No president in American history has had more personal experience with the importance of midterm elections than Joe Biden will, upon his inauguration today. And that familiarity may make the difference in his presidency. Biden knows that he is swimming against historical currents and that he has little room for error. Every president since Harry Truman (save one) has lost seats during his first midterm — some in seismic, generation-shaping waves.
Biden has been in office for all of the major midterm waves over the last 50 years: 1974, 1978, 1994, 2006, and 2010, and he campaigned from retirement for Democrats during the 2018 wave. There is no consensus as to why presidents tend to fare so poorly in their first midterms; every unhappy midterm is unhappy in its own way. But it’s safe to say that the results hinge on a combination of the strength of the economy, approval of the president’s performance, gerrymandering, and broader structural realignments expressing themselves through elections.
A president has significant sway over most of those key elements, and Biden has a few things working in his favor. First, there is broad consensus within the party on the need for significant economic stimulus, and the recognition that former President Barack Obama suffered by not going big enough fiscally at the outset and by pivoting harmfully to austerity.
Second, if Biden can successfully facilitate distribution of the vaccine and wipe out the coronavirus, the economy opening up and life returning to normal could produce enough good feeling by 2022 to overcome the standard backlash. Democrats have a rare opportunity to reshape the political playing field for a generation.
Early elections, for a politician, can be formative. Biden was first elected to office in 1970 as a councilor in New Castle County, Delaware, and his election coincided with the first midterm following Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. Nixon lost 12 seats in the House and nearly all of his Senate hopefuls fell short. Four years later, following Nixon’s resignation, the midterms reshaped Washington, D.C., for several generations, ushering in the so-called Watergate babies. By then, Biden was a senator, sworn in at age 30, in January 1973.
President Jimmy Carter fared no better in his first midterm, with the year 1978 bringing Newt Gingrich and the New Right to Congress and presaging the Reagan Revolution two years later. Democrats lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate, but Biden himself, by then a golden boy in Delaware, won reelection easily against an extraordinarily weak opponent.
Democrats have a rare opportunity to reshape the political playing field for a generation.
Winning a race was about more than a big margin on Election Day for Biden, however. Looming reelections consumed him, and he planned years in advance to be well-positioned. Well ahead of his 1978 run for his second term, he was riding the Amtrak to Washington with his aide Ted Kaufman, who remains a close adviser.
“We put together a strategy for a Republican nominee for my Senate seat. How would a challenger, we asked, take down Joe Biden? It wasn’t complicated. Point out Joe Biden’s strong commitment to civil rights and civil liberties. Point out his statements that he’d gotten into politics largely because of civil rights. Joe Biden’s a card-carrying liberal, a challenger could tell people, and his campaign to minimize court-ordered busing is just a Trojan horse. Once Joe Biden was safely elected for another six years, he’ll pull the rug out from under the antibusing lobby. By the time we got off the train, Ted and I had convinced ourselves I could be beaten,” Biden wrote in his memoir “Promises to Keep.”
Biden saw his ultimately strong performance as a vindication of his antibusing stance, his turn toward deficit hawk, and his tough-on-crime posture. He leaned in. “Give me the crime issue,” he begged party leaders, “and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election.”
Ronald Reagan suffered the midterm curse too, getting swamped in the 1982 House and Senate elections amid a sagging economy that became known as “the Reagan Recession.” But as the economy turned around, Biden continued shifting right, moving closer to Reagan, voting for his tax cut, Reagan’s budget, and calling for an across-the-board spending freeze to include Social Security and Medicare.
He contemplated a presidential run in 1984 and even signed the papers for it, but changed his mind hours later before filing. Popular Republican Gov. Pete du Pont was pushed by GOP leaders to take on Biden for the Senate, but the governor had his eyes on the presidency and instead recruited a weak challenger out of retirement who later told Biden biographer Jules Witcover that he was a “sacrificial lamb.” Biden again easily won. Next up, in 1990, Biden watched as President George H. W. Bush lost a seat in the Senate and seven in the House. Biden, still popular in Delaware after his 1988 presidential flameout, again won handily.
Biden again faced reelection in 1996, alongside Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. It was an ominous year for Democrats, as the first midterm of Clinton’s presidency had been a disaster for him. Despite the hope that Biden’s 1994 crime bill would stave off a red wave, the assault weapon ban that was included in it was significantly blamed for the eventual losses. The New Right that Biden had watched sweep in now surged to full control of Congress, electing Gingrich as House speaker. It was in many ways the culmination of the realignment that Biden had been watching unfold since the late 1960s, and he had long shaped his politics to accommodate it.
Biden went into triangulation overdrive, reminding everybody in 1995 that he had been way ahead on deficit hysteria. “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” he told the Senate in 1995. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”
"When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well; I meant Medicare and Medicaid; I meant veterans' benefits; I meant every single, solitary thing in the government." — Joe Biden defending the proposed balanced budget amendment, January 1995 pic.twitter.com/5WQ1imljgg— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) May 3, 2019
Again drawing a weak opponent — a reflection both of his strength and of the so-called Delaware Way, in which partisan combat is discouraged — Biden cruised to reelection against a little-known small businessman.
The only midterm in 70 years to break the pattern of running against a new president came in 2002, when George W. Bush benefited from strong approval in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Biden faced the same small businessman as an opponent and in the summer of his campaign year, 2002, held high-profile hearings making the case for war in Iraq. He again won comfortably. Four years later, the first stirrings of a national, multiracial governing coalition emerged, as Democrats swept back into power in the 2006 midterms.
