Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Aug. 24 to reflect the president’s announcement on student loans.
President Joe Biden has been in office for over a year. When he entered the White House in 2021, he had a number of big issues to deal with. Including COVID-19, a declining economy, racial and social injustice, police brutality, and climate change — just to name a few.
On the campaign trail, he pushed to unite the country during a divisive time, vowing to be a president for everyone — not just for blue or red states. He also campaigned on making the US a world leader and restoring relationships with allies.
As of August 24, Biden’s approval rating sits at 40.9%, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s lower than many of his predecessors at this point in their terms: former Presidents Donald Trump (41.5%), Barack Obama (45.2%), George W Bush (65.9%), and Bill Clinton (43%). Now, we’re checking in on how many of his key campaign promises he’s accomplished since taking office. And we’ll continue to monitor his progress and update this page throughout his first term.
Wipe out $10,000 in federal student loans
As the price of college has gone up, so have student loans. Americans owe about $1.7 trillion in student loans. And data from the Education Department show that canceling $10,000 in federal student loans per borrower would completely wipe out the debt for 15 million borrowers.
During the campaign, Biden backed forgiving $10,000 in these loans. And in August he fulfilled that promise — and also outdid it. The president announced up to $20,000 in debt cancellation for some borrowers. Here are the details:
If you have a loan with the Department of Education (DOE) and make less than $125,000 per year, you are eligible for $10,000 in loan forgiveness.
If you meet the above criteria and you also obtained Pell Grants, you're eligible for up to $20,000 in loan forgiveness.
Now for those looking to access this benefit, the DOE will announce how eligible borrowers can submit their claims in the upcoming weeks.
Make two years of community college tuition-free. And make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn less than $125,000
In Feb. 2021, first lady Jill Biden said the White House is going to “make sure that everyone has access to free community college and training programs." And in April 2021, his admin introduced the American Families Plan — one of the core frameworks of his Build Back Better package. Which included, one: Covering two years of community college for every American. And two: Providing subsidized tuition to students whose families earn less than $125,000 and who are enrolled in HBCUs or other minority-serving institutions.
But…the plan hit major roadblocks in Congress. Their names: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). So in October, Biden hit the ‘restart’ button and intro’d a new version of his Build Back Better plan. And while it’s $1.75 trillion, it doesn’t include free community college. And it remained that way when the House passed Biden’s bill in November.
Provide universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to institute universal pre-K. He said that high-quality pre-kindergarten is “a major financial, logistical, and emotional burden” for families. Under the Build Back Better plan passed by the House, $400 billion would have gone toward providing free universal pre-K for any child who's three or four years old. And making child care more affordable. But given that Build Back Better has essentially stalled in Congress, it’s unclear if the admin will take up this issue again.
Health care and reproductive rights
Codify Roe v. Wade
In 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling protected a woman’s right to an abortion. But in the past few years, a number of Republican-led states passed restrictive abortion laws in an effort to overturn SCOTUS’s precedent. And on June 24, the bench ruled to reverse the landmark ruling.
On the campaign trail, Biden said that he would work to make Roe v. Wade the “law of the land.” And right after they were sworn into office, Biden and VP Kamala Harris said they were “committed” to enshrining abortion rights into law — and they’ll need Congress’s help to do it. In September the House said ‘on it.’ And passed legislation that would codify abortion rights protections. But months later, the Senate failed to do the same — with Republicans blocking the bill from advancing.
Create a public health insurance option
Biden was serving as VP when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law. And during his presidential campaign, he released a plan that’s since been dubbed the Affordable Care Act 2.0. It includes a public option, which means people could get gov-backed health coverage, even if they have access to private insurance. (Note: This isn’t the same as Medicare for All, aka signing the whole country up for the same health insurance provider — the US gov.) But so far it seems that the admin hasn’t made moves on this front.
Get the virus under control
This is a broad promise – but it became a big part of his campaign in 2020 as the pandemic took hold in the US. And has since killed more than 1 million Americans. In office, Biden has made battling COVID-19 a priority. Including hitting his goal of 200 million vaccine doses administered within his first 100 days and signing a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package into law in March, which included details like $1,400 direct payments to many Americans and extending unemployment benefits.
In Sept. 2021, Biden unveiled a six-part plan requiring vaccinations for nearly 100 million Americans. The plan included those working in the private sector, federal gov, health facilities, and schools. But the Supreme Court blocked the mandate for private-sector employees — dealing the admin a blow to its vaccination campaign.
But the pandemic isn’t over quite yet. The omicron variant and its subvariants have led to a spike in cases and hospitalizations. To help, the administration is giving Americans free at-home rapid tests and N-95 masks. But Biden is still struggling to hit this goal. Despite that, the CDC eased COVID-19 restrictions in August.
“We’re in a stronger place today as a nation,” the CDC’s Greta Massetti said. “With more tools — like vaccination, boosters, and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19”
Implement a nationwide mask mandate
In June 2020, then-candidate Biden said he “would do everything possible" to make wearing masks in public mandatory. And added that he would work with governors and mayors, and ask Americans to step up, to make that happen. A number of states had implemented mask mandates — but some never imposed one in the first place. Meanwhile, Biden did sign executive orders to require masks on federal grounds and transportation (think: planes, trains, buses, and ships). While the order was extended multiple times, a federal judge struck down the mandate in April.
