As President Joe Biden prepares to ring in the new year in his beloved home of Delaware, the holidays cap off a consequential year for his nascent administration marked by triumphs and challenges – including passage of a major infrastructure package, record job growth and a vaccination campaign that saw more than 200 million Americans fully vaccinated from COVID-19.
But Biden, who in his inaugural address called for unity and pledged to "be a president for all Americans," has overseen a nation still divided, in part because of a tumultous withdrawal from Afghanistan, economic challenges caused by rising consumer prices, as well as an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With his hand on the family bible, Biden took the presidential oath in Jan. 2021 at the U.S. Capitol surrounded by reminders of the challenges ahead – standing in the same spot where, just two weeks earlier, a mob of supporters of his predecessor committed a violent, deadly insurrection in an attempt to stop the certification of his win.
The usual trappings of an inaugural celebration were scaled back, due in large part to the pandemic – dignitaries sat socially distanced, the National Mall was empty of crowds – and the deadly Jan. 6 riot. Security fencing still surrounded the Capitol as Biden addressed the nation.
"Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy," Biden said. The will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed."
"So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries," he continued. "We look ahead in our uniquely American way – restless, bold, optimistic – and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be."
In his address, Biden warned of a "dark winter" ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic – an issue which would define, in large part, the first year of his presidency. On the eve of his inauguration, standing alongside his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, as well as his Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, Biden grieved the 400,000 lives lost to the coronavirus at a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.
"It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal," Biden, who frequently leaned in to the "consoler-in-chief" role. "It's important to do that as a nation."
"My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we will need each other," the president said of the pandemic in his inaugural address. "We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We are entering what may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus."
"We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation," Biden implored before quoting the scripture, another oft-utilized trope of his presidency. "I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning."
While politics surrounding the pandemic were not quite set aside, Biden quickly turned his attention to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Armed with three authorized COVID-19 vaccines – from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – Biden set an ambitious goal: 100 million shots in his first 100 days. At the time, it seemed like a far-fetched idea.
Biden achieved the goal in 58 days, and then doubled the goal, hitting 200 million before the 100 day threshold.
As of Thursday, Dec. 23, more than 241 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, representing 72.7% of the U.S. population, with more than 200 million fully vaccinated, or 61.7% of the total U.S. population, according to the CDC.
Biden also made getting a COVID-19 relief bill passed his first legislative goal – and, thanks in large part to two Democratic wins in Georgia in January, giving his party control of the Senate, Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in January without a single vote of Republican support. The bill included $1,400 stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and an expansion to the Child Tax Credit
Vaccination rates slowed as the pandemic wore on, with shots getting tangled up in culture wars and opposition from many supporters of former President Donald Trump – despite the fact that the vaccines were developed under Biden's predecessor's administration, which Trump has touted frequently.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has attempted to implement vaccine-or-testing requirements for millions of workers at private businesses throughout the country and mandates for health care workers that have been challenged in federal courts nationwide, largedly by attorneys general in Republican-led states.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in challenges to the vaccine mandates on Jan. 7.
Overseas, Biden looked to re-establish relationships with European allies that had been strained by his predecessor.
At a Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, in June, Biden proudly touted that "America is back at the table" in terms of international affairs.
"The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries," the president declared. "America is back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values."
But many of those relationships were put to the test later in the summer when Biden oversaw the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, a chaotic and tumultuous end to the country's longest war.
The Trump administration had promised a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by May 1, but Biden pledged to have all troops out of the country by Sept. 11, 2021 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that drew the U.S. into conflict in Afghanistan in the first place. The date was eventually moved up to Aug. 31.
Though the withdrawal began under Trump's administration, many blamed Biden for the 20-year war's tumultous end – the country's quick fall to the Taliban, scenes of American citizens, Afghan allies and others attempting to get out of the country via Kabul's airport and frantic airlifts and flights hearkened back to the Fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
The fall of Afghanistan precipitated falling approval ratings for Biden, which largely have not yet recovered.
Biden made international participation a major part of his administration, including attending the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in October, where he pledged to take action in the fight against climate change.
"To state the obvious, we meet with the eyes of history upon us and the profound questions before us," Biden said at the COP 26 conference. "It’s simple: Will we act? Will we do what is necessary? Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?"
While the president has made major strides in the fight against global arming – including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord on his first day in office – he showed up to the conference without a major legislative climate change victory in hand.