In 2008, Biden was Obama’s running mate but still ran for reelection in Delaware, this time against Christine O’Donnell, who would become famous two years later for her promise that she was not a witch. He beat her by 30 points and then resigned to become vice president.
He again watched a midterm wave coming. Ahead of his inauguration, Obama and Biden gathered with their economic officials, who warned them that the gaping hole in the economy needed to be filled with government spending or else a full recovery wouldn’t be possible. It was a scene that Obama recalled in his recent memoir. “Mr. President-elect,” Christina Romer said, “this is your holy-shit moment.”
Larry Summers added that without a sufficient response, there was a 1 in 3 chance of a second Great Depression.
“Jesus,” Biden said.
Romer suggested a stimulus in the trillion-dollar range, Obama wrote, “causing Rahm to sputter like a cartoon character spitting out a bad meal.”
“There’s no fucking way,” Rahm Emanuel said.
“What can we get passed?” Obama says he asked.
“Seven, maybe eight hundred billion tops,” Emanuel said. “And that’s a stretch.”
It was a politically idiotic suggestion on a number of levels. By picking a number that started with seven, the administration assured that the public would confuse it with the $700 billion bank bailout, as ultimately happened, relieving the Bush administration of the blame. (“According to Axe” — adviser David Axelrod — “voters in focus groups couldn’t distinguish between TARP, which I’d inherited, and the stimulus; they just knew that the well-connected were getting theirs while they were getting screwed,” Obama writes later in the book.)
Shorting the stimulus was also unnecessary: Obama had 58 votes in the Senate at that point, and only needed 50 to move a package through the process known as budget reconciliation. Instead, he chose to move through regular order, subject to the filibuster, in the hope that he’d get 80 senators to support it. Instead, he got just three Republicans: Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter, who soon switched to become a Democrat.
Political parties in America, since the advent of the two-party system, have never been firmly moored to any particular policy, principle, or drive to improve the lives of the public. The public, meanwhile, has generally only found itself able to benefit from the agenda of a party when the party’s interests happen to line up with the public interest. That’s the situation we’re in now, and Biden will have to keep his promises if the public is going to keep Democrats in power in 2022.
The loudest campaign promise Democrats made in Georgia was the pledge to pass $2,000 stimulus checks if voters elected Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and flipped control of the Senate to Democrats.
Biden left no room for interpretation, either on the specifics of the promise or the timing of its implementation. “By electing Jon and the reverend you can make an immediate difference in your own lives, and the lives of the people all across this country, because their election will put an end to the block in Washington on that $2,000 stimulus check, that money that will go out the door immediately.” Biden said at a rally in Atlanta just ahead of the election. “If you send Sen. Perdue and Loeffler back to Washington, those checks will never get there. It’s just that simple. The power is literally in your hands.”
He was equally clear about the stakes. “The debate over $2,000 isn’t some abstract debate in Washington. It’s about real lives. Your lives. The lives of good, hardworking Americans, and if you’re like millions of Americans all across this country, you need the money, you need the help, and you need it now. Look, Georgia: There’s no one in America with more power to make that happen than you, the citizens of Atlanta, the citizens of Georgia,” Biden said.
The legislation that became the centerpiece of the Georgia races has already passed the House of Representatives, where 44 Republicans joined with Democrats to make it happen in the wake of Donald Trump’s demand that the direct aid in the $900 billion relief package — set at $600 — was insufficient and should be upped to $2,000.
The question, then, is how does this promise become law? The legislation the House passed, adding $1,400 to the total, would be subject to a Senate filibuster, meaning it would need 60 votes to end debate and move to a final vote. Now-incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said publicly that at least 10 Republicans were supportive of the $2,000 checks, but that was before Georgia — a different political world.
Obama knew in real time the decision he was making would prove politically catastrophic for the party.
Biden has said that he first hopes to push his stimulus through by working with Republicans, but if and when that fails, the option of budget reconciliation is waiting. Budget reconciliation is a Senate process that cannot be filibustered. Without getting too far into the weeds, the Senate can pass limited types of legislation under the auspices of “reconciling” the budget. To do so, they must first pass reconciliation instructions, which set the terms of what the reconciliation bill can do. The second piece of legislation fulfills those terms.
Using reconciliation for major pieces of legislation is not unusual. Reagan used it for a massive slashing of spending in his first year; the GOP Congress used it in 1996 to do welfare reform, which was signed into law by Clinton; Bush passed his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which included direct checks, using reconciliation; Obama used it to pass elements of the Affordable Care Act after losing his supermajority in the Senate; Sen. Mitch McConnell deployed reconciliation to push through Trump’s tax cuts.
Reconciliation, in other words, opens the door for Congress to not only pass the checks, but also to do something very, very big.
Most painfully, Obama knew in real time the decision he was making would prove politically catastrophic for the party. “When things are bad, no one cares that ‘things could have been worse,’” Axelrod told him as they left the meeting, according to Obama’s book.
“You’re right,” Obama told him.
“It’s going to be one hell of a midterm,” Axe replied, shaking his head “dolefully.”
Obama adds: “This time I said nothing, admiring his occasional, almost endearing ability to state the obvious.”
It may have been an obviously bad idea to politically self-immolate by allowing the recession to drag out longer than it otherwise would, but the one upside is that Biden was there to witness it, as was the rest of the Democratic leadership in place now. Biden knows the price of going too small.
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