2022 Could Have Been Worse—Much, Much Worse

Twelve months ago, on December 29, 2021, Joe Biden closed out the first year of his Presidency with abysmal approval ratings—the lowest at that point for any President, except Donald Trump, since modern polling began. According to the Web site FiveThirtyEight, he had a 43.1 per cent approval rating and a 51.8 per cent disapproval rating. Coverage of his leadership and future prospects was brutal. Biden had seemingly turned Republican predictions of his failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A year later, Biden’s numbers are all but unchanged. His approval rating stands at a meagre 43.2 per cent—an increase of one-tenth of one per cent—and his disapproval rating is 51.4 per cent. America’s oldest President at age eighty, Biden is poised to announce a reëlection bid soon, with a large majority of voters—including Democrats—hoping that he won’t run again.

A year that began in crisis, 2022 is hardly concluding with peace and good will. The biggest armed conflict in Europe since the Second World War rages on as Russia, with barbaric intensity and kamikaze drones, seeks to eviscerate its neighbor Ukraine. Inflation, having hit forty-year highs, is running at more than seven per cent annually. Republicans, many still in the thrall of Trump and his lies about his 2020 election defeat, reclaimed the House of Representatives. And Trump himself is campaigning for President again—a front-runner, if a tarnished one, for the Republican nomination. Thanks to a Supreme Court remade by the right during Trump’s Presidency, Roe v. Wade, with its guarantee of women’s reproductive freedom, stands no more. COVID, diminished but not destroyed, continues to kill, on average, several hundred people in the United States every day.

The nation, understandably, remains in a sour mood. It’s hardly good news that seventy-six per cent of Americans in the most recent Gallup survey think the country is on the wrong track, down from a high of eighty-seven per cent last summer.

But expectations are everything in politics. And the one truly good thing you can say about 2022 is this: It could have been worse. Much, much worse. Russia could have won. A Republican red wave, predicted by history and the polls, might have swept radical Trumpist election deniers into control of both houses of Congress and key state-election offices. Inflation might have kept going up. The economy could have entered a full-fledged recession.

No wonder, then, that Biden and his crisis-battered Administration are ending the year on a strikingly positive note. “Biden and his team feeling vindicated by a 2022 turnaround,” CNN reported this week. New York magazine called 2022 “Joe Biden’s Actually Not-at-All-Bad Year.” Over at The Atlantic, my fellow-pessimist Tom Nichols was cheered enough by Russia’s battlefield reverses and the defeat of anti-democracy Republicans to make “the case for a certain amount of optimism in 2023.” Legislatively, Biden managed to secure passage of a long list of bills in his first two years, including measures to spend billions on infrastructure, climate-change mitigation, and health care, as well as a CHIPS Act that seeks to shift manufacturing of critical technology components back to the U.S. Some of those bills even cleared with bipartisan support, despite a fifty-fifty Senate and a narrow House majority. Politically, Democrats overcame Biden’s unpopularity to register the best midterm results in twenty years for a party in power, keeping hold of the Senate as voters rebuffed the most extreme Trump-backed Republican candidates in battleground states.

On the world stage, Biden has rallied the West to Ukraine’s defense, secured large bipartisan majorities in Congress to send billions in military assistance, impose sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy, and negotiate the accession of previously neutral Finland and Sweden into NATO. With this unprecedented aid, Ukraine has managed to fight Russia to a standoff. Kyiv, predicted by experts in the Pentagon and elsewhere to fall within days, still stands. “Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios,” Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a buoyant thank-you speech to a joint session of Congress this month, “Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking.” He called this “our first joint victory.”

Biden’s rebound is a marker, it seems to me, not only of a President whose great skill is persistence in the face of adversity but of a leader whose foes have underestimated him—and the fractious country he heads—at great cost to themselves. Both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump seem to have made the mistake of believing their own propaganda. They did not see Biden as the formidable opponent he has proved to be. The American President, aided by the catastrophic overreach of their attacks on democracies at home and abroad, brought something that turned out to be incalculably valuable to the fight: clarity.

For several years, Biden had warned of a new era of conflict between rising autocracies and the world’s democracies. When Putin tragically proved him right, he did not back away, as his predecessors in both parties had so often done when confronted by the Russian leader’s outrages throughout two decades. “This aggression cannot go unanswered,” Biden said on February 24th, the day of Russia’s invasion, and it did not. As for Trump, the existential threat he posed to American democracy brought Biden into the 2020 Presidential contest in the first place—and Biden closed out the 2022 midterm campaign by warning as well about the high stakes. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden warned voters. Many, it seems, actually listened.

I’m not ready to go all in on optimism just yet. Nor, I’m sorry to say, should you. America remains perilously divided, a fifty-fifty country where candidates of a rogue G.O.P. as manifestly unqualified as Herschel Walker in Georgia and as viciously untruthful as Kari Lake in Arizona can receive 48.6 and 49.7 per cent of the vote, respectively. Donald Trump, despite the sudden outbreak of Republicans blaming him for all the losing, has not yet been decisively repudiated by the Party that inflicted him on the rest of us. Nor has he been held to account in a court of law for his growing list of offenses against the Constitution and the democratic order. Exiled to Mar-a-Lago and reduced to hawking virtual playing cards of himself as a would-be superhero, he is a punch line, but also a malign ongoing threat.

The state of the economy, meanwhile, remains uncertain, as does the health—mental, physical, environmental, and spiritual—of the nation. Mass gun deaths, a uniquely American phenomenon, included the murder of nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas—one of hundreds of shootings this year alone. Against such a backdrop, all too much of what passes for politics is profoundly unserious, performative B.S., whether it’s the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, making war on Walt Disney World or Elon Musk spending forty-four billion dollars on Twitter in the name of “free speech” only, apparently, to destroy it, and billions of dollars of shareholder value in his Tesla car company, while he was at it.

But a glimmer of hope has been purchased at great cost at the end of a long, awful 2022—in the unmarked graves of Ukrainian suburbs and the terrified clandestine abortions of America’s red states. I’ll save the pessimism for another day. 2023 awaits. ♦

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