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‘Everything’s at Stake’: How the Midterms Will Shape Biden’s 2024 Plans and his Legacy

9 minute read

Joe Biden flubbed the line. Standing in front of volunteers and campaign organizers at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Biden launched into his closing argument before a midterm election that will determine what his party—and his administration—can get done for the rest of his term in office.

But he mixed up his words. “This election is a referendum—it’s not a referendum, I should say, it’s a choice. Everybody wants to make it a referendum, but it’s a choice between two vastly different visions for America,” Biden said, microphone in hand in front of a room full of cheering supporters. The President continued his pitch. Democrats, he said, “are building a better America for everyone,” while Republicans are “doubling down on their mega-MAGA trickle-down economics that benefits the very wealthy.”

The slip up pointed to the political gambit Biden is making, hoping that voters see their midterm ballot not as an assessment of his performance, which is currently getting middling marks in approval ratings, but as an opportunity to explicitly reject what Republicans are offering.

For the President, the outcome of the Nov. 8 election is about far more than who controls the House and Senate. “In this midterm for Biden, everything’s at stake,” says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.

Most immediately, the election will determine what Biden can get done for the rest of his term, and whether any of his remaining policy goals can go through Congress, or will have to happen, if at all, through executive orders, which future Presidents can more easily undo. Beyond that, a Republican rout would weaken Biden’s case for reelection, as well as undermine his big-picture effort to instill confidence in Americans and around the world that the U.S. government can still rise above political sniping and function for the greater good.

Biden sees even more at stake, including the danger of elevating Republicans who support overturning the 2020 election results, who want to put partisan cronies in charge of elections, and who fan the flames of political violence, all of which represents “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” as he said on Sept. 1 during a rare primetime speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia about “MAGA Republicans.”

It’s become conventional wisdom in Washington that the party of a first-term president loses House seats in the midterm elections. Two years into Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost control of the House in a wave election that swept Republican Tea Party candidates into office, a rightward lurch for the party that set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump. In the middle of Trump’s term, Democrats took control of the House and reinstalled Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

Current polling suggests Republicans are more likely to take over the House than the Senate, but both outcomes remain possible.

If the House falls back into Republican hands, Biden will lose more than his ability to push forward a legislative agenda that includes codifying abortion projections from Roe v. Wade and restoring a ban on assault weapons sales. He’ll also face a blitz of investigations that Republicans have promised to pursue into the business dealings of his son Hunter and his administration’s immigration policies.

But a more dramatic development may come quickly, with a showdown between Biden and House Republicans over raising the debt limit. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the likely House Speaker if Republicans take control, said in a recent interview with Punchbowl News that his party would hold up raising the debt limit in pursuit of cutting “waste” or ways to “make the economy grow stronger.” That has prompted some Democrats to look for a deal with some Senate Republicans to raise the debt limit above the current ceiling of $31.4 trillion during the lame duck Congress that follows the midterms.

The political pain for Biden will be worse if Democrats lose control of both the House and Senate, as Biden will likely shift his presidency into veto-mode, with his relationship with Congress largely defined by blocking the bills that Republicans send his way.

Losing both chambers “will turn Biden into a shrunken president,” Brinkley says, and will “galvanize” a new generation of Democrats waiting for an opening to take over leadership of the party. In such a scenario, the prospect of Biden running for re-election could become less tenable. “To become the albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party would be an act of selfishness for Biden,” Brinkley says.

Biden has said he can beat Trump again, if he needs to. He has suggested he may be the only Democrat that can. But if his party loses control of Congress completely, Biden is likely to face increasing pressure to announce he’s stepping aside at the end of his first term and endorse another Democrat, as Teddy Roosevelt did in 1908 when he decided not to run for a third term, as was allowed then, and backed his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. Another historical reference point is Harry Truman, whose approval ratings were in the 20s near the end of his first elected term. After losing the 1952 New Hampshire Democratic primary, he eventually endorsed Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who lost in a landslide to Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and political consultant, said that losing control of Congress for Biden “undermines the argument that he is the only one that can maintain Democratic control of the presidency.” Democratic challengers whispered to be eyeing Biden’s job include members of his administration like Vice President Kamala Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, as well as Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Jim Manley, a former senior communications adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic Caucus, says he’d support Biden’s bid for a second term. “I think he’s earned that right, but we as a party have a problem—it’s filled with senior citizens, and we’ve got to figure out a way to get around that.”

Even if Republicans bring his agenda to a standstill, Biden would have some notable accomplishments to tout on the campaign trail for 2024, like signing an infrastructure funding bill, securing hundreds of billions of dollars in investments in green industries to slow down climate change, and reducing medical costs.

But in the current cycle, those achievements aren’t energizing voters as Democrats had hoped, Manley says, particularly amid the highest inflation in decades. “Folks are really feeling a lot of pain,” Manley says, adding, “I’m glad I’m not involved in messaging over the state of the economy right now.”

Recent polling shows that the economy is the top issue for voters going into the midterms, with 79% of voters polled in a recent Pew Research Center survey saying the economy will be very important to their voting decisions. Of those rating the economy as very important, 47% preferred Republican candidates, compared to 34% that preferred Democrats. Biden’s party fared better among the 70% of voters who rate the future of democracy in the U.S. as “very important,” with 46% of those concerned about democracy backing Democratic candidates and 40% supporting Republicans.

Ashley Etienne, who’s previously served as a senior communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris and for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, listed what Republicans have promised to do with control of the House, including threatening to pull support for Ukraine, launch dozens of investigations, refuse to raise the debt limit unless Democrats agree to spending cuts, and force Congress to re-authorize all federal legislation including Social Security and Medicare every five years. All of that, she says, means the midterm outcomes are “less about what it will mean for Biden politically and more about what are the consequences for the nation.”

Republican strategist Ayres suggested the shift wouldn’t necessarily be quite so dramatic for Biden. Without control of the House and Senate, Biden is facing “certainly the end of the more progressive aspects of the Biden agenda,” Ayers says. “It would force him to do what other Presidents have done when the opposite party has control of Congress, and that’s expand the use of executive privilege and use other routes in the administrative process to try to accomplish their agenda.”

Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies presidential power, says that losing the House would be “a pretty typical outcome” for a first-term President. Nonetheless, if it happens this time, Democrats and Biden should look closely at why it did, given the state of the two parties, she says. Despite problems with inflation and unease about the economy, Donald Trump remains a divisive figure and Republicans have done some unpopular things in the past two years that could have cut against them. “The last Republican President tried to stay in office after he lost an election, he was impeached twice, Republicans just overturned Roe v Wade after 50 years, and Democrats are still looking at a pretty big loss,” says Wright. “If they’re not taking stock of why their message isn’t resonating with voters already, they will definitely have to after the midterms.”

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