The 9 politicians who had the most impact in 2021

The inauguration of a new president, the long shadow of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the pandemic’s peaks and troughs made 2021 another tumultuous year.

A handful of politicians exerted enormous influence over the year’s events. Here are those who made their presence felt the most.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

Love him or loathe him, Manchin had a huge impact throughout the year, often being the central player in congressional drama.

President Biden, unable to lose Manchin’s support in a 50-50 Senate, scaled back his most ambitious social spending plans at the West Virginian’s behest. Biden also uncoupled those plans, collectively known as the Build Back Better Act, from a more traditional infrastructure bill. Then, at year’s end, Manchin went ahead and declared his opposition anyway.

In doing so, he dealt Biden an enormous blow, apparently capsizing the president’s domestic agenda. 

Progressives were apoplectic about Manchin’s conduct. And rumors have surfaced again that he might change party rather than seek reelection as a Democrat in a state former President Trump carried by 39 points in 2020.

Manchin is not the only centrist in the Democratic Party — his colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) played a similar role at times in the party’s internal debates. 

But as the year draws to a close, Manchin can legitimately claim to have made as big a difference as anyone.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)

The head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus was in many ways a counterweight to Manchin — and a far more popular figure with the party’s grassroots. 

The size of her caucus — it has almost 100 members — is itself testament to the swelling influence of the left in the Democratic Party. Jayapal also played her hand adeptly, emphasizing the points of common ground between her members’ priorities and those of the White House.

The congresswoman from Washington state also did a solid job of keeping her members on the same page — no mean feat given the left’s infamous tendency toward factionalism.

The problem, of course, is that her most significant decision — eventually facilitating the passage of the infrastructure bill without a cast-iron guarantee that Build Back Better would also pass — failed. The left gave up its leverage, and Manchin thwarted the big social spending plan. 

Jayapal blasted the West Virginia senator for what she termed a “lack of integrity that is stunning” in the wake of his decision. 

But there was remarkably little public dissent about Jayapal’s strategy from progressive members.

That shows the congresswoman still has plenty of political capital heading into 2022.

President Biden

His influence is obvious; the assessment of how he used it is much more complicated.

Biden has put his mark on the nation with the huge $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that passed in March, as well as the infrastructure bill. 

His aides have long believed his first term will be judged on combating COVID-19 above all else. For much of the year, that battle seemed to be going well, as vaccines were successfully rolled out and a general sense of competence supplanted the chaos of the Trump years.

But two variants, delta and omicron, called Biden’s success on the pandemic into question. 

Biden’s decisions sometimes backfired, by far the most ignominious example being the withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

And on other topics, such as inflation and supply chain blockages, Biden ended with a mixed record at best.

As his first year draws to a close, Biden has both shown his power and been reminded of its limitations.

Former President Trump

Influence seems too mild a word to describe the outgoing president’s incitement of the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812.

For his words in the lead-up to Jan. 6 and on the day itself, Trump became the only president in history to be twice impeached.

Back then, it seemed to many people that Trump had finally immolated any future political hopes. Even Republican leaders who had previously shied away from condemning him did so. 

Yet, as the year closes, Trump is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, if he enters the race. His endorsement is the most sought-after for any Republican candidate in a party primary. And he is back on offense against internal foes, deriding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as an “old crow.”

In one poll in December from Echelon Insights, 71 percent of Republicans said they would back Trump in a GOP presidential primary and 86 percent said they would vote for him over Biden if he again became the Republican nominee.

Those figures demonstrate that, for good or for ill, Trump is still one of the most influential politicians in the nation.

The Trump House caucus

Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) at times seemed to try to outdo each other in their inflammatory approach to politics.

Greene had her committee assignments stripped from her in February after old social media posts where she endorsed the execution of political opponents came to light. She would later heckle Democratic members regarding abortion and verbally accost Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) near the House chamber.

Gosar was censured by the House after he tweeted an animated video depicting a cartoon version of himself killing a character made to look like Ocasio-Cortez.

Boebert faced calls for similar action after she smeared Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as a supposed terrorist sympathizer.

The controversies were in many ways a dispiriting reminder of how coarse and belligerent the political culture has become.

It also kept the three Trump loyalists center stage, which is where they most like to be.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

Pelosi may be 81 and close to the end of an epic political career, but she hasn’t lost any of her strategic wiliness or vote-counting abilities.

Those qualities helped Pelosi shepherd the infrastructure bill to safe passage, even after various pundits had proclaimed that all seemed lost. The Speaker ended the year insisting that some version of Biden’s bigger social spending bill would eventually make it into law too. Her party, Pelosi said, would not “let this opportunity pass.”

There is open speculation about what Pelosi’s immediate future holds. It seems unlikely that she would have much appetite for returning as House minority leader if Democrats lose their slim majority next November, as many people expect they will.

But 2021 made clear just what a chasm Pelosi will leave once she eventually steps down.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

McConnell may have suffered Trump’s slings and arrows for another year, but he also showed just how much his tactical skills can be leveraged to frustrate Biden’s agenda.

GOP opposition to the president was virtually monolithic, with the Kentuckian leading by example. The two notable exceptions came on infrastructure, which McConnell saw as a good issue for Republicans, and in his willingness to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling. 

Even though the debt ceiling strategy earned him more condemnation from Trump, it seemed to others in his party that McConnell was sensibly averting a catastrophe for which the GOP could easily be blamed.

McConnell’s attempts to woo Manchin to join the GOP have not proven successful so far. 

But the 79-year-old McConnell spent much of the year proving that he could be just as formidable a roadblock for Biden as he had been for much of former President Obama’s tenure.

Tags 2021 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Barack Obama Donald Trump Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paul Gosar Pramila Jayapal

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