A look back at President Biden’s first year in office on Black issues

EXCLUSIVE: From the COVID-19 pandemic to an economic recovery, the Biden White House has had its ups and downs.

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During his nearly two-hour press conference on Wednesday on the eve of his first year in office, President Joe Biden defended his job performance when asked if he perhaps oversold his agenda to the American people.

“I don’t think I’ve overpromised at all and I’m going to stay on this track,” the president said, adding that he thinks his theoretical presidential report card looks “good.”

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the nation was desperate for change after the Trump presidency and the impact of various crises in 2020, Biden walked into the White House in 2021 with a 57% approval rating. He was elected in part to follow through on promises he made as a candidate.  

A year later, President Biden blames Republicans for the hold up on much of his agenda. “What are the Republicans for? Tell me one thing?” he said with conviction in front of the White House press corps.

Throughout the first year of the Biden-Harris White House, Americans saw ups, downs and at times topsy-turvy turns.  

During his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, President Biden said there is, “much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.” 

A year later, the Joseph R. Biden administration is looking back at its somewhat tumultuous 365 days in the Oval Office during some of the most challenging moments in the nation’s history. 

“This has been a terrible time for us in this past year with COVID-19 and with this insurrection … it has caused us, you know, to be not only sad, but we have people who absolutely are getting depressed about all of this. And so we do want answers,” said Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California, one of the most vocal opponents of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, told theGrio.

Maxine Waters
House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Water (D-CA) Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In addition to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic with its many variants, the Biden-Harris team faced a constant economic rise and fall, and unkept promises on racial equity matters due to legislative blockage by two Democratic senators. President Joe Biden’s approval rating on his one-year anniversary stands at an average of 49%, according to the latest Gallup poll numbers.

The past year was particularly a test for the nation’s first woman and woman of color vice president Kamala Harris. Vice President Harris has been the target of conservative media and Republican lawmakers. However, some of the critics who took aim at Harris and leaked fodder for the press were internal sources inside the White House. 

The administration has reportedly been working to root out the problems faced by the vice president, particularly at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of the Harris naysayers successfully created a climate so toxic that there have been looming questions about whether President Biden would choose Harris for his 2024 reelection ticket.

When asked during Wednesday’s press conference if Harris would be his running mate in a couple of years from now, Biden emphatically said, “Yes. She’s going to be my running mate and I think she’s doing a good job.” 

Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Sources contend there is a good working relationship between the president and vice president and that President Biden has every confidence in Harris. Meanwhile, there are sources close to the president who said Biden vowed to find whoever is undermining Vice President Harris from inside the White House and that they would be fired on the spot.   

Harris has spent the year working on various issues in her portfolio like Black maternal health and securing federal investments for Black and minority-owned businesses. Most notably, she was tasked by President Biden with tackling immigration and voting rights – tough issues that have been hard fought for many years in Washington prior to her taking the job.

No matter the work this past year, President Biden took a huge hit in the polls as the 46th president of the United States, particularly after he ended the longest U.S.-involved war in Afghanistan. In various interviews, the president acknowledged it was a war that needed to end and framed the decision as him stepping up to take action on something previous presidents said they would do but were not bold enough to take on. 

Early into the Biden-Harris administration, which has touted itself as the most diverse administration in American history, there were promises to center equity and inclusion in its legislative agenda.

The road to January 2020 has been a bumpy one as U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and U.S. Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona held up many of the Biden-Harris White House’s key legislative items like the comprehensive social spending bill Build Back Better that aimed to extend the child tax credit and provide federal dollars to address climate change, child and elderly care and expanding health care.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Fellow Democrats have grown frustrated with Manchin and Sinema, particularly those in the U.S. House who passed their version of BBB. Congresswoman Waters tells theGrio that she is very “unhappy” with the two Democratic senators.

“I believe that this president thought that because he had served in the Senate and he had had relationships with many senators that he understood how to talk with them on both sides of the aisle,” said Waters. 

“He knew what it would take in order for him to use his experience, his knowledge, his relationships and now the president of the United States to break logjams. It has not happened. I think that even now, he has been absolutely stunned at the inability to make that body work in a way that will help him move his agenda.

The 83-year-old long-serving U.S. representative added, “We never thought, and I never thought, that any one or two members of the Democratic Party on the Senate side would do what they are doing to us now. And so he has been basically, I’m sure, disappointed. I’m sure he would love to have moved a successful agenda.”

