Biden first-year takeaway: Big ambitions, humiliating defeats

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

He did it – albeit at the age of 78 as the oldest person to assume the presidency. After the turmoil and chaos of his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden was seen by voters as someone who could bring a sense of normalcy and a reassuring tone back to the White House.

But Biden also found, like all his predecessors, that events beyond his control would shape his tenure and how the public viewed him.

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

BIG AMBITIONS

Biden started his presidency with more than $4 trillion worth of big ideas – his eyes were bigger than what the Senate could stomach.

In March, $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief funds was passed in what would have been an outstanding achievement in many early years in office.

But Biden kept asking for more: an additional $2.3 trillion for infrastructure and jobs, and another $1.8 trillion for families.

After tough negotiations, he pushed through a version of his infrastructure plan and even got more than a dozen Senate Republicans to vote for it.

But the attention span is short. Biden’s $1.8 trillion package, which he dubbed “Build Back Better,” included elements that spelled out a wish-list of Democratic priorities for the past decade — including a childcare tax credit, climate laws, paid family leave and a universal one pre-kindergarten.

So far it looks like the math isn’t, to turn the phrase on its head, too big to fail. Republicans failed him on this, and several Democrats were skeptical as well. Then inflation rose and the chances of the plan fell.

– By Josh Boak

HE STILL THINKS LIKE A SENATOR

Biden was a senator for nearly four decades, so it’s perhaps no surprise that he brings a lawmaker’s mindset to his presidency.

Known as an accomplished negotiator since his days in the Senate, Biden is still immersed in legislative negotiations and familiar with the details of his proposals. He believes in the value of personal connections and face-to-face conversations when negotiating details, and he frequently calls key senators or meets with lawmakers in the White House.

Biden emphasizes the need for bipartisanship, a value he held dear in the Senate. But it’s one that seems to have lost touch with the moment in today’s sharply divided Washington.

Biden also keeps a senator’s schedule: He’s often late for events and likes to drive out of town and return to Delaware on weekends.

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

— By Alexandra Jaffe

SHOOT HIGH AND FALL SHORT

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

After taking office in the wake of Trump’s efforts to undermine the will of voters, no issue seemed more pressing for Biden than pushing for an Election Protection Act.

Biden’s attempt to break a deadlock in legislation by pushing for the Senate to change its rules to pass bills by a simple majority was crushed by two moderate members of his own party before it even got started.

It was emblematic of how Biden’s key rationale for his presidency – his nearly four decades in Washington, which have uniquely positioned him to implement an immensely ambitious agenda – increasingly out of step with today’s politics.

Biden unsuccessfully bet that personal relationships, private flattery and public arm-twisting could transcend years of increasingly bitter partisan divisions and ideological disagreements.

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

— By Zeke Miller

NO OBAMA 2.0

Biden took office trumpeting “America is back,” his brief message to allies and adversaries that the days of Trump’s inward-looking “America first” foreign policy were over.

But his approach to the world was also notable for his determination to avoid some of the missteps of his old boss, Barack Obama.

Biden stuck to his promise to meet an August deadline to end the war in Afghanistan, even as military commanders and some political allies urged him to slow the chaotic and bloody US military retreat. As Vice President, Biden rejected Obama’s push to send more US troops into the country. But the exit, which Biden presided over, was widely criticized for its haste and execution, which included casualties by US troops.

Biden also took office with more skepticism about Russian President Vladimir Putin than Obama — and Trump and George W. Bush. Obama tried to “reset” US-Russia relations. By 2014, after a string of previous disappointments, Obama’s hopes of a fresh start had been dashed when Russia seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.

Biden made it clear early on that his best hope for the relationship with Putin was finding some degree of stability and predictability. With his administration urging Putin to back away from Russia’s current troop build-up on the Ukrainian border, it remains to be seen whether Biden’s approach will yield better results.

— By Aamer Madhani

A GILT CAGE

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

In his first year in office, he has spent at least a portion of 99 days in his home state of Delaware, primarily on weekend trips, and more than a quarter of his presidency. It’s a short trip that requires a massive deployment involving security contingents, press pools, helicopters and buses.

As for the White House, Biden calls his Pennsylvania Avenue abode a bit of a “gilded cage when it comes to being able to get out there and do things.”

“I said when I ran for president I wanted to be president, not to live in the White House, but to be able to make decisions about the future of the country,” he said in a CNN interview.

The vice president’s residence in Northwest DC, which spans 80 acres, is 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 your bike around and never leave the property.”

– By Colleen Long

ALL ABOUT BEAU

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

Biden includes references to his son in speeches and other public statements, and sometimes wears a baseball cap with the Beaus Child Protection Foundation logo.

Beau was being groomed to follow his father into national politics — and maybe someday become president. He was Delaware’s Attorney General, served in the state’s Army National Guard, and was a political advisor to his father.

A brain tumor separated him from his wife and two young children in 2015 at the age of 46. He is the second child Biden has buried; A 1972 car accident 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 “only regret” was that Beau was not alive “because we were supposed to introduce him as president.”

— By Darlene Superville

BETTER TO BE A VP THAN HAVE A VP

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

But over time, the two became closer personally. Obama hired Biden as “sheriff” to oversee how money from the 2009 stimulus package was spent during the financial crisis. He also assigned him to help devise a plan to end the war in Iraq.

When Biden considered running for Obama’s successor in 2016, the president was enthusiastic about the idea and his vice president bid farewell in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Still, Obama’s appreciation for his vice president showed at the end of her term when he presented Biden with the Medal of Freedom in an emotional ceremony.

Biden’s relationship with Vice President Kamala Harris hasn’t been nearly as smooth.

Her role on the job is historic: she is the first woman and the first Asian and black vice president. But she’s struggling to find her footing and Biden hasn’t been a great leader, though the two publicly insist their relationship is solid.

Biden has handed Harris some of the toughest issues in administration, including immigration and voting rights. And while Biden himself served as top cop for the stimulus bill, he instead assigned the task of overseeing spending on his $1 trillion infrastructure bill to a former New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, rather than his vice president .

– By Colleen Long

ALL TSAR OF THE PRESIDENT

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

Biden knows a thing or two about tsars: 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 employed experienced and often politically connected executives like Gene Sperling, who is leading the implementation of the COVID-19 relief bill, and Jeff Zients, who is leading the government’s response to that directs selected virus.

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

— By Zeke Miller

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