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One year on from winning the election, Joe Biden is the least popular modern US president except for Donald Trump – and Donald Trump remains his biggest threat. By Bruce Wolpe.

One year on, Trump’s threat remains

President Joe Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Credit: Melina Mara / Pool / AFP

When Joe Biden claimed victory in Delaware last November, he knew his country’s future was, after the Trump years, all on the line.

“I pledge,” he said, “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States. And who will work with all of my heart, with the confidence of the whole people, to win the confidence of all of you … I sought this office to restore the soul of America … And now, the work of making that vision is real. It is a task, the task of our time.”

For an election that was deemed by many as the most important in our lifetimes, it was so much closer than it looked. In 2016, people were stunned that Donald Trump could win the Electoral College, and the presidency, by just 78,000 votes in three traditionally Democratic states (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) out of 128.8 million votes cast. A year ago, with 155.5 million Americans voting, Trump would have won re-election if he had got just 43,000 more votes out of Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Biden claimed his mandate at a Capitol defiled just two weeks earlier by the insurrection of the Trumpist army. They did not overturn the election, but Biden, like Lincoln before him, wanted to bind the wounds of his nation.

“Today,” he said, “my whole soul is in this: bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation … Uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness. With unity we can do great things … We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”

Biden’s presidency started strongly, buoyed by relief at Trump’s exit from power coupled with confidence that this deeply experienced man could move decisively and wisely. He assembled a team that was among the most experienced of any administration, and more diverse. His cabinet looks like America.

Biden got off to a very fast start, securing a huge economic rescue plan within his first 50 days, and moving firmly to end the pandemic through an aggressive vaccination program. By July, the economy was booming, with growth projected above 7 per cent, jobs and wages rising, and most households receiving rescue cheques and child-support payments. Confidence was restored and the virus was receding.

Until Delta hit. Fear returned, jobs growth stalled. Inflation and petrol prices surged. The southern border was not under control, with a record 1.7 million migrants detained in desperate conditions. Murder rates spiked across the country – the highest in 30 years.

For the world, America is back under Biden. The Paris climate accord rejoined. NATO and the G7 supported. Biden ended the “endless war” in Afghanistan, a very popular decision. But the evacuation from Kabul brought death and shame, and it harmed America’s standing, especially with its allies. The surprise US–Britain–Australia deal on nuclear subs affronted the French.

Biden’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin has led to a rough understanding of how the two countries interact. There has been no progress on either Iran or North Korea and their active nuclear weapons programs. Biden helped close down the war in Gaza, and relations with Israel’s post-Netanyahu leadership are warm, but a two-state solution with the Palestinians is nowhere in sight.

For Biden, China today is even bigger than Russia in 1939 was to Winston Churchill, when he said that the Soviet Union was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. China is hardly opaque. Biden’s new ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, was blunt in his senate confirmation hearing, calling China to account: he said its “genocide in Xinjiang, its abuses in Tibet, its smothering of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, and its bullying of Taiwan are unjust and must stop”.

Biden has put this in a larger frame, tying what he wants to accomplish at home to what he sees as America’s mission and leadership in today’s world. In his first address to congress in April, Biden was insistent in showing that after Trump, “We have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people.”

In a meeting to tie down his social and climate agenda, he was blunt with house members. As a senator, Biden prided himself on his ability to reach across the aisle and do deals with his Republican opponents. Biden did work out a landmark $US1 trillion bill to being to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure.

But that bill became linked to passage of his larger society-changing agenda on education, healthcare, income security, childcare, seniors and climate change. Its prospects are uncertain. To pass it, virtually every Democrat must vote to get Biden’s program through, but finding that unanimity on what to enact and how to pay for it, when there are no votes to spare, has been exceptionally difficult.

Ten months into his presidency, Biden’s approval has slipped well down into the 40s, and disapproval is at 50 per cent, worse than any other president since Harry S Truman at this stage in office – except for Trump.

But there is a deeper cancer eating at the Biden presidency and the country. Trump remains obsessed with the “stolen” 2020 election, seeding Republican sentiment. He did not concede, retire or retreat from the field after his defeat. In fact, Trump owns the Republican field. He is fielding Republicans who will try to replace the party “traitors” in congress who had the temerity to vote to impeach Trump for the insurrection. Republicans massively want Trump to run again.

Trump and Republicans want to delegitimise any election that a Democrat wins. This year, 19 states under Republican leadership have passed laws making it harder to vote. And Trump wants insurance: even Texas, which Trump carried easily in 2016 and 2020, has passed a new restrictive voting law.

Because of supermajority rules in the senate – the “filibuster” that requires 60 votes out of 100 to pass legislation – Biden has been unable to fulfil his pledges to protect voting rights and impose police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. That failure is driving down Biden’s standing with voters of colour, women and young people. Civil rights leaders are urging Biden to do much more.

And if the Supreme Court, now packed with Trump’s ultra-conservative justices, overturns a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, there are not 60 senate votes for Biden to get legislation reversing the court through congress.

On this anniversary of Biden’s election, the country remains the divided states of America. If you live in a Republican state, you are governed under laws and rules that fail to protect you from Covid-19 or require you to be vaccinated, that make it harder for you to vote, that remove access to abortion services, that make it easier to carry a gun in public.

The midterm elections a year from now will determine control of congress. Historically, the president’s party loses an average of two-dozen house seats in the midterms. Democrats hold the house by four seats. If Republicans take the house, infused with Trumpists who wiped the floor with Democrats, Biden’s legislating days are over. As Trump prepares to run in 2024, expect Biden to be impeached to avenge Trump’s self-inflicted disgrace at the hands of house speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.

The frightening tensions unleashed by Trump are not receding. Lori Levi, a Trump supporter, told the media at an October rally in Iowa: “I think the Republicans are about as weak as they possibly could be in congress. You have maybe six that are worth their salt ... the rest of them are just the same as the Democrats, they’ve been there too long. They’re establishment. They don’t care about the American people because they’re in their elite little tower. So we’re just sick of it, you know, and we’re not going to take it anymore. I see a civil war coming – I do. I see civil war coming.”

At a recent town hall, Biden said, “If we can’t eventually unite this country, we’re in deep trouble.” As political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann would say: one year on “it’s even worse than it looks”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "States of disarray".

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Bruce Wolpe is a former adviser to Democrats in congress and former chief-of-staff to prime minister Julia Gillard.