WASHINGTON — Just hours after formally kicking off his re-election campaign, President Biden appeared on Tuesday before a crowd of union supporters chanting “four more years” to outline his case for a second term.
In his telling, unsurprisingly, the record sounds pretty good — more jobs, more roads and bridges, more clean energy, more opportunities for workers without college degrees. In just two and a half years, he argued, he has helped restore America following a debilitating pandemic and societal collapse. “Our economic plan is working,” he maintained.
But as with any incumbent seeking a renewal by voters, there is the record he is running on and the record he is running away from. During his address to more than 3,000 members of North America’s Building Trades Unions, Mr. Biden made no mention of the promises he has failed to achieve so far or the setbacks that have left him with some of the lowest approval ratings of a president at this point in their term.
Mr. Biden’s record looks different depending on the angle from which it is viewed, all the more so in polarized times when voters and viewers migrate to their own corners of the information world for radically different vantage points. The president is either the mature leader fixing the country as he stands against the forces of evil or he is the leader of the forces of evil destroying the country.
“Under my predecessor, infrastructure week became a punchline,” Mr. Biden told the union members, mocking former President Donald J. Trump’s failure to pass legislation rebuilding the nation’s worn public facilities that his successor did succeed in enacting. “On my watch, infrastructure has become a decade headline — a decade.”
Mr. Trump, now seeking a rematch against Mr. Biden in 2024, gave his potential opponent no credit. “When I stand on that debate stage and compare our records,” he said in a statement, “it will be radical Democrats’ worst nightmare because there’s never been a record as bad as they have, and our country has never been through so much.”
Along with the $1 trillion infrastructure package, which passed with Republican votes, Mr. Biden can boast of sweeping legislative victories that would have seemed improbable when he took office. Among other measures he pushed through a Congress with narrow Democratic majorities were a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package; major investments to combat climate change; lower prescription drug costs for seniors; increased corporate taxes; expanded treatment for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and incentives to turbocharge the semiconductor industry.
He has been unable, however, to fulfill other major promises, including an assault weapons ban; an immigration overhaul providing a path to citizenship for migrants in the country illegally; two years of free community college; free universal preschool for all three- and four-year-olds; national paid sick leave; greater voting rights protections; and policing changes to counter excessive force. Some of those were never realistic in the first place, but Mr. Biden was the one to highlight them as priorities.
His economic record is similarly complicated. More than 12 million jobs have been created since he took office as the economy bounced back from the pandemic, and unemployment is at or near its lowest level in a half-century. But inflation rocketed up to its highest level in four decades, which some critics blamed on excessive federal spending under Mr. Biden, although cost increases have been a global phenomenon. Likewise, gas prices shot up to record levels. While both have begun to come back down — inflation has fallen from 9 percent to 5 percent — Americans remain skittish about the economy, according to polls, and economists still worry about a possible recession.
After fitful starts, Mr. Biden has presided over the easing of the Covid pandemic and accompanying restrictions despite vaccine resistance among many, especially on the political right. But he has failed to quell a surge of migration at the southwestern border, where attempted crossings have hit record highs, and Republicans blame him for a wave of crime, which actually began while Mr. Trump was still in office.
Mr. Biden has worked to reverse Mr. Trump’s impact on the judiciary, pushing through more judicial appointments through the Senate in his first two years than his predecessor had, but the pipeline has slowed in recent months with the absence of an ailing Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, from the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Biden fulfilled his promise to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Where he has not been able to work his will on lawmakers, he has relied on an expansive interpretation of his executive power to achieve policy goals, most notably his decision to forgive $400 billion in student loans. But such actions are inherently subject to court challenges, and analysts expect the Supreme Court to overrule the student loan decision.
In the international arena, Mr. Biden worked to revitalize international ties that had frayed under Mr. Trump, recommitting to NATO and rejoining the Paris climate change accord. But his effort to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement abandoned by Mr. Trump has gone nowhere.
Mr. Biden’s withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan after 20 years turned into a debacle, leading to a swift and brutal takeover of the country by the Taliban and a chaotic withdrawal of troops and allies, with fleeing Afghans swarming American planes and a suicide bomber killing 13 American troops and 170 civilians.
Although Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Biden over the episode, the president was carrying out a pullout deal that his predecessor struck with the Taliban, a pact that one of Mr. Trump’s own national security advisers called a “surrender agreement.” Some experts argue the fiasco at the Kabul airport emboldened President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to assume that Mr. Biden was weak.
But Mr. Biden rallied the world when Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine last year to isolate Moscow and cut off much of its financial ties with the West. With bipartisan support, Mr. Biden has committed more than $100 billion to arm Ukraine’s military and enable its government and people to survive the Russian onslaught. American assistance helped the Ukrainians surprise Russian invaders by preventing the takeover of their capital and most of the country, but the situation remains volatile.
It remains volatile at home as well. Mr. Biden made the theme of his inaugural address his desire to unite the country after the divisions of the Trump years. And while he has to some extent lowered the temperature in Washington and worked at times with Republicans, America remains deeply polarized.
Republicans accuse Mr. Biden of being the divisive one, citing his rhetoric assailing “MAGA Republicans” and blaming him for the investigations of his rival, Mr. Trump, although there is no evidence of involvement by the president.
In his campaign kickoff video and subsequent speech on Tuesday, Mr. Biden acknowledged that he has not accomplished all he wished to. But that, he maintained, was an argument for his re-election. “We’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said.
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