WASHINGTON — On the eve of his one-year anniversary in the Oval Office, President Biden held his first press conference. It was mid-January, and the mood in Washington was dour. A new variant of the coronavirus called Omicron was sweeping across the country, closing schools and disrupting plans. Russia was moving troops toward its border with Ukraine.
"I know there's a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country," Biden said in his introductory remarks.
In the months to come his approval rating would continue to plummet, and calls for Democrats to find a new nominee for 2024 would grow ever louder. Republican attacks also sharpened. "Biden's Presidency Filled With Failure, Weakness, and Chaos," Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a leading Republican in the House of Representatives, argued in a withering March 1 press release.
Nine months later, however, Biden appears to have revitalized his presidency through a series of lucky breaks and savvy moves. While his approval ratings remain low and his agenda far from realized, the president is still poised to enter 2023 significantly stronger than he started 2022.
“People consistently underestimate Joe Biden, and they underestimate his ability to play the long game, take the long view,” says top White House adviser Anita Dunn, who returned to the West Wing in May after a brief stint in the private sector.
She and other allies had seen the president counted out numerous times before, only to prevail over critics and skeptics.
“A huge part of this was his perseverance,” Dunn told Yahoo News.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes the president's improving fortunes better than the price of gasoline, which climbed relentlessly for much of the first half of 2022, driven by constraints in supply caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the president's decision to tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve appears to have paid off, and earlier this month, prices fell to where they had been in December 2021.
More broadly, the record-setting pace of inflation — a product of pent-up demand, global supply-chain constraints and, some argued, excessive government spending — has been letting up, in large part because the Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates.
Earlier this week, the year-over-year inflation rate fell to 7.1% from June's record of 9.1%. Although the Fed acts independently of the president, Biden nevertheless celebrated the development as a sign that his economic plan is working.
"Prices are still too high, we have a lot more work to do, but things are getting better," he said from the White House on Tuesday.
Hours later he presided over the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act, which established federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriage. "Today is a good day," Biden said at a White House ceremony with performances by the 1980s icon Cyndi Lauper and the British singer Sam Smith.
The legislation received bipartisan support, culminating an effort that began last spring, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The ruling led to justifiable fears that other rights, including same-sex marriage and contraception, could be abrogated by an increasingly right-leaning judiciary.
Later on Tuesday, Biden learned that congressional leaders had struck a deal to avoid a government shutdown. For all the talk of gridlock in Washington, it was the president's latest success on Capitol Hill, where legislators have devoted trillions to his domestic efforts (infrastructure, green energy, prescription drugs, microchips) and billions to bolster Ukraine's resistance to Russia's invasion.
Dunn told Yahoo News that Biden was content to give lawmakers time to work out their differences, staying informed but removed.
“These things are kind of lost arts in Washington,” Dunn said of Biden’s soft touch, which has been criticized, especially by a progressive base that wanted him to move more aggressively on some of its social priorities.
For a president who spent more than three decades in the Senate before serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, patience has been a paramount virtue. “There’s a lot to be said for wisdom and experience in order to get things done,” Dunn argued.
Throughout the summer, inflation began to ease and gas prices began to drop. But as November's midterm elections approached, Biden seemed to be in trouble again. High rates of violent crime seemed to provide an opening for Republicans, who falsely claimed that Biden and other Democrats were in favor of defunding the police.
But when Election Day finally arrived, mainstream Republicans watched as far-right gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates lost in key races across the country.
Biden saw the results as a validation of his policies, as well as of his political strategy, which involved arguing that the GOP remained in thrall to former President Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement. Biden had been lambasting "MAGA Republicans" for months, arguing that they were intent on taking away civil liberties and subverting democracy.
Some in his own party thought the branding was ineffective. In November, they were proved incorrect.
"He put MAGA extremism on the ballot," Navin Nayak, a Democratic operative, told Yahoo News at the time. The overruling of Roe v. Wade, as well as a steady stream of revelations about the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, lent the president's argument credence, as did the candidacies of fringe figures who embraced full abortion bans and embraced election-related conspiracy theories.
The results were so astonishing that Biden received praise from former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a committed conservative who found himself earlier this month warning his party to take the president more seriously.
"The Biden team had one of the best first term off-year elections in history. They were not repudiated. They did not have to pay for their terrible mismanagement of the economy," Gingrich wrote in a widely shared article for his website.
Narratives can be as changeable as the weather in Washington. Starting next month, Republicans are set to launch House investigations into the president’s family that could prove damaging to him. Gas prices could rise again. Unforeseen challenges could emerge in China, in the Middle East or at home.
The president's proposal to cancel student debt remains the subject of ferocious litigation. Other policy goals, like an assault weapons ban, stand little chance of being realized in 2023.
Looming over everything is the question of whether Biden will seek a second term in the White House. Calls for him to step aside have grown quieter in recent months; at a press conference celebrating the results of the congressional midterm elections, he said he would make a final decision during the holiday season.
It could be that the decision has already been made. At a recent state dinner, Biden's first, in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron, first lady Jill Biden, as close an adviser as he has, said her husband was on the cusp of launching a reelection campaign, the New York Times reported.
A similar report from CNN described the first lady as increasingly enthusiastic about her husband's prospects. Only recently, she had been against seeking reelection, the report said, but is now reportedly "all in."