For a beleaguered President Joe Biden, 2021 cannot end soon enough. The year concluded as it began, amid a fresh wave of COVID-induced uncertainty. The only difference? After castigating his predecessor’s pandemic leadership, Biden pledged to "shut down the virus." He took office armed with three life-saving vaccines – developed under the Trump administration – to accomplish that goal.
Yet his July Fourth "Independence Day" from the virus came and went. Soon the nation turned its attention to his administration’s incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan. Autumn was marked by growing economic concerns about inflation, energy costs and supply chain issues. The year closed with Biden’s domestic agenda on ice, stymied by fellow Democrat Joe Manchin’s steadfast opposition.
With the flip of the calendar imminent, here are five predictions for the year ahead.
First, rumors of the complete demise of Biden’s "Build Back Better" legislation are slightly exaggerated.
The Democrats will make another go of it after the holidays. Team Biden knows they are sailing into the midterms facing strong headwinds. To do so without any tangible legislative accomplishments would make a tough climb even steeper.
The administration can point to early wins on COVID relief or the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but neither i going to get their base’s juices flowing. Manchin’s dropkick of the legislation on "Fox News Sunday" hit with a thud. But it will not be the final nail in the political coffin.
Second, Manchin will end 2022 as he has every other year of his life: as a Democrat.
Sure, the bile from the far-left toward Manchin – Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. labeled him a "white man showing that he doesn’t care about Black people" – is reprehensible, but the Manchins are scions of the Democratic Party dating back generations.
Besides, "Build Back Better" notwithstanding, Manchin has been a reliable foot soldier for the Biden agenda, voting in support of the administration 97.4% of the time, according to Five Thirty Eight.
In the Trump years, the West Virginian was with the Republican president 60% of the time for the first two years – which coincided with his reelection campaign in West Virginia – and then only 32% during the second two years – after he had secured a fresh term in the Senate. Manchin joined his party in voting to impeach Trump – twice. He may not be a pie-eyed liberal, but he is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.
Third, facing increasing public pressure from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and others, Biden will cave on the hot button issue of student debt.
Three days before Christmas, his administration punted the moratorium on federal loans another 90 days – backtracking on his pledge the current delay would be the "final" one.
Biden is too wounded politically to take on water from his own party. Despite their $174,000 taxpayer-funded salaries, canceling student debt has become a calling card for the Squad. So much so that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., always wary of an AOC primary challenge, parades around in a "cancel student debt" face mask.
Fourth, despite his waning efficacy as a public persuader, Dr. Anthony Fauci will remain the face of the COVID response.
As the pandemic enters year three, anyone who is hanging onto every utterance from Fauci long ago did so.
Fauci’s willingness to enter the political arena – such as calling for the indictment of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – or declaration that he "represents" science has undermined his ability to present himself as an independent and apolitical actor.
If the path back to normalcy involves more vaccines going in more arms, Fauci is not the person to convince fence-sitters.
It’s time for new faces and voices to deal with ever-changing and challenging circumstances. But to the left, Fauci has become a martyr, and should be immune from criticism. Hence, Biden’s unwillingness to deviate from the status quo.
Finally, one year from now, both Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be exiting stage left.
Right now, both are sticking to the façade that they are sticking around. With her four-seat majority hanging by a political thread, the 81-year-old Pelosi clearly has little appetite to hand the gavel back to the GOP after November’s midterms should the balance of power flip.
Biden’s swan song is slightly trickier to forecast. The minute he announces he will not be a candidate in 2024, the intraparty jostling for 2024 begins. The Kamala Harris vs. Pete Buttigieg media narrative will continue to percolate in an unhelpful way.
It’s clear Biden cannot seek reelection – presumably in more normal, non-COVID times that don’t allow for a basement strategy – at the age of 82.
The more interesting question is the succession plan. Anyone associated with his administration will be tagged with all its failures. The party’s other biggest names are closer to their curtain calls than opening acts.
With that, one final prediction: if 2021 started with a hyper focus on the future of the GOP, 2022 will be the year of drama on the Democratic side.
Get the popcorn ready because the political fireworks will last well beyond New Year’s Eve.