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MILWAUKEE—Sarah Barber admits she lives in a liberal and privileged bubble in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. Her customers where she tends bar share her progressive hopes, her classmates in her graduate program generally agree when the 37-year-old speaks up in their psych courses, and she doesn’t regret moving here from Michigan. Still, when she starts to think about national politics, she has visible disappointment.
“Shit’s not getting done,” she says as she’s wrapping up her Sunday afternoon caffeine fix at a hip coffee joint. “There’s no accomplishments. There’s no accountability. There’s nothing to show for having the House, the Senate, and the White House.”
It’s a common refrain among voters this cycle. A shocking 75% of Democrats told pollsters in July they wanted someone other than Joe Biden as the nominee in 2024. A full 27% of Democrats say they disapprove of Biden’s performance these days. Strategists have to go back to Jimmy Carter to find an incumbent President with worse polling than Biden’s at the same point in their terms. So much of Washington seems stuck in park.
But Barber’s comments last Sunday were particularly noteworthy because the Senate had just spent all night preparing a massive piece of legislation that tackles fairness in the tax code, aims to fight climate change, and allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices. The final vote was scheduled for the very day Barber decried inaction. The Inflation Reduction Act was classic Washington: a catchy bill name paired with a failure to communicate.
And now, House Democrats have sent the landmark bill to Biden to sign. The votes represent major Democratic wins in an election environment that even the most partisan liberal will admit isn’t great.
Yet, in the heartland, this significant victory was not top of mind. And most of the country’s journalists have their attention spans glued to the Strangelove-esque revelations coming out of Mar-a-Lago. All that, put simply, should worry Biden and his fellow Democrats as November draws closer.
“People are reluctant to bash [Biden] because he’s our team,” Barber says. “We knew this was the sacrifice we were making when we nominated him, but he got Trump out. I just don’t know how anyone defends him now.”
She then utters the words that haunt the empty-benched Democrats: “Let’s hope he doesn’t run again.”
Biden and his fellow Democrats are defending the narrowest of majorities in Congress this fall. Republicans need to pick up only one seat in the current 50-50 Senate and Democrats are down to a 10-seat advantage in the current House. Polls show Republican voters are more interested in this fall’s contests, but that, too, changed after the Supreme Court reversed Roe in June and the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as Democrats suddenly seemed to grasp the stakes. (Specific candidates also make a big difference.)
And yet, it may be premature to start running the tape forward to Nov. 9. Incumbent Democratic Senators are consistently posting better fundraising numbers than their Republican challengers, and Democratic candidates are keeping the numbers competitive despite donors’ skittishness. In a handful of key races, Democrats have either engineered or lucked their way into some problematic GOP nominees. Biden’s poll numbers seem to have steadied, and the generic ballot question has trended into Democrats’ favor since Roe and Uvalde.
The economy remains the top issue for voters, yet signs indicate inflation is starting to break and unemployment remains low. Gas prices are finally coming down. And a summer of revenge travel has done wonders for families who spent the last two years fearful of a pandemic or economic crater.
But we may be on the cusp of an inflection point in the campaign cycle. Biden is starting to celebrate the turn on the economy and will soon sign a piece of legislation many—myself included—thought dead as negotiations lumbered on. The results may buoy him, especially among Democrats who want to see a sign of life.
Or not. Control of Congress in 2023 feels like more of a toss-up than it did a few weeks ago. How that dynamic shifts, or doesn’t, in the coming days will be revealing.
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