US households. The last is a run-of-the-mill policy in many countries, which the White House nevertheless publicly mocked as a laughable fantasy, before an outcry forced its hand.

Biden still hasn’t cancelled student loan debt, even in the highly limited form that he promised. In fact, despite being stymied in Congress, Biden has so far mostly declined to use the bewildering array of extraordinary executive powers at his disposal, including using patent seizure to lower drug prices, rescheduling marijuana as a less dangerous narcotic, and temporarily extending Medicare to those exposed to COVID. In fact, the administration is still carrying on a Trump-era program that aims to privatize Medicare, to little outrage or attention.

Equally overstated is this administration’s pro-worker bias. After winning plaudits for backing Amazon workers trying to unionize, Biden has largely been invisible in labor fights since. Under pressure on extended unemployment insurance from big business and the Right, Biden buckled, allowing governors to end extended unemployment insurance early, and steadfastly ruling out a similar future stimulus, just as government tax and spending policy is tipped to have a negative fiscal impact on growth for the foreseeable future.

What’s astonishing is that, apart from the child tax credit — a powerful but temporary measure Biden failed to extend — Biden’s program on economic security has largely leaned on marquee Trump policies from the pandemic era: stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, the eviction ban, rental assistance, and the student loan repayment pause. With all the immense power of the modern US presidency, his administration has been content to follow Trump’s lead, dragging its feet on even invoking the DPA to force companies to produce the semiconductor chips whose shortage has led to a spike in car prices. Even Biden’s much-touted rejection of deficit concerns began under Trump’s final year.

In hindsight, Biden’s actions around the American Rescue Plan have proved to be the exception to his presidency, and his maneuvering around the Georgia Senate elections just before taking office have proved far more indicative of the way he would govern. During that episode, Biden had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support the stimulus checks that he had never backed while campaigning against Trump, and which proved to be the key to the Democrats’ Senate victories that allowed Biden to govern at all. And once it was said and done, he played semantic games to needlessly cut the size of the checks, breaking a clear campaign promise, and disillusioning party activists who had knocked feverishly on doors to get him his congressional majority.

A Man for a Different Moment

Scouring Biden’s entire political history before the 2020 primaries, I did not like what I found. I saw not only the ritual corruption and betrayal of working people that characterizes the modern Democratic Party, but a man with a history of poor judgement, a consistent inability to stand up to those who opposed him (on the Right, anyway), a deep skepticism that public institutions could or even should take action for the common good, and someone for whom progress could only be measured by how few federal dollars were spent. In other words, precisely the wrong kind of leader for this moment.

For a few brief months in early 2020, I was pleased to see that I might actually wind up wrong. But ever since the passage of the March stimulus bill, Biden has made wrong choice after wrong choice, sadly typical of the modern Democratic Party and Biden himself, with dire results for both. His approval rating is in the doldrums, with Democratic voters alone giving him high marks. He’s presided over a startling and rare reversal in party identification in the GOP’s favor, just as the Democrats head into an already historically unfavorable set of midterm elections. And his own party has begun openly complaining about a president who’s absent and detached from the bruising electoral battle to come. Most worrying for them, with Biden continuing Trump policies in everything from immigration and climate to foreign policy and the pandemic, Democrats have given up their ability to morally blackmail disillusioned left-of-center voters.

The tragedy is that after spurning left-wing policy priorities and choosing an insider, accommodationist governing strategy that the Left has decried from the beginning, Biden has failed in a way that is already being seized upon to further marginalize the social democratic movement he already defeated in the primaries. MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough blames Biden for being “too far left” and uncompromising, and the Washington Post casts his avoidable missteps as a case of “liberal campaign promises” having “collided with reality.” Though Biden’s agenda has been either markedly right-wing or shaped by corporate interests, the idea that he’s in thrall to progressives has subsequently been internalized by voters.

Biden’s presidency will never reach the heady heights of the first half of this last year, but it’s still salvageable. It all rests on whether he can change and be a different leader, one who rallies the public, not CEOs and political elites, who confronts power rather than partners with it, and who abandons his ongoing conservative hesitancy to use the full might of the US executive branch. For a brief moment, Biden proved he could leave behind some of his worst instincts. The question is if he ever really wanted to.