Joe Biden’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week in context
Maybe now he can finally move beyond cleaning up the messes his predecessors left him?
It started with an attack by ISIS K terrorists during the Kabul airport evacuation, which killed 170 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
Then Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana, knocking the power out for millions of people stranded in what became an evolving public health hazard. The storm, though attenuated, moved up the coast causing historic flooding in New York and New Jersey. It took 43 lives and destroyed thousands of livelihoods.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay a Texas abortion ban that poses an existential threat to Roe v. Wade and abortion rights across the U.S.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 surged as millions of children went back to school and GOP governors did all they could to make their returns less safe. And then, following an announcement that the administration recommended third-dose booster shots to take on the pandemic, the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration implicitly rebuked the administration, calling for more time to review the data.
If all that wasn’t enough, the monthly jobs report showed a far less optimistic picture on the economy’s rebound — with just a third of the number of new jobs created as were projected.
Any one of those crises would have made for a tough week for a president. All of them together made for just about the worst week a president has faced in a long time.
Because our news cycle has accelerated to a blur, we’ve all become accustomed to getting our news through a process that almost intentionally decouples it from the context that creates it. After all, by the time you’ve gotten the basic story, it’s yesterday’s — or even last hour’s — news. Therefore we implicitly associate that news with the politics of the moment. And yet each of last week’s headlines were far longer in the making.
Take Afghanistan. As I’ve written, seeing this debacle as simply Biden’s fault requires a deliberate misreading of history (on that note, I highly recommend Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror to understand the through-line between the war on terror, the Trump presidency, and our current moment). This was a war built 20 years ago on a series of faulty premises, the inflammation of a radicalized brand of American exceptionalism, and an unwillingness by presidents since its inception to shake the wasp’s nests. Though his tactics were faulty, Joe Biden made a courageous choice to end America’s longest war, for which the proponents of war itself are now punishing him. But he was cleaning up their mess.
What about the delta variant and the jobs report? Once Biden’s predecessor opened Pandora’s box and injected politics into the pandemic, he set off a chain reaction that not even he can control. It saw everything from COVID-19 treatments like Hydroxychloroquine, to testing and tracing, to the vaccine rendered through the buzzsaw of our political polarization. Today, nearly half of our country remains unvaccinated. Despite all of the attention on breakthrough cases, the maps don’t lie: delta has claimed more beds and more lives in communities where there has been less vaccination. For all its usual complexity, the story of the pandemic economy has been simple: when cases go up, the real economy — not stock prices, but jobs and access to consumer goods — suffers. Biden didn’t make this mess, he’s just left cleaning up Trump’s.
Even Ida was a long time coming. The devastation in the wake of the storm should be best understood as yet another place where climate change and failing infrastructure collided. Climate change? Failing infrastructure? Biden is the first president in decades to actually try to take these on in any meaningful way. And though the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the budget reconciliation package aren’t nearly enough, they’re a real start — especially considering the most salient opposition is coming from senators from his own party.
However, there may yet be progress. President Biden’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, was not, in fact, his week alone. It was a week where he cleaned up the messes left by his predecessors. Moving forward, he may have the opportunity to start building something of his own. In tandem, the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the budget reconciliation package have the potential to massively remake the fabric of American life, extending healthcare benefits, decimating child poverty, extending paid family and sick leave, supporting childcare and home- and community-based services for seniors and disabled people, reducing the cost of college, tackling climate change even as we adapt to the consequences we’ve wrought, rebuilding our crumbling pipelines, roads, and bridges, and more. To be sure, there’s so much more than even what’s in the bill that we need to secure the lives and livelihoods of Americans across our country — like a universal national health insurance program like Medicare for All envisions, or a true Green New Deal that remakes our economy around job security and a green future.
Nevertheless, these bills would deal a final death blow to the 40-year Reaganite governing consensus that’s left us selling off public goods to private corporations to exclude the poorest of and extract from the rest of us. They would reestablish the government as a force for good, providing healthcare and school in the uS rather than a war machine dropping bombs abroad. Perhaps then, in the longview, even with these bills, Biden will still just be cleaning up other presidents’ messes.