President Biden's first year has consisted of many acronyms for his ambitious legislative agenda – ARP (the American Rescue Plan), BIF (Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, the initial name of his infrastructure proposal) and BBB (Build Back Better, the name of his ambitious climate change and social spending bill).
The president scored a major legislative win in his first year, getting Democrats and Republicans to come together to agree upon a more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill – a major priority that both his predecessor and his old boss, former President Barack Obama, could not accomplish.
"Finally, infrastructure week,” President Biden said in November after Congress passed the bill, poking fun at "infrastructure week" jokes that plagued Trump's presidency amid fits and starts on various unsuccessful infrastructure proposals. “I’m so happy to say that: infrastructure week."
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that we took a monumental step forward as a nation,” he said. “We did something long overdue, that has long been talked about in Washington — but never actually done.”
All told, the bill – formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, now branded as "Building a Better America" – will provide, according to the White House:
- $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects
- $11 billion for road safety
- $39 billion to modernize public transit
- $66 billion for passenger and freight rail
- $15 billion for electric vehicles, buses and charging infrastructure
- $25 billion for airports
- $17 billion for ports
- $50 billion for water infrastructure
- $55 billion for clean water efforts, like replacing lead pipes
- $65 billion for high-speed internet and broadband infrastructure
- $21 billion to aid environmental clean-up
- $73 billion for power infrastructure
Biden hailed the passage of the bill as a “once-in-a-generation” investment that will create jobs, improve public works, and help restore America’s competitive edge.
This bill is “for all of you at home, who feel left behind and forgotten,” Biden said Saturday. “There will be jobs in every part of the country: Red states, blue states, cities, small towns, rural communities, tribal communities.”
“This is a blue collar blueprint to rebuild America, and it's long overdue," he said, noting that "the vast majority of the thousands of jobs created don't require a college degree."
The bill passed the Senate handily (In a 69-30 vote, including 19 Republicans) over the summer, but was stalled in the House amid negotiations over a larger climate change and social spending bill, the Build Back Better act.
Progressive Democrats wanted assurances that if they passed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, moderates would support the larger bill – initially pitched as a $3.5 trillion bill, but whittled down to around $2 trillion – which contained universal pre-Kindergarten, prescription drug pricing provisions and the largest-ever legislative investment in the fight against climate change, around $550 billion.
The bill is funded largely by tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and corporations.
In recent weeks, the bill hit a snag in the form of moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a crucial vote in the evenly divided Senate. Manchin made waves last week when he said he could not support the bill, repeatedly expressing concern that the bill would add to the deficit and make inflation worse, which the Biden White House denies.
While the jobless rate dropped by 2 points in Biden’s first year, and the administration has overseen one of the largest job growth periods in U.S. history, consumer prices increased at the fastest rate in four decades.
As the year has come to a close, the coronavirus pandemic has posed a new challenge: The highly contagious omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa, has led to a surge in cases nationwide.
Biden once again implored Americans to get vaccinated while outlining a plan to address the surge in cases, including the purchase of half-a-billion at-home test kits to be made available in 2022.
"Vaccinated people who get COVID may get ill, but they're protected from severe illness and death. That's why you should still remain vigilant," he said. "If you are vaccinated, and follow the precautions that we all know well, you should feel comfortable celebrating Christmas and the holidays as you planned."
And he issued a stark warning: "Omicron is serious, potentially deadly business for unvaccinated people."
The president, however, was also clear as he announced new steps to aid the country amid the omicron surge: the country is better off than it was last year.
"No, this is not March of 2020," he said.
Biden announced his administration has purchased 500 million COVID-19 at-home tests to be distributed to Americans free-of-charge come January, when the federal government will launch a website to search for the free tests. When launched, people will be able to order tests for free delivery.
The White House had faced backlash for not taking action to make more free tests available when omicron was first discovered in late November. They originally planned to send 50 million free rapid tests to community sites and clinics while also making the tests covered by insurance, a plan that evolved over the last few weeks as omicron spread.
“We all want this to be over, but we’re still in it,” he said in the days leading up to Christmas. “We also have more tools than we’ve ever had before. We’re ready. We’ll get through this.”
The new year will also begin with Biden trying to salvage his Build Back Better bill. The president was optimistic that he and Manchin will be able to put aside their differences and are "going to get something done" on the bill.
"Sen. Manchin and I are going to get something done," Biden said in late December. "I want to get things done. I still think there’s a possibility of getting Build Back Better done."
How he does on both fronts will help determine the state of play heading into next year’s crucial midterm elections, which will determine control of Congress for the remainder of Biden's first term.