Rejoin the World Health Organization
In July 2020, Trump notified the UN that the US would cut ties with WHO (the org that’s worked to coordinate a global effort to combat COVID-19). The former president accused WHO of not being aggressive enough with China and of being too slow to respond to the pandemic. To withdraw, the US had to give a one-year notice — so the move wasn’t set to take effect until July 2021. Meanwhile, as a candidate, Biden vowed to rejoin the org on his first day in office. Shortly after being inaugurated, he sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General, retracting the US’s decision to leave. And fulfilling his campaign promise.
Rejoin the Paris climate deal
Back in 2015, world leaders agreed on a plan to limit the rise in global temps and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in 2017, Trump announced his plan to pull the US out of the deal because it negatively impacted US businesses and workers. Biden said he would rejoin the Paris climate deal on his first day in office — and he made that happen (through an executive order).
Put the US on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050
As part of his campaign, Biden pledged to “lead the world” in addressing climate change by “the power of example.” As president, Biden has…
Signed an executive order directing the federal gov to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden’s goal will take a number of ambitious actions — like having 100% net-zero emissions buildings by 2045 and 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030
Signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan into law that, in part, will boost the number of electric vehicles on the road and build a cleaner energy grid.
Pledged to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Announced plans to increase wind farms along the US’s coastline (think: Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of Maine). The goal: develop clean, renewable wind power energy by 2025.
Signed a bipartisan bill in August that would allocate more than $300 billion to clean energy and climate reform. And is projected to lower US greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030.
While the admin has taken a number of steps to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, it’s still not clear if the US will actually reach that goal. (Think: A president elected after Biden's term could prevent this from happening.)
Rejoin the Iran nuclear deal
In 2015, the US, Iran, and five other countries agreed to lift heavy economic sanctions imposed on Iran in exchange for the country's agreement to curb its nuclear weapons program. In 2018, Trump took the US out of the deal, saying it doesn’t go far enough to prevent the Middle Eastern country from building a nuclear weapon. In an op-ed in 2020, Biden said Trump “recklessly” ditched the agreement, and the US would rejoin it under his presidency “if Iran returns to strict compliance.”
In early April 2021, talks started between world leaders to revive the deal. During his first UN General Assembly speech, Biden said that the US would rejoin the deal if Iran did the same. But officials aren’t holding their breath. As of Oct. 2021, Iran agreed to return to the negotiating table. And ongoing talks in 2022 signal that a deal is closer to happening than ever before, with Iran dropping some of its starter demands. Now, US officials are reviewing the latest points. But have signaled that gaps remain in the deal.
End “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East
The US's entanglements in the Middle East have led to America's longest-ever war: Afghanistan. The US has also been involved in Yemen’s seven-year civil war, which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Before moving into the White House, Biden pledged to end wars that have cost the US “untold blood and treasure.” Here’s what’s going on with…
Afghanistan: In Aug. 2021, the US officially pulled out of the country. And ended the nearly 20-year war — fulfilling a promise made by two of his predecessors: Trump and Obama. But it was a chaotic exit that had many allies raising their brows: The US-backed Afghan gov and forces quickly collapsed. The Taliban re-took the country as thousands tried to board evacuation planes heading to the states. And women’s rights in Afghanistan have continued to deteriorate.
Yemen: In Feb. 2021, he said the US would halt its support for Saudi Arabia-backed efforts in Yemen. But in December, the Senate supported Biden’s $650 billion weapon sale to Saudi Arabia — even though they are still involved with Yemen’s civil war. So it’s unclear if America is completely unentangled with conflict in the Middle East.
Work with Congress to set up a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants
To try to fulfill this promise, Biden intro’d legislation to Congress that would give an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US a pathway to citizenship. In March 2021, the House voted on two immigration bills that would provide a roadmap for some — including DACA recipients — to become citizens. But the Senate has yet to take them up.
In September, Senate Dems tried adding a pathway to citizenship as part of a $3.5 trillion spending package. But were denied by the Senate parliamentarian. And so far, the situation at the border has only become more complicated. This leads us to...
End prolonged migrant detentions
The Trump admin moved to detain migrant families indefinitely. And Biden had pledged more humane treatment at the US-Mexico border. But there’s been a surge of migrants under Biden’s presidency — largely driven by the international perception that a Biden admin win would make entering the US easier. Since taking office, his administration has tried to speed up the detention process for migrant families. But the influx has made it hard to move migrants out of these facilities.
Yet, Biden continued to use some Trump-era immigration tactics. Including a measure that uses COVID-19 as an excuse for deportations. He tried to lift the measure, but in May a federal judge blocked that decision. And though he tapped Harris to be the point person on immigration at the border, it’s unclear what progress is being made in getting the situation under control.
