There’s not enough space here to describe in detail the rough first years of presidents. In modern times, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton stumbled out of the gate, and Donald Trump, don’t get me started.
Perhaps the worst first year, though, was President Herbert Hoover’s. In October 1929, just seven months into his presidency, Black Thursday, the stock market crash that's seen as the beginning of the Great Depression, occurred. And for good measure, much of the West Wing and Oval Office was destroyed in a Christmas Eve fire. It was a metaphor for the rest of Hoover’s disastrous one term.
First year doesn't dictate entire term
In the end though, you’re graded not on how you start but how you finish. A 2021 survey of historians by C-SPAN (I was honored to participate) ranks Kennedy the eighth-best president, Reagan ninth and Clinton 19th. But Hoover and Trump never recovered and are ranked 36th and 41st, respectively.
And what of Joe Biden? The 10 categories upon which he will ultimately be measured – here they are, as applied to our top-rated president, Abraham Lincoln – suggest that at this point, he is on track to be considered, in my view, perhaps in the high 20s. This could improve, or it could deteriorate, over the next three years. We’re only at the end of the first quarter, folks.
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Let me discuss, briefly, three things that affect Biden’s standing. The conditions he inherited, the mistakes he has made, and the expectations that we Americans tend to have of our presidents.
What Biden inherited
For decades, Gallup has been asking Americans if they are “satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time.” It hasn’t been above 50% since January 2004. President Barack Obama inherited a satisfaction level of 13%. It was 26% when Trump came in, but 11% when he left. In the last year it has crawled back to 21%.
America, in this still young 21st-century, has been a gloomy land. Biden inherited a badly-divided country, with each side snarling at, distrusting and demonizing the other. After a year of pleading for Republicans to meet him halfway, he has fallen into the muck himself, e.g., last week’s nasty “Jefferson Davis-George Wallace” speech in Georgia. His frustration has boiled over. Who can blame him?
The president’s biggest mistake has surprised me. He hasn’t spent enough time talking up last year’s economic achievements. “America’s economy improved more in Joe Biden's first 12 months than any president during the past 50 years,” Bloomberg reported last month, “notwithstanding the contrary media narrative contributing to dour public opinion." It backed up the claim with data showing that: “No first-year president going back to Carter comes close to matching the current White House occupant’s No. 1 or No. 2 ranking in each of 10 key measures.”
Jobs, wages, economic growth and more, the data is frankly mind-blowing. Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki mentioned “the biggest year of job growth in American history,” adding it was the “direct result of actions taken by President Biden and Democrats in Congress, including the American Rescue Plan, the vaccination effort it helped fund and now the bipartisan infrastructure law.” They should be shouting this from the rooftops each day.
But it may be too late, because the narrative – and TV images – has shifted to 7% inflation and empty grocery shelves. Yes, jobs are plentiful, people are getting raises. But where’s the milk, eggs and meat? This sort of in-your-face stuff is what’s top of mind with voters now.
These issues are intertwined. When the pandemic ends, shortages, which are fueling inflation, will ease. But the pandemic rolls on because millions of Americans refuse to get vaccinated (though more than 200 million have been). But it’s Biden’s fault that the pandemic endures? It’s maddening.
What we can't blame on Biden
And what of our expectations? Everyone knew that Republicans would obstruct Biden at every turn. And he came into office with Democrats losing ground in the House, and winning fewer Senate seats than projected. Officially they have 50, but considering West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, they really don’t.
A shift of just 44,000 votes in three states would have kept Trump in the White House. A divided country is the stuff of incrementalism, not mandates. Which explains why the “Build Back Better” bill, loaded with everything but the kitchen sink, hasn’t gone anywhere. Look for Biden to recalibrate and pass a slimmed down BBB in 2022.
An “unbeatable” economy. A huge infrastructure bill. Over 200 million Americans fully vaccinated – and, incidentally, 1.1 million lives saved. Biden can point to several major accomplishments as his first year in office comes to an end. But inflation is raging, Republicans may take back the House and Senate in November, and Russia, China and other adversaries are testing him. As challenging as year one has been, the president’s troubles could soon multiply. History is watching.
Paul Brandus is the founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. His latest book is "Jackie: Her Transformation from First Lady to Jackie O." Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden's inherited Trump's mistakes. His legacy isn't set in stone.