I know what you’re thinking. A barely disguised winners and losers piece, mixed with a top ten list, what kind of SEO-friendly click-bait is this? Well, first let me point out that the end of the year presents a valuable opportunity to take a long view of American politics. Second, you’re getting a new column despite it being the week of Christmas, so in the words of West Philly native Will Smith, “I’d appreciate it if you eased up off my back about it.”
So let’s dive into it!
Best – Joe Biden (First Six Months):
For Joe Biden, 2021 was a classic “best of times, worst of times” situation. It may be hard to remember now, but six months into the 46th President’s tenure, the narrative was mostly focused on how well everything was going.
Less than two months into office, the President signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus to jumpstart the economy and the nation’s vaccination program. By the summer, it appeared they’d achieved both objectives, with COVID rates down and the economy improving. The CDC even rescinded their mask recommendations and society finally began to revert to pre-pandemic normalcy.
On July 4th, President Biden celebrated Independence Day by declaring that “America is coming back together…Today, we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” On July 20th, six months into his term, the President’s average approval rating stood at 52.3%.
Worst – Joe Biden (Last Six Months):
And then it all came crumbling down. Much like it was for his predecessors, Biden’s first August was an absolute nightmare. The Delta Variant led to a resurgence of COVID in the states, while on the other side of the world the Afghan government collapsed. As the fall progressed, COVID restrictions returned, inflation caused a rise in prices and Democrats suffered gravely at the ballot box.
By mid-September, Pres. Biden’s approval had fallen to 45%, and as the fall progressed, those numbers began to settle in at around 43%. Not even temporary COVID lulls, the signing of a bi-partisan infrastructure bill, or encouraging jobs reports could do anything to significantly boost Biden’s rating. Now with the Omicron Variant rising, and his Build Back Better apparently dead, Biden’s next six months appear arguably even more intimidating than his last six.
Best – Ron DeSantis:
It really does seem to have all started with a straw poll. In March, as conservatives gathered for CPAC in the shadow of the 2020 election, a survey of attendees found 55% favored Donald Trump as their 2024 nominee. In a strong second place, however, was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with 21%. Perhaps it was just the result of a home-state bounce (CPAC was held in Orlando), but it became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As 2021 progressed, DeSantis decided to double down on a Culture War strategy. For example, even as his state repeatedly struggled to contain COVID, he banned schools from implementing mask mandates. He also kept his focus on issues that enflamed his conservative base, like transgender student athletes and critical race theory. All the while, his standing in 2024 Republican primary polls continued to grow.
Although DeSantis still trails Trump by a sizable margin heading into 2022, he’s already surpassed Mike Pence and established himself as the only current credible challenger for the nomination at this time.
Worst – Liz Cheney:
Liz Cheney entered 2021 as the third-highest ranking Republican in the House. She’ll enter 2022 fighting for her political life. After the January 6th insurrection, the already tenuous relationship between Cheney and Trump broke down completely when the Wyoming Congresswoman voted to impeach Trump for his role in the riot.
Initially, Cheney’s fellow House Republicans resisted the Trump-led efforts to remove her from her post as Conference Chair. An anonymous vote of the GOP caucus on February 3rd to oust her failed by a 61-145 margin. Yet as Trump continued his campaign against her, and Cheney refused to back down, the tide among the caucus turned against Cheney. On May 12, she was expelled from her position by voice vote.
Even now, Cheney and Trump remain locked in a fierce battle over the soul of the party. She became Vice Chair of the House’s January 6th Committee, while he’s already endorsed one of her primary opponents. Cheney’s political future will be determined by Wyoming Republicans on August 16th of next year.
Best – Joe Manchin:
West Virginia’s senior Senator owes the state of Georgia a massive debt of gratitude. When the Peach State sent a pair of Democrats to the Senate on January 5th, they also turned Joe Manchin into the ultimate power broker of an evenly divided 50/50 chamber. As a result, the man who already relished being the center of attention became the fulcrum of the entire legislative process.
From delaying the stimulus vote for hours, to tanking the Build Back Better bill on TV, Manchin always makes sure he’s the star of the show. Furthermore, his increased attention hasn’t really brought a corresponding level of scrutiny. Sure the Washington Post published an extensive examination of his business conflicts (and when questioned about this the temperamental legislator predictably lost his cool). Nevertheless, much to the frustration of progressives, Manchin is set to enter 2022 with more power and influence than ever.
Worst – Andrew Cuomo:
2020 was the high-water mark of Andrew Cuomo’s long political career. Thanks to his daily press conferences in the early days of COVID, he became a national TV star. Some over-excited Democrats even impractically wondered about replacing Biden with Cuomo as the party’s presidential nominee. By the end of 2020, Cuomo was being considered for Attorney General. By the end of 2021, his political career was over.