Voting rights legislation, a critical issue for Black and Brown communities, was also blocked by Senators Manchin and Sinema who refused to change rules to the filibuster, a Senate delay tactic that has allowed Republicans, the minority party in the Senate, to overrule the Democratic majority. 

The Biden-Harris administration did see some results on the jobs front. As President Biden has boasted, the most jobs in American history (6.4 million) during a calendar year were created under his watch.

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the recently passed $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act at the Port of Baltimore on November 10, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“We saw a significant surge of people coming back into the labor force. We also saw the unemployment rate of Black women dropped to 5% from 8.5% at the start of 2021 … we’ve seen improvement and we’ve seen more people moving into the job market,” said Gene Sperling, an American economist who was tapped by President Biden to help with the rollout of the American Rescue Plan.

The United States also saw American workers resign in droves, so much so that it has become known as “The Great Resignation.”

Sperling, who worked in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, warns, “The question of why some people who left have not moved back into the labor force is a major, major economic issue. 

“I think right now some of that is due to issues like COVID. Some of it’s due to child care. Some of it is due to other care responsibilities. Some has been due to some people who might have been on the older side deciding … that they wanted to retire.”  

A distressed economy is what the Biden administration has worked to fight against.  The least of these in this nation would suffer most, Sperling acknowledged.

“It is poor communities; they’re the ones who are most hurt by a slower recovery,” he told theGrio.

Another economic issue that Democrats and activists have pushed for is student debt cancellation. Legislation on the matter has not been proposed. 

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the president to cancel $50,000 in student debt for borrowers, while President Biden has proposed canceling $10,000.

On the issue of immigration, the Biden-Harris administration also found itself in controversy over viral images and video of U.S. Border Patrol agents using horse reigns as whips to lash out at Haitian migrants who traveled by the thousands to the U.S.-Mexico border under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.   

Haiti thegrio.com
U.S. Border Patrol agents interact with Haitian immigrants on the bank of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas on September 20, 2021 as seen from Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Rep. Waters, who attended a White House meeting on the matter with the Congressional Black Caucus, said she was “pissed” over what she and the world had witnessed.

“Haiti is in a terrible place,” said Waters, who said those in the Caribbean nation have historically been taken advantage of. As for the United States’ role in providing support to people of Haiti, Waters told theGrio, “We have not really risen to the occasion.” 

The biggest policy concern for Black America was arguably police reform following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, whose death sparked global protests against police brutality and racial profiling.

President Biden hosted Floyd’s family at the White House on the anniversary of his death – a day he had previously marked as a deadline for Congress to send the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to his desk to sign into law. 

After negotiations with Republicans failed, the White House began working on potential executive orders to address some of the issues outlined in the bill.

Protesters walk along the recently renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza with signs near the White House during George Floyd protests on June 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the Biden administration worked to restore the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division that was essentially gutted by the Trump administration. 

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who represented the family of the slain Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, gives President Biden credit for movement on some civil rights issues. 

“His administration has been listening to families and being responsive, so we’ve seen a much more active DOJ,” said Merritt, who is running for attorney general in Texas. “It’s great to have a government that is actually listening to the community, that the community has a seat at the table, that they have a voice.”

While Merritt commends the efforts of the executive office and DOJ, he admits without Congress doing its part, very little change can happen on police reform. 

“We need these laws codified or they can be rolled back at any point, and we just haven’t seen enough,” he said. Merritt said that while Biden is the commander in chief, he would like to see him more in the role of “chief negotiator.” 

“Get the legislators into the rooms and really fight vigorously for the outcomes that the Black community has been asking for,” said Merritt.

Joe Biden thegrio.com
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On other issues pertaining to the Black community, President Biden has publicly supported the efforts on a study on reparations for descendants of American slavery. He also signaled support for DC statehood, which activists have called a racial justice movement that would give the predominantly Black and Brown population full rights as U.S. citizens. 

However, statehood for the nation’s capital has yet to move in a meaningful way on the Hill. 

While the fight for voting rights has been the top issue in Washington for the past few weeks, critics have argued that the president waited until it was too late to support the effort and the move to end the filibuster to make it happen. 

The blame for the inaction on voting rights reform has spread up and down Pennsylvania Avenue as Democrats and Republicans failed to meet the moment to repair the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Now the Biden White House looks ahead as it continues the work of its vast agenda. Without a doubt, the nation is watching. 

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