A divided congress. A skyrocketing inflation. research perspectives. And as of last week, a new crisis over the discovery of secret documents from his time as Vice President in his home and office. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, is celebrating his two-year anniversary in the White House this Friday with the prospect of major challenges for the second half of his term.
Just a few weeks ago, Biden was on the road to success. In the first half of his tenure, he managed to pass more and more far-reaching legislation than any of his predecessors since Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) in the same term. Last November’s midterm election produced better-than-expected results for Democrats, some of whom had campaigned to avoid a Biden going through his worst moments of unpopularity: that party expanded its control of the Senate and lost the House of Representatives, albeit for just one Handful of places. Republicans appeared disoriented after a vote to elect House Speaker that required 15 rounds of voting for Kevin McCarthy to garner enough support.
In December, Biden tweeted, “I think it’s going to be a great year. Why? Because we’re going to start developing a lot of things that we approved last year.”
But then the case of the secret papers broke out. The White House announced last week that confidential documents were found in November at the office of a think tank that Biden had maintained after his tenure as vice president and at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. Justice Department chief Merrick Garland appointed Robert K. Hur as a special prosecutor to investigate the case. Republicans quickly launched an avalanche of criticism that Biden’s team had hidden the discovery for two months. The incident could complicate the president’s leadership in the coming months and his campaign for re-election in 2024.
The challenges for this second half of the semester have already begun. With a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it will be much more difficult for the Democratic government to pass legislation in Congress. Donald Trump’s party is committed to investigating and impeaching almost every aspect of government policy, from the Afghan withdrawal to immigration strategy. And above all about the affairs of the president’s son, Hunter, which they consider dubious.
The federal debt will reach its final ceiling in about six months, and Republicans and Democrats must negotiate increasing it in order for the country to make its payments. Both sides remain locked in their positions. “We will not negotiate with it,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. The debt limit must be approved “unconditionally”, it said. On Capitol Hill, Republicans insist they will not green-light it without major government spending cuts.
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The current tenant of the White House isn’t exactly the most charismatic president the United States has ever had. He has a reputation for being clumsy and making mistakes when speaking, while being accused of being too old at 80. “Sleepy Joe” is one of the nicknames used by his predecessor and political rival Donald Trump to describe him. And the nickname stuck.
But with age comes experience. His knowledge of how the system works after more than 40 years in the Senate has enabled him to win approval for very ambitious measures, some of which have been endorsed by congressmen from both parties.
His $1.9 trillion post-pandemic bailout was implemented in the first few weeks after he was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, with echoes of the attack on the Capitol still fresh in everyone’s ears. Months later, Congress gave the green light to its billion-dollar infrastructure bill, the largest in a generation, which will allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to areas like the power grid and airports.
After more than a year of tough negotiations with the Democrats, who are closest to the Republican positions, Biden won approval of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), an ambitious economic and environmental program to meet the goal of reducing emissions by the year 2006 by 40% below 2006 levels by the end of this decade. It also strives to stimulate national industry and promote research in artificial intelligence, biotechnology or quantum technology, among others.
Although some of the measures adopted over those two years could have stoked runaway inflation at first, they are beginning to bear fruit. Unemployment remains low and gas prices have fallen from the highs reached this summer. Even inflation, Biden’s big economic problem for the past two years, which hit 9.1% in June, seems to be coming under control: the wholesale index fell more-than-expected, down 0.5% in December.
The intense activity of these two years also extended to foreign policy. Biden’s tenure in this area began with a step that is still controversial today: the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. But White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insists that leaving “was the right decision strategically” and has allowed the United States to focus more on the worse “threats of the 21st century.”
Strong US support for Ukraine has enabled President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to resist Russia’s nearly year-long invasion and retake part of territory captured from Moscow. Washington has strengthened old alliances and created new military links, such as the Aukus (Australia, Britain and the United States) in Asia. It has signed an agreement with Mexico on immigration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela that has reduced the number of immigrants of those nationalities crossing the border irregularly. To some extent, it has restored ties with European partners damaged during Trump’s tenure, although these allies complain that IRA legislation protects domestic American industry at their expense.
Zelenski and Biden met at the White House last December. DPA via Europa Press (DPA via Europa Press)
Not all were successes. After the conservative Supreme Court Roe v. Wade, who had protected abortion rights nationwide since 1973, Biden had promised legislation to guarantee it at the federal level if Democrats retained their legislative majority in both houses. Something that is now out of the question. There was also no progress on the migration issue, which is always pending.
But the president’s popularity, which has been in the doldrums for months, is rising. From lows below 40%, it has risen to 44%, according to a survey released this week by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The political climate for announcing his candidacy for re-election was favorable.
“While approval ratings for the President have increased, particularly among young, independent, working-class Americans and college graduates, a majority of the public (52%) continue to express negative views of his tenure. As he considers running for the White House in 2024, Biden and his supporters hope his surge in approval is a preview of what’s to come,” said Tatishe Nteta, professor of political science and co-lead of the poll.
The poll precedes the scandal surrounding the documents. Something that has given new wings to some demoralized Republicans who want to know all sorts of details about the case. And that, according to the results of the investigation, if he runs against Trump in the next elections, as expected, he can neutralize one of the president’s weapons: his image of honesty in front of a former president suspected of obstructing justice. The real estate mogul amassed thousands of classified materials that had to be recovered after months of unanswered requests in an FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida residence.
Despite the fact that both cases are very different — the documents in Biden’s possession are far fewer, and the president and his team are collaborating on the investigation — Republicans are already claiming that the current president has been treated with a white glove and Trump . so unfair and overzealous.
From now on, new clashes between Democrats and Republicans are to be expected. The latter promise to initiate new investigations. The administration has hired additional legal counsel and communications experts to respond to these investigations. For now, the White House is trying to contain the damage and weather out this storm.
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