By Ross Alexander Hutton
In early November 2010, a dispirited and rather subdued President Obama fielded questions from reporters after barely holding on to the Senate and losing control of the House of Representatives to a historic ‘red wave’ of Republican support. When acknowledging the failure of Democrats to comprehend voters’ frustrations with the sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession, Obama candidly admitted that he took a “shellacking” from voters dismayed by the appearance of a White House cloistered by the bubble of executive privilege. Ever since, the former President’s admission has aptly encapsulated the well-accepted axiom of U.S. presidential politics: modern presidents in their first term of office tend to be unsuccessful in the midterm elections (except President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11). Given that these elections are ‘off presidential year’ elections, pundits postulate that midterm elections act as de facto referenda on incumbent presidents, drawing increased scrutiny on their performance. Indeed, pundits posit further that swing voters tend to ‘check’ the power of incumbent presidents by voting for the other party, depending on how well they believe the president – and the country – is performing. Hence, as coronavirus looms large, inflation tightens its grip on the U.S. economy and his legislative agenda remains in tatters, Biden faces an uphill struggle to become another exception to the ironclad rule of midterm elections.
After defeating an emboldened and enabled narcissist in one of the most heavily scrutinised presidential elections in American history and prevailing over an armed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol which aimed to prevent the certification of electoral college votes, Biden’s inauguration quite literally brought American democracy back from the precipice of tyranny. But, a unified retreat from the edge is still yet to be seen. In his first year in office, Biden stabilised American politics – on the surface – as he was elected to do: not mentioning his predecessor by name or engaging in the ‘big lie’, focusing on tackling the coronavirus pandemic head-on with the roll-out of efficacious vaccines and passage of the American Rescue Plan as well as characteristically reaching across the aisle to pass the long-anticipated Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Simply ‘getting on’ with the job and purposefully projecting an image of a clean break from the circus of the previous four years was a smart strategy for Biden during those early days – but, perhaps not anymore.
Politics is often harsh and unrewarding as Biden knows well. Even with the momentous legislative win of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill acting as proof that Biden’s ‘old school’ bipartisanship modus operandi can still produce results in a divided Washington, it will take time for its various investments (including in roads and bridges, transit and rail and broadband) to permeate through the U.S. economy for Biden to fully realise its returns to his presidency. On the other hand, the American Rescue Plan – although initially well received –
has been overshadowed by the delta and omicron coronavirus variants, constraining its gains to his presidency to be diminishing over time. In fact, President Biden’s electoral fate is symbiotic to the state of the pandemic. Since a major part of his electoral appeal was derived from his offer to fill the vacuum of credible leadership with an experienced hand during the ongoing public health crisis, it is no wonder that ‘Biden stock’ is strongly correlated with ‘coronavirus stock’. And this is where the legacy of his predecessor’s recklessness haunts his presidency.
America’s recovery from the pandemic is hindered by the pandemic of the unvaccinated. So long as significant swathes of predominately Republican voters subscribe to baseless conspiracy theories permitted to gain credence by charlatan conservative figures, new variants will emerge and America’s health care system will continue to face the sustained threat of becoming overwhelmed. Not only do the unvaccinated suffer from their intransigence, their vaccinated counterparts also suffer from the re-introduction of restrictions on social life required to compensate for the irresponsibility of the unvaccinated. And who do voters blame for a pandemic still interfering with their lives? Incumbents. Look no further than the closely followed Virginia Gubernatorial election in November 2021 where the Republican Glenn Youngkin swept to victory in a widely believed to be democratic-leaning state. Despite Democrat McAuliffe’s attempts to associate his opponent with Biden’s disgraced predecessor, Youngkin cleverly capitalised on local issues, specifically education. With most of the child care and schooling burden falling on mothers, Youngkin tapped into the frustrations of working mothers – a key constituency of Biden’s 2020 election winning coalition – who are more likely to be forced out of the workforce in response to pandemic-induced school closures. The lesson for Democrats? In the words of Former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill: ‘all politics is local’.
