The best thing about 2021 was that it wasn't 2020
If you hoped Trump's departure would restore a sense of normalcy, this year was a disappointment.
After four years where it felt like American society was constantly teetering on the brink of cataclysm, 2021 was supposed to be the year where a sense of normalcy returned. It didn’t quite work out that way.
In hindsight, the tone for the year was set in its first week, on January 6, when the Trump-inspired attack on Congress demonstrated that the authoritarian movement he emboldened wouldn’t fade away after he left office. But following Biden’s inauguration a couple weeks later, a corner was turned — or so it seemed at the time.
The new president oversaw a remarkably efficient vaccine rollout and passage of a $1.9 trillion relief bill that kickstarted the economy and drastically reduced poverty. By early June, Biden’s approval rating was north of 50 percent and his disapproval was south of 40. New daily Covid cases were at their lowest level since the early days of the pandemic. We were reminded of what competent federal governance looked like, and the short- and medium-term future looked promising.
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The virus, however, was down but not out. By August, the delta variant was driving another spike of cases as Biden’s approval ratings sank. Other factors were also at play — including a chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan that provided an opening for critics to question the president’s judgment — but, as the below graphs show, the correlation between Covid’s resurgence and Biden’s slide is unmistakable.
To be clear, while the Biden administration’s Covid response hasn’t been perfect — the CDC, for instance, has been heavily criticized for not tracking breakthrough cases and for reducing recommended isolation and quarantine times even amid the omicron-driven spike in cases we’re currently enduring — a global pandemic is obviously in large part beyond a president’s control. But as the head of the federal government, presidents get credit and blame for these sorts of things all the time.
On the political front, Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema did Biden no favors by holding up his signature Build Back Better legislation all fall, creating a perception of presidential weakness and producing an unending string of “Dems in disarray” headlines. Even the signing into law in November of a long-sought $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill couldn’t dislodge Biden’s approval numbers from the 42-to-44 percent range, where they’ve now been mired for more than two months.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, Republicans responded to the January 6 Capitol attack not by distancing themselves from the insurrectionists, but instead by purging members who stood up to defend democracy. The future of the party is Marjorie Taylor Greene, not Adam Kinzinger.
And as I’ve detailed on a couple occasions in recent weeks, Biden has been further damaged by mainstream media coverage that’s disproportionately negative in content and harsh in tone, and treats even minor trivialities as opportunities for hit pieces.
Why care right now about Biden’s approval numbers in the first place? A lot can still change between now and next November, after all. Manchin may have killed BBB for the time being, but he hasn’t totally shut the door on supporting a watered down but still significant version that could be passed as soon as next month. And while we’re currently being slammed by an omicron wave that’s producing record numbers of new cases, experts are cautiously optimistic it’ll be brief. There’s a good chance the country could be in much better shape next fall than it is now. But things can always get worse too.
One thing we do know is that an unpopular president’s political party tends to get massacred in the midterms, and Joe Biden right now is not a popular president. Another thing we know is that considering the Republican Party’s increasingly open post-January 6 embrace of authoritarianism, the consequences of Democrats potentially losing one or both chambers of Congress would be grave.
As political scientist Brian Klaas told me in the Q&A that launched this newsletter, “if you have an authoritarian party that's trying to win power, every election is an existential threat to democracy to a certain extent.” And while Republican members of Congress have worked to kneecap Biden, state-level Republicans have busied themselves passing Big Lie-inspired legislation that stacks the deck against Democrats repeating the successes they had in the 2020 cycle.
So as we enter 2022, it’ll be important for Democrats to frame the stakes of the upcoming midterms in a manner that resonates. Kitchen table issues are obviously important, but the major fault line in American politics right now is the battle for democracy. Policy disputes over the size and scope of the social safety net won’t amount to much if our political leaders are no longer responsive to voters.
On one hand you have a party that lined up behind a glorified gameshow host as he tried to entrench himself in power against the will of the people. On the other you have one that did important work in 2021 to help people, but was stymied in some of its efforts by moderates. On one hand is a party that made mistakes while trying to protect people from a novel, mutating virus that has now killed over 800,000 Americans, but worked diligently and effectively to protect people with vaccines and common sense recommendations. On the other is one that has glorified anti-vaxxers and made a mockery of basic public health best practices at every turn.
So goodbye, 2021. You weren’t the year any of us hoped for. But as difficult as it is to remember amid a spike of Covid cases that feels like 2020 all over again, it wasn’t all bad. We have tools to protect ourselves from the virus, an economy that’s back on its feet, and a federal government that, for all its flaws, has cares that go beyond entrenching itself in power and self-dealing.
Does that progress represent the start of a new era, or a blip in the country’s slow descent into authoritarianism? I have a feeling that question will be central to the story of American politics in 2022, and look forward to telling it here in Public Notice.
What are your reflections on 2021 and predictions for 2022? I want to hear them.
This is my last newsletter of the year, but I’ll be posting a paid subscriber-only reader thread on Friday in which I want to hear your thoughts about the year that was and what it portends for the future.
Have a different take on 2021 than the one I offered above, or something to add to it? Want to share your own takeaways from the year that was or predictions for 2022? You’ll have your chance to share with me and the more than 1,000 people who now have paid memberships to the site.
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