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Biden's first year in office marked by lofty goals, some achievements, costly setbacks

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on January 20, 2021, as their children Ashley and Hunter watch. Pool Photo by Andrew Harnik/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 20 (UPI) -- Thursday is the one-year anniversary of President Joe Biden's inauguration, a first year in office marked by lofty aspirations undercut by obstructions in Congress and some costly missteps.

When Biden became president on Jan. 20, 2021, two weeks after radical supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol as Congress certified Biden's election win, he sought to guide America out of the COVID-19 pandemic, fortify the nation's infrastructure and take steps to uphold democracy.

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During a question-and-answer session with reporters on Wednesday, Biden said he did not believe that he'd overpromised in his agenda -- stating instead that he "probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen" over his first year.

"I'm not asking for castles in the sky. I'm asking for practical things the American people have been asking for for a long time," he said. "And I think that we can get it done."

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan into law in in the Oval Office of the White House on March 11. File Photo by Doug Mills/UPI
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Early successes

The early months of Biden's presidency came with some successes, as his administration pumped up distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in early February that helped make the shots widely available, following the successful rollout of the shots a month before he took office.

Overall, almost 210 million people -- or 67.1% of the U.S. population -- have been fully vaccinated and almost 40% of those people have received a booster shot, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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In March, one of Biden's biggest achievements came with the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Biden declared that "help is here," as the legislation provided another direct stimulus payment to most Americans, as well as funds for business and schools that were impacted by the pandemic.

Biden's economic policies also yielded results in 2021 -- helping to lower the unemployment rate from 9% on his inauguration day to under 4% by the end of December.

Even amid delays and in-fighting among Democrats that would surface in other areas, Biden in November was able to sign off on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan -- which will invest $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water, $65 billion to ensure every American has access to high-speed Internet, $110 billion to repair roads and bridges and support major transportation projects and $90 billion for the largest federal investment in public transit in history.

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"We'll be creating better jobs for millions of people modernizing our roads, our bridges, our highways, our ports, our airports -- everything from making clean water [and] removing lead pipes [so] that every American can turn on a faucet and drink clean water," Biden said Wednesday.

President Joe Biden speaks during the celebration for America's 245th Independence Day in Arlington, Va., on July 4, 2021. Biden had set a goal of having 70% of U.S. adults vaccinated by that date. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI

Setbacks and missteps

Things turned turbulent for the president midway through 2021 as vaccination rates began to slow and the nation just missed meeting his goal of having 70% of American adults receiving at least one shot by July 4 -- while cases and deaths began to rise again amid the presence of the Delta coronavirus variant.

Efforts to mandate vaccines have also been met with resistance from state lawmakers and courts. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a sweeping vaccine-or-test mandate for private businesses. However, the high court did allow a vaccination requirement for healthcare workers at facilities that receive federal funding -- which was considered a victory as the nation grappled with Omicron, another highly transmissible variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

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Concern over the Omicron variant also placed stress on the nation's testing infrastructure, which Biden sought to ease by offering to mail four free tests to the homes of Americans who request them. The website to order those tests went live this week.

Despite the Omicron surge, Biden cited vaccine boosters and newly authorized antiviral treatments from Merck and Pfizer as evidence that the United States is in "a very different place" in the COVID-19 battle than it was when he assumed the presidency.

"We have the tools -- vaccines, boosters, masks, tests, pills -- to save lives and keep businesses and schools open," he said Wednesday.

U.S. Marines transfer the remains of Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover of Salt Lake City on August 29 at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Hoover was one of 13 Marines who were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the U.S. evacuation. File Photo by Jason Minto/U.S. Air Force/UPI

August saw one of Biden's larger political failures when efforts to completely withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan turned deadly for some 200 people during the evacuation of more than 122,000 people from the war-scarred nation, which was the largest airlift in U.S. history.

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The majority of those deaths came during a suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 26 that killed 170 Afghan civilians awaiting transport out of the country and 13 U.S. Marines. Others died after they were crushed or fell to their deaths after attempting to make their way onto the departing planes at the airport during the chaotic evacuation.

A key element of the Afghanistan failure was allowing the militant Taliban to retake control of the country and, some argued, allowing the group to effectively erase a number of achievements that had been made since the arrival of U.S. forces in 2001.

Despite the human cost of the withdrawal in Afghanistan, Biden has stood firm on his decision to leave -- which included resisting calls to relent mid-strategy and leave some U.S. forces there when it became evident that the Taliban would take over and the evacuation turned chaotic. His rationale was, essentially, that an American withdrawal was necessary sooner or later, and that it was never going to go smoothly.

On Wednesday, Biden reiterated that position.

"There is no way to get out of Afghanistan after 20 years easily," he said. "Not possible, no matter when you did it. And I make no apologies for what I did."

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Biden emphasized that he has "great concern" for the civilians who died in the terror attack at the airport, but said the United States would have been asked to send as many as 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan had he not made the decision to withdraw.

Back home late in 2021, Biden faced significant obstacles in achieving elements of his legislative agenda from members of his own party. Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona stymied Biden's efforts to pass his signature Build Back Better Act -- and ultimately voting rights bills that sought to counter new laws in Republican-led states that make it more difficult for Americans to vote.

President Joe Biden holds a Q&A news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI

Beginning year 2

In his first year in office, Biden averaged an approval rating of 48.9%, according to Gallup -- which is second-worst among presidents only to Trump, who averaged 38.4%.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Politico that he's not surprised that "voters are not going to give us a passing grade yet" -- but optimistic for the remainder of Biden's presidency, underscoring that he was "elected to a four-year term, not a one-year term."

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"The president became president at a time of great crises in the country. A COVID crisis, an economic crisis, The voters didn't say 'Go do a little bit,'" Klain added. "We put forward three key proposals: COVID relief, infrastructure and Build Back Better. We had a bold agenda and achieved two of the the three."

On Wednesday, Biden expressed confidence in passing some of the more popular items in his Build Back Better plan as separate pieces of legislation, such as funding for energy and climate issues and early education -- and later revisiting the more polarizing elements, like the child tax credit and subsidizing the cost of community college.

"I'm not going to negotiate against myself, as to what should and shouldn't be in it," he said. "But I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, come back and fight for the rest later."

Biden said he plans to seek more advice from experts outside the White House "from academia, to editorial writers, to think tanks" to guide his policy moving forward.

"I'm bringing them in, just like I did early on, bringing in presidential historians to get their perspective on what we should be doing," he said. "Seeking more input, more information, more constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn't be doing."

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