Signing Infrastructure Bills into Law
President Joe Biden at a ceremony where he signed into law the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, H.R. 3684, and the "Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act" on November 15, 2021. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images)

As liberals take stock of 2021, they may be tempted to declare the year a failure.

The pandemic seems no closer to ending than it did 18 months ago, with nearly 30 percent of Americans still unvaccinated and the Omicron variant sure to spark a surge of infections. President Joe Biden’s signature social spending package, Build Back Better, appears doomed after West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said on Sunday that he would not support the package. Other progressive priorities have stalled, such as immigration reform and voting rights. Worse yet, congressional Democrats look poised to lose their majority in 2022 as retirements mount, Biden’s approval ratings stay mired in the doldrums, and an emboldened Donald Trump plots a 2024 comeback.

But there’s still plenty of progress to trumpet, even if Democrats’ achievements this year fell short of progressives’ aspirations. Democrats should boast about this economy and other triumphs accomplished despite Republican intransigence:

Rescued the economy. Americans forget that when Biden entered office, the U.S. economy was in chaos, thanks to Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. Unemployment was 6.8 percent, the economy was contracting, and job growth was anemic. Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in March, averted a financial crisis for millions of American households through emergency stimulus checks, rent relief, and other support. It also funded school districts’ reopening efforts, propped up state and local governments facing steep budgetary shortfalls, and helped keep thousands of businesses afloat with loans and grants through programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan. The Treasury Department reports that the economy created 3 million new jobs within six months of the package’s enactment, while the nation’s economic output recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Since last November, the economy has regained 5.8 million jobs, and wages are up 3.8 percent.

Lifted 3.6 million children out of poverty. The American Rescue Plan included a first-ever monthly tax credit for families with children, which reduced child poverty to historic lows. In October, according to Columbia University, the child tax credit reached 61.1 million children, slashing the child poverty rate by 4.9 percent and reducing hunger among low-income families with children by as much as 25 percent.

Prevented 1.1 million COVID deaths. Because of Biden’s aggressive vaccination strategy—including mandates for federal workers and large businesses—239.6 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Vaccine resisters are now firmly in the minority. The Commonwealth Fund estimates that the nation’s vaccination campaign prevented 10.3 million hospitalizations as of November, in addition to more than a million deaths. U.S. vaccination efforts “profoundly altered the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Commonwealth Fund concluded, and headed off a “potentially catastrophic flood of patients requiring hospitalization” last spring. Getting those shots into arms was a historic logistical challenge. Now, the vaccine is readily available and we’re doing more than any country to supply the rest of the world.

Passed landmark infrastructure legislation. After decades of inaction (and four years of empty promises from Trump), Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package to repair the nation’s roads and bridges, upgrade energy and water systems, and connect millions of rural Americans to broadband. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which has consistently awarded U.S. infrastructure C and D grades over the past 20 years, hailed the new law as a “historic, once in a generation investment.” Already, the first infusions of cash are headed to states and cities; the federal government recently announced the award of $3 billion in upgrades for U.S. airports, with more to come.

Reversed destructive Trump-era environmental policies. Biden is reversing the anti-climate policies of Donald Trump, who rolled back more than 100 environmental rules during his administration, withdrew the U.S. from its global commitments under the Paris Climate Accords, and installed a former coal lobbyist at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. So far, Biden has signed executive orders to protect more than 3 million acres of wilderness in national monuments downsized by Trump; rejoined the Paris agreement; and established a National Climate Task Force, an interagency effort to combat climate change. The bipartisan infrastructure package includes unprecedented investments to nudge the nation toward a carbon-neutral future.

Sure, Biden’s year-one record is far from perfect. The March COVID-relief package may have worked a little too well, with some analyses suggesting that it’s contributed to the economy’s current problems with inflation, which may or may not be here to stay. The child tax credit expires at the end of the year, barring congressional action, which means that progress on child poverty could be fleeting. And yes, universal vaccination could have prevented another 163,000 deaths, and booster shots are lagging.

But there’s no question that Biden and the Democratic Congress saved hundreds of thousands of American lives and rescued millions more from the hardships of hunger, eviction, and unemployment. As a result, 2021 was far less bleak than it could have been. One can only imagine the suffering that would have continued unabated had Trump been reelected and Republicans controlled Congress. The death toll alone would be unimaginable, given the former president’s quackery. The threat to democracy would only be more advanced.

Democrats can ask if Americans want to return to a time when jobs were evaporating and wages falling, when the president talked about ingesting bleach, and when an insurrection tore up the Capitol. Would they want to wake up every morning to the anarchy of the Trump years and its legacy of death and destruction?

In his debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked the question that’s become the litmus test for voters ever since: “Are you better off than you were four years ago”?

In the case of Biden’s slow but steady stewardship over the past year, versus the chaos and corruption of Trump, the answer, unequivocally, is yes. Democrats should brag about their accomplishments rather than undercut their success, moping about what hasn’t yet happened. What’s important is that American families are overwhelmingly better off this year than last.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.