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2021 in review: The year in US politics

2021 in review: The year in US politics

2021 in review: The year in US politics

Joe Biden has had a pretty rough 2021. (Join the club, amirite?)

Over the course of his first year in office, the president’s net approval ratings dropped from +17 to -8. While the administration did score a few own goals, a lot of Joe’s woes come down to bad luck and the fact that it’s hard to get stuff done in a country as divided and dysfunctional as the US—no matter who the president is.



So, before we all take a break from the news (please) to spend the holidays with our loved ones, here’s a roundup of the biggest stories in US politics over the past year.

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US democracy took its lumps

The year kicked off with Democrats winning back (slim) control of the Senate, courtesy of the state of Georgia. But hours later everyone forgot about it because the US Capitol was ransacked by an insurrection, arguably the biggest attack on American democracy since the Civil War. After Donald Trump refused to concede to Joe Biden in a free and fair 2020 presidential election, the sitting president goaded his supporters into trying to overturn the result. Although Trump's efforts to overturn the election failed and Joe Biden was duly inaugurated on January 20, what happened showed how dangerously divisive our politics have become.Trump remains a major force on the right

45 still has outsized influence within the Republican Party—and a lock on the nomination for president if he decides to run in 2024. The former president has spent the year purging the party of anyone disloyal to him, especially those few Republicans who voted to convict in his impeachment trial like Liz Cheney (R-WY).Sadly, once the immediate shock wore off, we returned to business as usual: Trump was acquitted in his second (!) impeachment along mostly party lines, and a year later no one except some of the rioters themselves has actually gone to prison for what they did.

In fact, Trump’s repeated attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 elections may have paid off. Despite zero evidence of foul play, to this day 3 in 10 Americans (and 2 out of 3 of Republicans) falsely believe that the vote was rigged, and several Republican states have been engaged in efforts to restrict voting rights and give legislatures the right to overturn election results in the future.

COVID refused to go away

Biden entered office promising freedom from Covid-19 by July 4th, but it’s Christmas and we’re still wearing masks.

In the first few months of the new administration, it seemed like the government had finally gotten its act together by getting vaccines into American arms at lightning speed. Sure, many Americans—as many as 20% of all adults—refused to get it, but for a time it didn’t matter. By early summer, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths had come down big time, and the administration declared victory against the pandemic.

But just as life was starting to return to normal, in came the more contagious Delta variant, which led to a sharp spike in hospitalizations and deaths, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated. The Biden administration turned up the political temperature by pushing for vaccine mandates, which didn't convince most anti-vaxxers (or, initially, the courts).

Amid a slow and confused booster rollout, now the country faces the even more infectious Omicron variant, which has thrown a wrench into Americans' holiday plans. Biden announced new measures to confront this surge, but the response is too little, too late after months of being behind the curve on home testing and boosters.

Trump remains a major force on the right

45 still has outsized influence within the Republican Party—and a lock on the nomination for president if he decides to run in 2024. The former president has spent the year purging the party of anyone disloyal to him, especially those few Republicans who voted to convict in his impeachment trial like Liz Cheney (R-WY).

Trump speaks at a rally as a photo of Rep. Liz Cheney is projected on a screen.Trump speaks at a rally as a photo of Rep. Liz Cheney is projected on a screen.Sean Rayford/Getty Images

GOP candidates in next year's midterms know they'll have a hard time if they publicly rebuke Trump, but they already have a winning strategy to limit their weakness with moderate suburban voters: Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race by vaguely expressing alignment with the former president while keeping him at arm’s length.

So, will Trump run? He says he'll make up his mind after the midterms.

Afghanistan was an unforced error

The president, who vowed like his predecessor to end America's "forever wars," decided to withdraw all US troops from the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which is what prompted the US to invade and occupy the country for two decades in the first place. It didn't go well.

