A Report Card On The Biden Administration’s First Year in Office
How has the president measured up in regard to the promises he made to Black America?
January 20, 2022 at 8:13 am
Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The victory of the Biden-Harris ticket in the 2020 election was largely due to the support of Black America, something that Biden declared he would remember during his presidency. During its first year in office, the Biden administration has accomplished a number of key achievements for the country, in general, and for Black communities, in particular. It has also, so far at least, fallen short on some of its biggest promises to Black people. As we note the one-year mark of the Biden administration, here is a report card grading the administration's efforts in a variety of areas where Biden has succeeded, where he has failed and where he still has his work cut out for him.
Black Representation in Government — Grade: A
Even before Biden took office, his early announcements and nominations signaled that his administration would be one of, if not the, most diverse in American history. Once he took office, he lived up to this expectation. Specifically, regarding putting Black officials in positions of power, the Brookings Institute counts 22 Senate-confirmed Black people in Biden’s administration during his first 300 days in office — by comparison, former President Barack Obama had 34 Black nominees confirmed during this same span of his presidency, while former President Donald Trump had three (yes, three).
These include Lloyd Austin, who was appointed the first Black secretary of defense, as well as Michael Regan, who became the first Black head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Biden team also includes several Black women in important positions, such as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse and, of course, Vice President Kamala Harris.
Biden has also brought impressive diversity to the federal judiciary. Of the 83 federal judges that Biden has nominated so far, 24 have been Black. This includes eight Black women, which equals the total number of Black women to ever serve on the federal bench. Overall, the vast majority of Biden’s nominees, 62 in total, have been women, and his appointments have also included Asian American, Latinx and Muslim American judges.
Student Loan and Education Reforms — Grade: B
Forbes recently reported that the Biden administration has wiped out nearly $10 billion in student loan debt so far, and the publication suggests that such loan forgiveness will help lessen the racial wealth gap between Black and white Americans. As Forbes notes in its article, the $10 billion in student loan forgiveness from the Biden administration represents less than 1% of the total student debt owed in this country, and progressives continue to push Biden to wipe out more or even all federal student debt.
Some institutions have taken student loan relief into their own hands. The Undefeated reports that more than 20 HBCUs used funds from the CARES Act, passed during the previous administration, to wipe out student debt on their campuses. Biden has touted the importance of HBCUs, such as when he delivered a commencement speech in December at South Carolina State University at the invitation of Rep. James Clyburn, one of Biden’s earliest backers. The White House proclaims having provided nearly $6 billion to HBCUs over the past year, mostly through the American Rescue Plan and a separate Debt Relief measure for the Department of Education. Biden’s Build Back Better plan included $10 billion in funding for HBCUs. Although the overall plan was shot down due to opposition from Senate Republicans and conservative Democrat Joe Manchin — more on them below — Biden has indicated that he still plans to pursue the Build Back Better agenda, even if it means pursuing the various parts of the bill separately.
Economic Recovery — Grade: C
Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major economic crash in 2020, economic recovery has been one of the main goals of the government. Judging the state of that recovery is complicated, as several connected issues dominate the conversation, including higher-than-normal inflation rates and millions of people leaving their jobs in what has been called “the great resignation.” Nevertheless, the Biden administration can cite some significant progress. According to a press release issued by the White House in December, the administration’s American Rescue Plan “has cut Black child poverty by 30.2%, lifting more than 1 million Black children out of poverty in October alone.” The ARP also included programs that benefited Black small business owners, homeowners, farmers and landowners.
Looking specifically at employment, the Grio reported, overall unemployment in the U.S. has dropped to 4.2%, its lowest level since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. While better in absolute terms, the economic situation for Black Americans remains significantly worse than their white counterparts. Black unemployment sits at 6.7%, significantly lower than the 10.3% Black unemployment rate from one year ago but still much higher than the national average. Black people of all stages of life are lagging behind white Americans, with Black women, in particular, having been left behind in job recovery.
Police Reform — Grade: D
Biden’s victory was in part an extension of the racial reckoning that arose in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Biden took up the cause of promoting justice for Black America and preventing more deaths like those of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. This quest for justice and accountability culminated in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The proposed law sought to implement major reforms in policing across the country, including putting limits on how and when police can use force, creating a national database of police killings and ending qualified immunity, the legal principle that generally allows police officers to escape personal responsibility for the actions they take while on the job.
Despite being supported by Biden and Harris and passing the House, the bill faced Republican opposition in the Senate. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, attempted to work with Democrats on a bipartisan bill, but he was unable to either come to an agreement with Democrats over the content of reform or convince his Republican colleagues to back the police reform agenda. With this failure, ABC News reports how individual states have taken vastly different approaches to policing. Some have implemented reforms, such as scaling back no-knock warrants or strengthening body camera regulations, while other states have further empowered police and even passed laws criminalizing protests against police violence. Meanwhile, the Grio reports that Biden is currently working on crafting executive orders that would implement some of the measures contained in the defeated legislation, though such executive action would not contain all the measures of the bill or have the permanence of official legislation.
Voting Rights Protections — Grade: F
Passing voting rights protection was never going to be easy for Biden or the Democrats in Congress. Republicans across the country have made voter suppression a key part of their electoral strategy, and those in Congress have been determined to put up roadblocks to Biden’s agenda, in general, and to prevent meaningful voter protection laws, in particular. And after months of activists expressing frustration at Biden for not moving urgently on voting rights, the president stepped up this month, delivering an impassioned call to save American democracy by protecting the right to vote.
But despite this renewed effort, Biden’s push for voting rights legislation was defeated in the Senate, similar to bills last year that were filibustered by Republicans. Congressional Democrats employed some clever legislative tricks to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act in the House and force a debate in the Senate. But with unified opposition from Senate Republicans and the refusal of conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to alter filibuster rules, the latest voting rights bill went down in defeat on Wednesday evening. It is not yet clear what the full fallout of this defeat will mean, but it is a major disappointment for Biden and for the people who came out in force to vote for him in 2020 and trusted him to protect their ability to continue to vote without unfair hardships or obstacles.
It's too early to tell how successful Biden will be at reviving voting rights protections, implementing police reforms or fighting the lingering health and economic effects of the pandemic. More generally, Biden has had some clear successes, notable failures and an overall mixed record when it comes to fulfilling his pledges to Black Americans, but his administration still has time to make additional progress. The path might not be easy, but it is crucial if he wants to live up to the promises he made to one of his most important communities of supporters.