The Year in Review: Confessions of an Incurable Optimist
Twelve months ago, Americans could indulge in optimism. For a bright, shining moment, 2021 promised to be a year of recovery.
The first vaccines for COVID-19 were going into health workers’ arms. The economy was climbing out of recession. And after a bruising campaign, a new president promised a return to calm.
I shared the high hopes.
“Joe Biden ... is 78 years old, and he has been a politician for more than 50 years. Those qualifications may be his hidden superpowers,” I wrote. “Improbable as it sounds, this politician of modest talents and limited eloquence may have exactly the gifts he needs to succeed.”
What could go wrong? Plenty.
The pandemic didn’t end. The economy boomed, but inflation surged. And while Biden restored a dose of normality to politics, voters didn’t feel it. By the end of the year, his approval rating dropped to 43%, the worst first-year report card for any recent president except, of course, Donald Trump.
We in the media are often accused of focusing on bad news. In 2021, I erred in the other direction: I was too optimistic.
This year-end column is my annual exercise in humility — a look back at what I got wrong.
Let’s start with the most disruptive problem of the year, the pandemic.
California’s winter COVID-19 surge intensified Wednesday, with new overall coronavirus cases likely tied to holiday gatherings spiking up, along with confirmed cases of the Omicron strain.
A year ago, vaccines looked like a good bet to bring COVID-19 under control.
Too many people were hesitating to get the shot — but no worries, I wrote: Governors were rolling out inducements including free beer and prizes to persuade them. “It turns out that what really motivates people is the chance to strike it rich,” I wrote.
Wrong. I didn’t expect that roughly 15% of adults, mostly white Republicans, would persist in refusing vaccination. Their resistance makes it harder for all of us to reach herd immunity — the point at which the virus stops spreading.
That’s one of several reasons Biden’s first year has been a disappointment: The pandemic is a long way from over.
A second reason is the economy’s fitful recovery. Corporate profits are up, unemployment is down, but prices are rising — and that affects everyone, not just those who land new jobs.
I underestimated the impact inflation would have on Biden’s standing and ability to move legislation through Congress. Optimist that I am, I looked for signs of progress.
In July, I wrote that the president had “something to celebrate”: Even Joe Manchin III, the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, sounded ready to vote for a big social spending bill.
Last week, Manchin said he’s not a yes.
Meanwhile, the bipartisanship Biden promised has remained elusive. In November, Congress passed a $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill, but that was a rare exception in a bitterly polarized year.
Even then, Trump denounced the 19 GOP senators and 13 House members who supported the bill and threatened to run them out of office.
A year ago, I wrote that my New Year’s resolution was to ignore the former president’s eruptions. That proved not only impossible but also unwise. Trump is still the dominant figure in his party and the odds-on favorite for its 2024 presidential nomination.
In January, I dismissed the notion that Republicans in Congress might try to overturn the results of an election as mere bluster, a “Potemkin coup.” It was a clever phrase, but wrong: Trump’s attempt to incite a constitutional crisis was — and remains — deadly serious. I underrated his malevolent staying power.
Farther afield, amid terrifying news about extreme weather, I even found reasons for optimism on climate change.
“As improbable as it seems, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon,” I wrote as world leaders gathered for a summit. “Denialism, the dismissal of climate change as bogus, is dying…. [Voters] want their politicians to act.”
I didn’t get everything wrong. I listed foreign crises that would challenge Biden: China’s assertive behavior in Asia, Russia’s threats against Ukraine, the fall of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.
In July, more than a month before the Taliban took Kabul, I reported that the Afghan armed forces were disintegrating and that the government could collapse.
“Biden will rightly be judged by the outcome,” I wrote.
If a columnist could see that coming, why did it surprise the White House?
Still, the balance sheet for 2021 isn’t all bad.
We face a dangerous new wave of COVID-19, but we’re better prepared — and better vaccinated — than a year ago. We grumble about the supply chain, but Christmas wasn’t canceled. We still have a democracy despite Trump’s efforts to undermine it.
So I look to 2022 with — what else? — renewed optimism.
“Presidents often run into trouble during their first year in office, and some manage to recover,” I noted in November. “Ronald Reagan took the nation into a deep recession in 1981 … but once the economy recovered, he was reelected by a landslide. Bill Clinton presided over a disastrous first year and lost control of Congress in 1994, only to win reelection in 1996.”
A few lucky breaks in the pandemic, more economic growth and a slowdown in inflation could make 2022 look much better. When any of that good news arrives, you can count on me to let you know.
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