Undo Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries
In 2017, Trump issued a travel ban against a number of Muslim-majority countries over fears of potential national security threats. The ban went through multiple iterations and was eventually upheld in 2018 by the Supreme Court – restricting travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen (plus North Korea and Venezuela). Biden promised to end the “vile” Muslim ban on his first day in office. And he officially repealed it on Inauguration Day.
Ban assault weapons
Assault rifles have been used in a number of deadly shootings in recent years, from Newtown, CT in 2012 to Parkland, FL in 2018 to Uvalde, TX in 2022 and beyond. Biden has called gun violence in the US a “public health epidemic.” In April 2021, he announced a number of executive actions to tackle the issue, but none included a ban on assault weapons. Instead, he’s repeatedly called on Congress to handle that. In June, following the Uvalde shooting, lawmakers passed the first gun safety bill in decades. And in July, the House passed legislation that would ban assault weapons — for the first time since 2004. But the measure is predicted to fail in the Senate.
Require background checks for all gun sales
In 2017, researchers from Harvard and Northeastern Universities found that one in five gun owners obtained a firearm without a background check. And according to Everytown for Gun Safety, federal law doesn’t require background checks for unlicensed sellers (think: online or at gun shows). As part of his pledge to implement gun safety policies, Biden said he would work to require background checks on all sales of guns. Part of the gun safety bill that lawmakers passed in June (see: above) expands background checks and offers federal cash to states for red-flag laws (think: taking guns away from those deemed especially risky). But doesn’t require background checks for all gun sales.
Repeal certain tax cuts that Trump approved
In 2017, Trump and Republicans in Congress worked together to pass the largest tax overhaul in decades. Biden believes the cuts favor the wealthy and corporations. He promised not to raise taxes for anyone making less than $400,000. But said he’d raise the top individual income tax rate as well as the corporate tax rate.
In November, the House passed Biden’s Build Back Better spending package. The comprehensive bill would include renewable energy programs, universal preschool, paid family leave, childcare subsidies, and more. The plan was to fund it with a combo of taxes on high-earners and large corporations. But the tax rates on both groups don’t appear to be any higher. And the Senate didn’t take up the legislation.
Raise the national minimum wage to $15/hour
Biden has supported upping the minimum wage across the country to $15/hour. And according to his former campaign site, he helped get states and local jurisdictions to increase their minimum wages (including in NY) as VP under the Obama admin. Since then, Biden tried to get the wage hike included in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that passed in March. But the Senate parliamentarian said 'that can’t happen' because it goes against certain rules around the budget reconciliation process. In the meantime, Biden signed an executive order raising the min wage for federal contract workers to $15 an hour — which took effect on Jan. 30.
Criminal justice and policing
Implement police oversight commission
In May 2020, George Floyd's death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. And since then, calls for police reform have only grown louder. In 2020, then-candidate Biden called for the country to take “real action” to stop police brutality against Black Americans and pledged to create a national police oversight commission within his first 100 days in office. But in April, the admin started backing away from that promise. His domestic policy council director said the commission “would not be the most effective way to deliver” on this issue at the moment — adding that the admin will instead focus on getting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act through Congress and to the president’s desk. But that’s yet to happen.
Decriminalize marijuana use and expunge cannabis convictions
More than a dozen states have legalized recreational marijuana. And according to the ACLU, Black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession — even though both groups use it at about the same rate.
Biden doesn’t support legalizing it on a federal level. But he’s pledged to decriminalize marijuana and expunge any cannabis convictions. (PS: here’s the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing). In April, the House voted to decriminalize weed — as well as create a process for expunging some marijuana convictions. And set up a sales tax on cannabis products. But the Senate hasn’t taken this up yet.
Provide families with up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave
The US is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. And less than 25% of US workers have access to paid family leave. For months, the admin and Congress have gone back and forth on a plan to create a national paid leave program. Specifically, how many weeks workers should get. In November, the House passed the Build Back Better plan — which included four weeks of paid family leave. But the Senate doesn't plan to take it up. Meaning: the US is still the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't offer paid parental leave.
PS: theSkimm has launched a movement to promote transparency around paid family leave. Learn more here.
Enact the Equality Act
The Equality Act is a bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity when it comes to things like jobs, housing, education, and public spaces. While campaigning, Biden said he would make this a legislative priority during his first few months in office — and that he hoped to sign the bill into law within his first 100 days. The House passed the bill in February 2021. More than a year later, the Senate has yet to vote on it.
Reverse Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military
In 2017, Trump announced that transgender people would be barred from serving “in any capacity.” The former president attributed the ban in part to the “tremendous medical costs” for the military — even though a RAND Corporation study from the year prior showed that costs “would likely be a small fraction of the total force and have minimal impact on readiness and health care costs.” Meanwhile, Biden campaigned on overturning the controversial ban. And in his first few days in office, he signed an executive order to follow through on his promise.
After more than one year in office, much of President Biden's current agenda and his promises on the campaign trail have stalled. Faced with a divided Congress, he'll have to negotiate with an opposition that is strongly against his vision for the US. Only time will tell if Biden is able to achieve these goals. Check back here as we continue to hold him accountable for the promises and pledges he made while trying to win the presidency.
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