Cuomo’s fall is the classic case of chickens coming home to roost. In February 2021, two scandals involving Cuomo’s abuse of power hit the headlines at once. First, there was his office’s deliberate undercounting of COVID nursing home deaths. Second, and more politically deadly, were several sexual harassment allegations against the Governor.
Over the next few months, Cuomo clung to power by betting that the spotlight would eventually move on. For a while this strategy was working, until the NY AG’s office released their comprehensive report on Cuomo’s abuse. The pressure on the Governor was finally too much and at last he resigned. In time, this scandal would lead to the downfall of Cuomo’s brother Chris as well, leading to the end of one of New York’s formerly most formidable political dynasties.
Best – Nancy Pelosi:
It was by no means a tranquil 2021 for the Speaker of the House, but the life-long political operator wouldn’t have it any other way. A case could be made that Nancy Pelosi is both the most beloved and despised member of Congress, and that’s just within her own caucus. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans manage to both vilify and envy the San Franciscan.
At a time when legislative leaders are seldom more than the victims of events, Pelosi is one of the few politicians to maintain the mystique of control. Burdened with a razor-thin majority, the Speaker navigated a fraught few months while passing President Biden’s dual infrastructure bills. A progressive revolt threatened, but ultimately did not break, Pelosi’s hold on her caucus.
Worst – Kamala Harris:
Too often we forget one of the fundamental laws of American politics; being Vice President is awful. Don’t just take my word for it, consider the legendary testimony provided by some of our VPs. Inaugural Vice President John Adams called the Vice Presidency “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” John Nance Garner declared that “the vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” A favorite Thomas Marshall joke went as follows, “Once there were two brothers. One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again.” And those are just the three most famous of many similar sentiments.
So when you consider the circumstances, it seems inevitable that Kamala Harris would end up on this list. In hindsight, though, a major red flag should’ve been Joe Biden’s desire to replicate his own relationship with Barack Obama. As the senior member of that tandem, Biden wasn’t expected to run for President again, and thus could take on politically risky assignments. Many of Harris’ struggles stem from Biden giving his VP the Central American portfolio, a responsibility he also held as Vice President. Predictably, Harris struggled with the responsibility of a politically explosive issue like migration, and got burned on numerous occasions.
One last observation about Vice President Harris. It’s astonishing to see just how similar the press coverage she receives is to the type of coverage Hillary Clinton once received. Not coincidentally, Harris employs many of the same advisors that Hillary did. These aides tend to offer their advice, and critique of their interoffice rivals, through the media. At the root of much of the criticism directed toward Harris is an inability to manage her staff, a recurring critique of Clinton (although it doesn’t help that the two women also share a penchant for unforced errors). In many ways, Harris seems to be Hillary’s spiritual successor in American politics.
Best – Glenn Youngkin:
When we think back to the Republican Party of 2021, I hazard to guess that we’ll picture Virginia’s Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin. In and of itself, that’s a major victory for the national GOP, as Youngkin represents exactly the type of non-Trumpy figure they want to highlight.
Back when The Carlyle Group alum was first picked as the GOP nominee through a convention system, Youngkin faced an uphill battle against a former Democratic Governor in an increasingly blue state. While his path was made easier by Biden’s aforementioned stumbles, Youngkin’s ability to control the campaign narrative and center his issues was paramount to his success.
A contest that could have easily been about Donald Trump or COVID was more often focused on an obscure topic like school curriculums, a strategy that allowed Youngkin to mobilize his base without alienating too many moderates. By October, Barack Obama was taking shots at Youngkin’s sweater-vest persona, a clear sign that Youngkin’s preferred image was breaking through to voters. Whether or not we ever hear much from Youngkin again, 2021 was definitely a banner year for him.
Worst – Donald Trump:
There’s a trap we all fall into when writing about Donald Trump. After all, what could I possibly say here that hasn’t been expressed more eloquently by thousands of others by now? To wit, how should I properly categorize the events of January 6th and their effect on Trump’s political future? While polls initially found that the failed insurrection hurt Trump’s standing, there are indications that this effect is waning.
Of course, any negative prognostication concerning Donald Trump is a fraughtful endeavor, since there’s always the prospect that he’ll rise to power again in 2024. Sometimes, like when we learn that the GOP is still paying Trump’s legal bills, such an occurrence seems likely. Other times, such as finding out Trump and Bill O’Reilly can’t sell out their speaking tour, less so.
Regardless of what may happen in the future, though, Trump was undoubtedly a far less visible figure this year than at any other time since the summer of 2015. Not to mention the fact that, despite his ruthless efforts, he began 2021 as the President yet won’t end 2021 that way. For a man as attention-hungry and power-hungry as Trump, that alone has to make this year a terrible one for him.
Nick Field (@nick_field90)) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.