On January 19, 2022, the Governance Studies program at Brookings hosted a webinar entitled “Biden’s First Year: Successes, failures, and what lies ahead.” A panel of experts assessed President Biden’s first-year performance, approval rating, and upcoming challenges in office.
Moderator Elaine Kamarck asked the panel, “If you had the chance to sit down with the president this afternoon, what would you tell him to do to try and right the ship of state?” Sarah Binder, a George Washington University Political Science Professor and Senior Fellow at Brookings, offered a two-pronged solution. First, President Biden must view more COVID-19 variants as an inevitability and use federal powers to prepare accordingly. Second, Binder advised that the Biden administration not give up on the Build Back Better (BBB) agenda. Rather, Biden and congressional Democrats should narrow BBB’s scope and use the Democratic majority to their advantage.
Brookings Senior Fellow, Bill Galston, agreed with Binder and laid out a five-point agenda. One, do not quit on BBB. According to Galston, there are parts of BBB that could garner majority support in the U.S. Senate. Two, make progress on voting rights. Galston reminded the audience that the events on January 6 were triggered, in part, by ambiguities in law about the function of the Electoral College and powers of the vice president. Three, make political space for bipartisanship. Biden should bring focus to the number of bills in Congress that could potentially build bipartisan support and cooperation. Four, visibly and repeatedly attack inflation. The president should make public an effort to address the supply chain crisis. Five, advance the administration’s COVID-19 strategy. Galston urged the Biden administration to look past the vaccine. The president now must shift focus to therapeutics, masks, and testing equipment to make a difference.
In agreement with Binder and Galston, Brookings Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Public Management, John Hudak, suggested Biden employ two strategies: marketing and executive action. According to Hudak, President Biden needs more face time with the American public around tangible, pressing issues such as infrastructure and job creation. Biden should visit new and swing congressional districts and let American citizens know how important his infrastructure bill is to their everyday lives. Throughout his campaign, Biden promised to act as a negotiator with Congress; however, deep polarization has made such a job nearly impossible. Rather than become deeper entrenched in congressional fighting and noncooperation, the Biden administration must unilaterally enact pertinent policies.
Rayshawn Ray, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and Brookings Senior Fellow, offered four solutions for the president. First, the Biden administration should increase its messaging around the midterm elections and voting to keep the attention of voters, especially in key states such as Georgia. Second, Biden needs to market his victories publicly and carefully craft his narrative in an effective of a way as Republican leaders have. Third, President Biden must stop making promises and setting unattainable deadlines. Fourth, the administration must publicly deliver on one of its early promises. Ray referred to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 1280), introduced in the House of Representatives in March 2021, and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (S.4), introduced in the Senate in October 2021, as key examples of the Administration’s early legislative promises yet to become law.
Brookings Institution David Rubenstein Fellow and University of New Mexico Political Science Professor, Gabriel Sanchez, emphasized Galston’s, Hudak’s, and Ray’s points about Biden’s need for increased public messaging and urged the administration to set more realistic goals moving forward. Sanchez further advised that the president increase targeted outreach on how policy changes impact citizens’ lives, especially among Americans of color.
For future success, the expert panel commonly advised Biden to communicate more effectively with the American people about his accomplishments and be more realistic about what he will deliver. The panel also recommended the president focus on where bipartisan agreement can be reached, while identifying attainable aspects of the BBB agenda, protections to voting rights, and long-term COVID-19 response.