Justin Sink and Josh Wingrove, Bloomberg
EnergiesNet.com 12 19 2022
A week before the midterm election, President Joe Biden pitched senior advisers on his closing argument to American voters — a sweeping address in which he’d once again insist that democracy itself was on the ballot.
It was a risky idea. A similar Biden speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia a month earlier bombed with critics, who panned it as partisan and dismissive of core voter concerns, including inflation. Some Democrats suggested afterward they might be better off without the president on the ticket in 2024, and his slumping approval rating and light campaign travel signaled that few congressional candidates wanted to be seen with him.
Yet Biden and his closest aides decided to forge ahead with another defense of democracy, hammering on the risks posed by election-deniers backed by his 2020 opponent, Donald Trump. It was an act of defiance to naysayers. But it paid off a week later with the best midterm performance by a president in two decades, as Democrats added to their Senate majority and left Republican rivals with a meager margin of control in the House.
“There’s a pattern when it comes to Biden,” Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to the president, said in an interview. “And that is for the longest time he’s underestimated, and for the longest time people say how he is wrong. And then when the results come in, they say, he wasn’t wrong.”
After first-year stumbles including a chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden found his footing with a string of legislative wins, his party’s surprise midterm showing, a successful summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, last week, the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.
Conservatives tend to be blinded to “just how effective Biden has been on his terms” halfway through his presidency, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote in the aftermath of the Nov. 8 vote: “We dislike Biden so much, we pettily focus on his speaking difficulties, sometimes strange behavior, clear lapses of memory, and other personal flaws. Our aversion to him and his policies makes us underestimate him.”
The winning streak, the president and his allies say, is validation of his strategy after critics suggested he was a leader stuck in the ways of a bygone era. For Biden and his advisers, an appeal to democratic ideals and a rejection of extremism was as animating for voters as any other concern.
Even so, the next two years may prove far rockier for Biden. With Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, Biden will have scant opportunity for legislative achievements while fending off GOP-led investigations of his administration’s policies and his son, Hunter Biden.
The makeup of the new Congress has killed hopes for core unrealized pieces of Biden’s agenda that resonate with his base – including an assault-weapons ban and voting rights legislation.
Biden still must grapple with persistent inflation that risks driving the country into recession. Aides remain concerned about the unpredictable consequences of the war in Ukraine, even after initial success repelling Russia’s invasion.
But White House aides are hopeful there could be room to work with Republicans on items including immigration, high-skilled job training programs, mental health services and education. Many in the White House meanwhile predict GOP attempts to cater to their party’s Trump wing — such as conspiracy-minded investigations and fights over the national debt and government funding – may backfire, cementing negative perceptions of Republicans with moderate swing voters.
‘Tell the Story’
Biden’s 40% approval rating in October’s Gallup poll foreshadowed disaster in the midterms. But the Dec. 6 re-election of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock cemented what amounts to one of the most remarkable political turnarounds in modern presidential history, one that carried weight on the global stage.
His party’s success helped the US president persuade Xi to resume talks between their countries on mutual interests, especially climate change. Biden himself acknowledged added confidence from the election results ahead of the Xi meeting in Indonesia.
Biden quelled tensions with France in a state visit for the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, 36 years his junior. And he encouraged congressional Democrats through a lame-duck session in which they codified same-sex marriage rights and averted a railroad strike that could have devastated the economy.
The streak has squelched calls within the party for a new standard-bearer.
“I’m sick and tired of people wanting to run away from him,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan lawmaker and longtime friend of the Bidens. “He’s done a good job. We’ve gotten more legislation done than in decades, and we need to tell the story more.”
Path to 2024
Smoothing the way for his own re-election, Biden earlier this month also forced through changes to the Democratic primary process to discourage challengers, elevating states friendlier to him like South Carolina, Michigan and Georgia while diminishing Iowa and New Hampshire, where he suffered early defeats in 2020.
Democrats once bandied about as potential primary challengers to Biden — notably, California Governor Gavin Newsom – have instead thrown their support behind his re-election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer both told CNN this week that Biden should run again.
The GOP losses, meanwhile, have damaged Trump’s political brand. The former president remains Biden’s primary political foil, though recent polls show Florida Governor Ron DeSantis overtaking Trump as the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2024.
Even the most liberal wing of Biden’s party, often at odds with him on policy, has warmed to the president.
“He’s worked to earn a lot of trust from progressives,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California. “He’d have the support of the party, of many of us in the party, if he runs again, and I expect him to run again.”
Biden will be able to savor the accomplishments he’s already chalked up, as their benefits trickle out to Americans over time.
New US investments in infrastructure and climate projects, health programs and manufacturing will give Biden the chance to attend ribbon-cuttings in politically significant states. Already since the November election, Biden has visited the sites of factories under construction in Michigan and Arizona, two key battlegrounds.
Biden, 80, has not yet fully declared himself to be running for re-election, noting that fate may intervene with a health emergency. But he’s also gone to lengths to present himself as vigorous.
At a recent reception for members of Congress, Biden stood for a few hours straight taking photos in a receiving line. And he brushed aside a question last month about his next physical. “What, do you think I need it?”
Biden has as much conviction in his approach as rivals have in its folly. “The Biden administration continues to double down on their agenda, which I think is a mistake on their part,” said Senator Steve Daines of Montana, who will lead Senate Republicans’ 2024 campaign organization.
But people inside Biden’s inner circle say he remains convinced of his own political instincts.
The evening of Biden’s Union Station speech days before the midterms, many pundits painted it as the beginning of the end of his administration. Television networks declined last-minute White House requests to carry Biden’s remarks live, while Twitter users mocked the staging: Instead of positioning the president before the historic train station’s soaring Beaux-Arts halls, Biden stood in front of a wrinkled plain blue curtain and flags.
Even inside the White House, doubts were obvious. Junior aides eyed new jobs at agencies and departments away from the West Wing. Others saw Biden’s “mega-MAGA” framing as clumsy.
But Biden himself saw confronting political violence as central to his job, even outside the election. Aides say the president was swayed by meetings in the spring with historians who described the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol as a foreboding and existential threat to the nation.
A week later, voters vindicated his approach.
“I felt good during the whole process. I thought we were going to do fine,” Biden said at a news conference the day after the election.
What about voters harboring doubts about a re-election bid, he was asked. He replied simply: “Watch me.”
bloomberg.com 12 18 2022