WASHINGTON – With his party’s control over Congress teetering on the brink, President Joe Biden has traveled the country this fall trying to turn the midterm elections into a choice between two visions for America. On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to stick with his outlook or take the country in a different direction.
Biden is dealing with difficult challenges in elections that will set the dynamics for the rest of his first term. Presidents tend to see their party suffer major setbacks in their second year in office, and in addition, Biden is saddled with a cloudy economic picture and the limits of his own popularity.
In the campaign’s closing sprint, Biden has tried to rely on a message that promotes his accomplishments — many of which will take years to be truly felt — and warns of the consequences of a GOP takeover of Congress.
Biden has tried to project resolute optimism about holding Congress, saying Friday that he feels “really good” about keeping majorities in the House and Senate. Advisers maintain that voters still broadly support the president's agenda, even if they are down on the overall direction of the country because of inflation, gas prices and the sour tenor of political discourse.
A key question is whether voters will give Democrats more time to deliver on promised progress — infrastructure projects in the offing, drug prices that are promised to fall, climate change plans that are years away from being fully in place. Or will they turn elsewhere in search of more immediate solutions to top-of-mind economic concerns?
It didn’t help Biden’s cause that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin chose the weekend before the election to issue a blistering condemnation of Biden’s goal to eventually rein in coal energy. Manchin's rebuke was a last-minute embarrassment that risked hurting critical Democratic campaigns in neighboring Pennsylvania.
Biden’s advisers insist the current political environment is far different from 2010, when Democratic candidates were hamstrung by the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health law, and went on to lose 63 House seats and six Senate seats.
“Whether you’re in Arizona or you’re in Nevada, or you’re in Pennsylvania, all have Democratic elected officials that are communicating to their constituents, are talking about the things that they got done for the American people that are built on President Biden’s vision and what he’s accomplished,” White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon said at a forum hosted by Axios last week. “And that is a significant difference from other midterm seasons.”
In a sign of how Biden hopes his agenda may play out in time, that health law survived dozens of GOP-led repeal attempts and is now broadly popular with voters.
Cedric Richmond, the former Louisiana congressman and Biden senior aide who is now a top adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said it was important for Biden in the campaign's closing days to reinforce to voters his accomplishments.
“One of the things I think that’s most important is that he continue to remind people of all the things that he’s doing to keep this country going in the right direction,” Richmond said. “We know there are challenges out there, but we’re meeting them and we’re not dividing the country.”
Even as Biden says he’s trying to bring the country together, he’s also warning about what would happen if Republicans win control of Capitol Hill.
“If we lose the House and Senate, it’s going to be a horrible two years,” he said Friday at a fundraiser outside Chicago.
He argues that Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, reverse Democrats’ cost-lowering efforts for prescription drugs and impose a national abortion ban. “The good news is I’ll have a veto pen,” Biden said.
White House officials say that even if Biden hasn’t personally been on the ground in some of the most contested states, he’s helped set up Democrats there for success by delivering a message that echoes around the country, no matter where he’s campaigning.
Advisers say Biden bears no ill will toward embattled Democratic candidates in Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Georgia who have tried to keep him at arm’s length. After 50 years in public life, they say, Biden recognizes that it’s often advantageous for the lawmakers to carve out their own identities distinct from the leader of their party.
Instead, Biden has turned out for lower-key, but equally competitive House races, where aides and candidates welcome the president’s ability to drive local news coverage.
For Biden, that’s meant more than two dozen political events to boost Democratic candidates since August, along with many ostensibly official events, such as the groundbreaking on a new technology manufacturing facility or a speech to promote plans to cut the price of insulin for older adults, that draw contrast with Republicans.
In fact, first lady Jill Biden has proved to be even more in demand than Biden in some places. She campaigned Saturday in Arizona with Sen. Mark Kelly and earlier in New Hampshire with Sen. Maggie Hassan, both in tight reelection races.
Over the summer, Democrats seized on the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade in hopes of motivating women and the party's core supporters. In recent weeks he has stressed his condemnation of “mega MAGA” Republicans — short for the 2016 Trump campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.
He also has broadened efforts to contrast his agenda with the GOP's to encompass what he views as Republican threats to democracy. That was the thrust of a speech Wednesday near the Capitol where he warned that some in the Republican Party were inciting political violence.
Republicans, in the closing days, have zeroed in on people's economic concerns.
“Biden’s agenda has wreaked havoc on families trying to get by," Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, said Friday. "Lower real wages, higher taxes, and out-of-control inflation have made it tougher for Americans to get ahead. In a few short days, voters will send a clear message that they have had enough of Democrats’ radical agenda.”
Some Democrats, already looking to cast blame ahead of the election, have been critical of Biden’s messaging, arguing he should have focused more intently on reassuring Americans about soaring prices.
“I hope there’s some people at the White House watching," Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told MSNBC on Wednesday hours before Biden's speech. "I’d hope that they’re rewriting it and focusing on cost of living.”
Biden allies reject the argument, saying voters care about more than just one issue. They say abortion and the prospect of election-denying candidates help open the door to some GOP-leaning voters to go with Democrats.
Richmond, the former Biden adviser, said the president does talk about the economy and what he is doing to tackle inflation. “If a candidate can’t articulate that ... that’s on them.”
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