The Biden administration overestimated the Afghan army's capacity to hold off the Taliban, which took over the entire country within weeks of US forces departing. The pullout may have been the right call, but it was poorly planned, executed, coordinated, and communicated. The Biden administration insisted this wouldn't be another “Saigon moment,” but the debacle tarnished America's image, put a gruesome regime in control of a deeply unstable nation, and began a downward trend in the president's approval ratings he has yet to recover from.

Democrats started out strong on legislation but got bogged down by infighting

After an initial flurry of executive orders to undo some of Trump's most divisive policies, Biden passed a massive $1.9 trillion rescue plan for the economy and to help Americans still struggling with the pandemic.

But once the biggest fire was put out, Dems started fighting each other over the size and scope of the administration's plans to remake America by investing in the nation’s physical and human infrastructure.

Biden's legislative baby ended up being split in two: a transformative $1.3 trillion infrastructure bill that passed in November with some Republican votes, along with a much larger and more polarizing social spending and climate bill that started out at $6 trillion and finally got whittled down to less than $2 trillion... before Joe Manchin (D-WV), the most powerful man in Congress, pulled the plug last weekend.

Most Democrats wish they didn’t have to negotiate with the West Virginia Senator, but with the Senate split 50-50, they need every single vote they can get to get anything done. The ‘Dems in Disarray’ narrative plays right into the hands of Republicans, who are hoping it continues for a few more months so they reap the benefits come November.

It's the economy, stupid

First the Biden administration denied it. Then the White House called it "transitory," now a verboten term by the Fed. Inflation has blown up in Biden's face, and most Americans are feeling the pinch. Prices of everything are going through the roof—mostly as a consequence of the pandemic, which shifted spending away from services and toward goods, destroyed productive capacity, disrupted supply chains, and reallocated labor.While the US economy rebounded strongly from the Covid recession, poverty is at all-time lows, and the stock market is booming, rising inflation has become a serious headache for the president. It should go away on its own as the pandemic fades, but Biden can’t do much to control it, and Republicans are having a field day blaming the rise in prices on the president’s spending spree.

The good news for Biden is jobs are plentiful, fears about the Great Resignation were overblown, and wages for workers are way up. Still, Americans think the economy is in terrible shape, and they are judging Biden accordingly.

Crisis at the border

Throughout the year, the Biden administration also struggled on immigration, with arrivals at the US southern border rising to their highest levels in 20 years.

In a nod to progressives, Biden tried to reverse some of Trump's harshest anti-immigration policies. But his agenda was met by stiff resistance from the public (which now gives the president his lowest marks on immigration) and the courts (which recently made him reinstate Trump's ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy barring asylum-seekers from entering the US while their applications are processed). And when Democrats in Congress tried to shoehorn comprehensive immigration reforms into a budget reconciliation bill, the parliamentarian gave a thumbs down.

What's more, the Biden administration is now being criticized by Democrats and sued by Haitian migrants after footage of them being whipped by border patrol agents on horseback conjured awful images of slavery.

Who benefits from all of this? Republicans, who will accuse the president of being "weak on borders" ahead of midterms.


A US Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment in Texas on September 19, 2021.A US Border Patrol agent on horseback tries to stop a Haitian migrant from entering an encampment in Texas on September 19, 2021.Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

The culture wars got even hotter

Whether or not it's actually taught in schools, ‘critical race theory’ (or CRT) became a rallying cry for Republicans to win back some moderate voters they lost with Trump, helping Youngkin win in Virginia.

A guilty verdict against the cop who killed George Floyd around the anniversary of Floyd's death in Minneapolis was a big win for racial justice, but then Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted in another racially-charged trial. Masks and vaccines became politicized. Meanwhile, the debate over cancel culture raged on, reaching new lows involving Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, and Big Bird.

Beyond race and gender, though, the big looming US culture war fight will be over abortion: the Supreme Court punted on several red-state laws restricting women's right to choose, and a ruling that could overturn Roe v Wade is scheduled to be handed down in June 2022—just in time for next year's midterms.

Finally, some links

1. Things to watch:

2. Things to read:

3. Things to listen to:

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