Analysis: Do US election setbacks mean big problems for Biden?
By Peter Marsh
President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party’s governing majority in Congress, which has struggled to advance his political agenda, got an ominous warning sign from discontented voters in United States local elections on November 2.
In the state of Virginia, a Republican candidate for governor allied with former President Donald Trump, soundly defeated a well-known Democrat, backed by the president, who, given that Biden carried the state by 10 points last year, should have won.
In New Jersey, the incumbent Democratic governor barely avoided defeat by a surging Republican challenger lifted by a backlash against Biden and national Democrats.
The election outcomes sent a disconcerting omen to Democrats and gave Republicans a charge of enthusiasm heading into 2022 nationwide elections that will be a contest for control of the House and Senate and thus, the future of Biden’s presidency.
In remarks to reporters at the White House, Biden acknowledged the defeat and argued it points to the imperative for Democrats in Congress to pass his proposed $1.75 trillion social spending and climate plan.
“People are at a point – and it’s understandable – where there’s a whole lot of confusion,” said Biden, who nevertheless projected a dismissive attitude toward the Republican showing.
“Everything from, ‘Are you going to ever get COVID under control?’, to ‘Are my kids going to be in school? Are they going to be able to stay in school?’, to ‘Whether or not I’m going to get a tax break that allows me to be able to pay for the needs of my kids and my family?’,” Biden said.
Political newcomer, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for governor of Virginia was driven by independent voters frustrated with Democrats in Congress and worried about the economy, according to exit poll surveys by NBC News and The Washington Post newspaper.
In New Jersey, where Democrats regained the governorship in 2018 after eight years of Republican rule, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy narrowly survived a strong challenge by Republican Jack Ciattarelli.
“The Democratic brand is suffering right now under the weight of Biden’s declining popularity,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Biden’s job approval ratings in public opinion polls began to drop precipitously in August during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and have continued to decline as the president has been unable – thus far – to enact his agenda in Congress.
A majority of 54 percent said they disapprove of the president’s job performance, while only 44 percent said they approve in a Rasmussen Reports tracking survey of 1,500 likely voters conducted November 1-3.
At this point, nine months into Biden’s presidency, Biden’s net disapproval rating is worse than every former president in modern US political history since 1945 – with the notable exception of Trump. But at the present rate of decline, Biden risks becoming just as unpopular as his predecessor.
The latest election setbacks sent shockwaves through rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives.
“What did you do when you had the power?” demanded Representative Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Philadelphia, in remarks to the House on Thursday.
“If you look at how hard it is today to achieve the American dream, we know based on statistics that working families and middle-class families are struggling out there,” Boyle said.
Resting on the improvement in the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes “is not enough”, Boyle said.
Indeed, Democrats need to move forward with Biden’s proposed “Build Back Better” plan to have a positive record to campaign on in 2022.
“There is no question the more results we can produce for the American people that makes a difference in their lives, the better it is,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she was “heartbroken” by McAuliffe’s defeat.
Democrats presently control the 435-member House by a 220 to 212 margin with three vacancies right now. The 100-seat Senate is evenly divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Democrats controlling the agenda because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s constitutional tie-breaker vote. But not all Senate Democrats are guaranteed to vote with the party.
House Democrats are still working through details of the “Build Back Budget” plan and changes to its draft – including four weeks of paid parental leave – that were presented behind closed doors to House Democratic leaders on Thursday.
House tax-writing committee chairman Richard Neal and White House economic adviser Brian Deese presented details of tax rises in the bill to the Democratic leaders on Wednesday, seeking to assure members the spending is paid for and would not add to the rising inflation outlook in the US.
The 1,600-page bill could be voted forward by the weekend, but its prospects in the Senate remain clouded.
Standing in the way is centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who represents the majority Republican state of West Virginia, who declared on November 1 as Biden was in Europe he was not ready to assent to the president’s programme.
“We are going to pass both bills, but in order to do so, we have to have the votes. And that’s where we are,” said Pelosi, who was non-committal on Thursday about the timing of an expected House vote.
Hanging in the balance is a $1 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure spending bill passed earlier this year by the Senate but held up by progressives in the House until a budget deal is reached.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Democrats to get something done this year.
Senate Democrat Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he expects the Senate to take up debate and vote on the Build Back Better plan during the week of November 15.