Extrapolating this individual state race to the national level reveals some important lessons for Biden going into the 2022 Midterm elections. In a nutshell, the President has to achieve two mammoth missions: get one step ahead of the pandemic, not two steps behind whilst simultaneously legislating for the public policy issues exacerbated by the pandemic. For the first mission, Biden must find more ways to encourage the unvaccinated to take the safe and effective vaccine by tackling – rather than ignoring – the post-truth era ushered in by his predecessor. In practice, this means explicitly taking on the social media companies responsible for the disinformation spreading on their platforms. In addition, Biden must move beyond the change in strategy of crediting his predecessor for vaccine R&D to changing the incentives of the unvaccinated within the constraints of the constitution. To win over the vaccinated voters increasingly exasperated by prolonged covid-related disruption in their lives, the Biden-Harris White House desperately needs to shepherd America into the ‘living with the virus’ phase of the pandemic – backed by robust testing and quarantine arrangements – to keep kids in school and parents in work.
The second mission, however, is far more treacherous. Time is of the essence for Senate Democrats to pass the cornerstone of President Biden’s legislative agenda: the Build Back Better (BBB) Bill. If passed, BBB would transform the nation’s social safety net through its vast investments in ‘human infrastructure’ from Universal Pre-K and limits to child care costs to an enhanced Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit to climate related tax credits. These policies would drastically rebuild America’s middle class – just think of the improvements to productivity when the encumbrance of childcare is removed from the shoulders of working families! If only such legislative reform were that easy. Even with their trifecta of power, Democrats have a major obstacle on their progressive pathway: Joe Manchin. With the narrowest Senate majority possible, Democrats simply cannot advance their agenda without the vote of the canny moderate from ‘reddest of the red’ West Virginia. A self-proclaimed pragmatist, Manchin knows full well that he benefits electorally from his obstinacy exemplified by his December surprise to proclaim on Fox News that he was a ‘no’ on the president’s signature spending plan. So, the seemingly intractable challenge for Democrats in 2022 is to turn his stubborn ‘no’ to at least a reluctant ‘yes’.
One should not lose sight of the stakes of Manchin’s unyieldingness. McAuliffe’s shellacking in the Virginia gubernatorial race acts as a blatant warning to democrats: sleepwalking into an election empty-handed is political suicide. Legislative inaction is the norm in Washington but for Democrats to stand a chance in November, their trifecta must be utilised. With the dark-money corrupted Republicans fanning the flames of ‘culture wars’ to then simply turn around and pass tax cuts for the super-wealthy when elected, Democrats can only win over the voters engulfed in the Republican’s fantasies by legislating to improve their lives in real, tangible ways. If they fail to pass comprehensive reforms, Democrats will almost certainly lose control of the Senate to the ‘grim reaper’, Mitch McConnell, who will revert the upper chamber back to a legislative limbo, limiting the Biden agenda to mere executive orders. Yet, Biden the ‘dealmaker’ is perhaps best placed to wade through the quagmire of negotiation to reach a compromise both Manchin and progressives can sign on to. Whether it be by scaling back the BBB bill to a conservative version of the framework Manchin agreed to before Biden departed for COP26 or by piecemeal legislating alongside executive orders to cover the policies excluded from the final bill (from cancelling crippling student loan debt to lowering health care costs at the strike of the President’s swanky signed pen), Biden must unite his party and govern or risk being governed by the alternative.
