Setbacks for Biden at home and abroad as he marks challenging year in office

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Joe Biden on Thursday marked a year since his inauguration as president obliged to confront the same urgent crises he inherited when he took the oath of office: an unrelenting pandemic, economic uncertainty and a democracy threatened by partisan division and lies.

Related: Biden warns Russia will ‘pay a heavy price’ if Putin launches Ukraine invasion – live

But now those challenges have been compounded by a string of setbacks, both at home and abroad, that have eroded confidence in his leadership.

In his first public appearance of the day, 12 months on from the one where he swept Donald Trump out of the White House, Biden was in a position of having to clarify loose remarks he made the day before about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.

During a marathon press conference on Wednesday afternoon to mark the anniversary of his presidency, Biden alarmed Kyiv by appearing to suggest that allies were divided over how to respond should a move by Moscow be a “minor incursion”.

On Thursday, speaking at the White House, he said “any” Russian movement across the Ukrainian border would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response” from Nato. He also vowed a response should Russia “use measures other than overt military actions”, such as “paramilitary tactics” and other methods of warfare.

Warning the Russian president, Biden said: “Let there be no doubt at all: if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price.”

Biden’s clarification came after the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted in English and Ukrainian: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”

Biden made the initial remarks at a Wednesday press conference, during which he also mounted a nearly two-hour defense of his first year in office. He insisted that the administration had handled the coronavirus “remarkably well,” noting that tens of millions of Americans had been fully vaccinated. On the economy, he touted record low unemployment, and outlined his plans for taming inflation and alleviating supply chain bottlenecks.

Defiant, Biden vowed to pursue a scaled-back version of his signature domestic policy bill, stalled before the Senate amid opposition from members of his own party. He was realistic about the prospects of passing voting rights legislation to counter the barrage of new restrictions enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country.

“It’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that,” he said, hours before Republicans blocked Democrats’ latest attempt to pass the bills, which the president described as critical to the fate of American democracy. The vote – and Democrats’ failure to unite around a plan to change the rules to pass the bills – illustrated the difficulty he faces delivering on his campaign promises, despite Democratic control of Congress.

Underscoring the depth of Biden’s challenges, he wrapped the first year of his presidency with one of the lowest approval ratings of any of his recent predecessors. A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research on Thursday found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans now disapprove of his handling of the presidency.

According to the poll, 56% of Americans disapprove of the way Biden is handling his job as president, compared to 43% who approve. A dismal 28% of Americans say they want Biden to run for re-election in 2024, including only 48% of Democrats, it found.

The figures represent a sharp decline for Biden, who began his presidency with relatively strong support from a public hopeful that he would bring a sense of normalcy after four tumultuous years of Donald Trump. His political fortunes have since declined, with his approval ratings falling sharply in September after the chaotic and rushed military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the arrival of the Delta variant that caused coronavirus infections to spike.

Asked about his sagging approval ratings, Biden replied: “I don’t believe the polls.”

Accepting that his approach needed to change, Biden said he planned to spend less time locked in private negotiations and more time on the road making the case for his policies to Americans as Democrats fight to retain control of Congress in the November midterm elections.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” said Biden, who spent decades in the chamber as a senator from Delaware. “They want me to be the president, and let senators be senators.”

Thursday also marks one year since Trump quietly left Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where, far from fading into exile, he has spent the past year plotting a political comeback.

Out of office – and banned from mainstream social media platforms – the twice-impeached former president has only tightened his grip on the Republican party. His base remains deeply loyal, convinced that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and eager to see him return to power in 2024.

During his press conference, Biden accused Republicans of obstructing his agenda out of a devotion to his predecessor. “Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party?”

Biden acknowledged that the pandemic, now in its third year, had left Americans demoralized and asked for their patience during the next year of his presidency.

“Some people may call what’s happening now the new normal,” he said. “I call it a job not yet finished. It will get better.”