However, Democratic infighting is not the only roadblock to Biden’s agenda: enter inflation. For months, central bank boffins have insisted that rising inflation is ‘transitory’ and would subside once the American economy stabilises from the shocks of the pandemic. Nevertheless, inflation appears to be far more entrenched than originally thought, with legitimate fears that this ‘political poison’ could become self-sustaining. While there were plenty of signs of an overheated American economy at the end of 2021, it is likely that the strain of inflation on the U.S. economy will lessen in late 2022 as result of easing supply chain pressure, intervention by federal antitrust authorities in uncompetitive markets and anticipated contractionary monetary policy by the Federal Reserve. Indeed, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman argues that ‘history tells us not to panic’ – that is, the current inflationary environment is much closer to the aftermath of WWI and the Korean War than the stagflation of the 1970s. ‘Transitory’ or not, inflation is a multi-faceted dilemma for Biden in 2022. Not only are incumbents – rather than the Fed – blamed when voters observe their purchasing power erode away, inflation presents a colossal barrier to the passage of BBB. Even if progressives argue that BBB spending is spread over a number of years and directly brings down the costs of prescription drugs and childcare, persuading Manchin that there would be no ‘modest’ increase in inflation in the short-run is a hard sell to say the least. So, Democrats need to focus on sequencing: put BBB on the back burner whilst inflation unfolds and focus on the most consequential legislative issue of our time.
January 6th is not over: the existential threat to American democracy posed by those who seek to undermine the republic has not subsided during Biden’s first year in office. GOP legislators in Georgia, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina have mounted a concerted assault on voting rights as part of a legislative continuation of the January 6th insurrection, predicated by the ‘Big Lie’ that Biden is an illegitimate president. Not only are Republican state legislators restricting the fundamental right to vote but are ruthlessly replacing independent election administrators with state legislatures and partisan officials to subvert the will of the people with ‘election nullification’. Hence, there is an unrelenting moral imperative for the Biden administration to act to protect and defend the foundation of American democracy from voter suppression and election subversion. There is also a political imperative to act. It is all too easy to forget the pivotal role Democratic House Whip Jim Clyburn played in turning out black voters for Joe Biden in South Carolina, propelling him to the party’s nomination. Just as spectacularly, the President’s support among these voters will rapidly erode away in the midterms if Biden fails to have their back like they had his.
Failure is not an option. Biden must start using the bully pulpit and the full weight of the White House to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act & Freedom to Vote Act. Of course, there is not one but two elephants in the room: Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Since Senate Republicans remain unwaveringly loyal to the ‘inciter-in-chief’, the only way for Senate Democrats to pass voting rights legislation is to overcome the so-called ‘legislative filibuster’. Left over from the slave-era, the undemocratic filibuster acts as a blockade against the majority by imposing a 60-vote threshold to end debate before a simple majority vote on the bills can even take place. Although Senate Majority Leader Schumer and President Biden have indicated a willingness to fundamentally change Senate rules to do ‘whatever it takes’ to avoid the 60-vote threshold, Manchin and Sinema remain supportive of the filibuster even though they are co-sponsors of the bills! Hence, it is not hyperbole to assert that Biden’s presidency hinges on the Democratic leadership’s ability to persuade Manchin and Sinema that when circumstances change, rules have to change too. With many possible ways to avoid the obstructive legislative filibuster, Democrats shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. No matter what, Democrats must fight and win – just like they did for the debt ceiling!
So, can Biden avoid a repeat of the midterm ‘shellacking’ of his predecessors? The answer is no clearer than it is straightforward. Politics is the art of making the seemingly impossible, possible. With decades of legislative experience, Biden is undoubtably the right President at the right time to overcome the infighting and unite his party to deliver for the American people. Should he succeed in passing at least voting rights legislation and bringing not only the pandemic but inflation under control, then Democrats stand a chance in November. This is, of course, not to mention other potentially determinative issues on the resolute desk from immigration reform to Russia’s attempts to re-draw the borders of Eastern Europe. Should he fail, then any hopes of being remembered in history as a ‘transformational’ president will be dashed. In any case, Biden has ‘got to get caught trying’. With the odds currently stacked against the President, the challenge for Biden in 2022 is to flip the seemingly unsurmountable odds in his favour. All eyes are on the White House.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.