Democrats Face Multiple Challenges Heading into Midterm Elections

By Randy Myers

The party of the sitting president almost always performs poorly in midterm elections. This year doesn’t appear to be setting up any differently for President Joe Biden’s Democrats, says Tamara Keith, White House correspondent for National Public Radio and cohost of the NPR Politics Podcast.

Speaking at the 2022 SVIA Spring Seminar on April 26th, Keith cited a litany of challenges facing Biden and the Democrats, including rising inflation, Republican anger over progressive agenda items like student loan debt forgiveness, and, ironically, disappointment among progressive Democrats over the Biden administration’s failure to get some of its most aggressive policy proposals through Congress, such as its Build Back Better legislation. Reflecting all these issues and more—including partisan disagreements around immigration reform—Biden is struggling with low approval ratings.

“Conventional wisdom right now is that there is no way Democrats hang onto the House, and, if they are lucky, they could maybe hang on to the Senate,” Keith said. “But it is still early in the year … and a lot can change between now and November.”

Issues that could shift voter sentiment, Keith said, could include an interim report from Congress’ Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capital, expected in June, and developments in the Russian war on Ukraine. The war could be especially impactful if the U.S. were to increase its involvement or if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

“There’s also the question of what happens with COVID,” Keith said. “People feel pretty done, or a lot done (with the pandemic), but it’s not clear that it’s done with us.”

Among the lingering questions around COVID is whether there will be another summer wave of infections or one in the fall just before people are going to the polls.

In the meantime, the administration faces ongoing challenges in dealing with both the pandemic and Russia. While the U.S. and its allies have thus far been united in their response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, largely by imposing sanctions against Russia, they have “essentially run out of easy targets,” Keith said. As the war drags on, she predicted, “those alliances will be truly tested.”

At the same time, the Biden administration is warning that the U.S. will need to make more funding available to fight COVID, particularly to purchase variant-specific booster vaccines that could be needed this fall and second-generation anti-viral pills currently in the final stages of development. If federal contracts aren’t inked for those pills now, the administration is warning, healthcare providers and insurance companies in the U.S. could find themselves in line behind other countries when those pills become available. The White House is trying to decide whether to include COVID prevention and treatment funds in more politically popular legislation that would provide further support for Ukraine.

Other agenda items in Congress right now include the president’s Build Back Better legislation, which seems to have lost all momentum, and the SECURE Act 2.0. The latter legislation, which includes a raft of measures to expand and encourage retirement saving, has been approved in the House but needs to pass in the Senate before it could be signed into law by the president.

Although much of the political attention in Washington is focused on the midterm elections, Keith noted that the 2024 presidential campaign has in some ways already begun. Former President Donald Trump is attending rallies for Congressional candidates that, Keith suggested, effectively double as campaign rallies for himself. And a number of other potential Republican candidates are doing things that make it look very much like they’re testing the waters, from giving speeches in early-primary states Iowa and New Hampshire to going on crash diets and raising money for political action committees.

Keith described Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the only Republican candidate other than Trump “with a real pulse in the polls.” She said Trump, by dangling the possibility he may run again in 2024, is effectively freezing the rest of the GOP field.

The Democratic field also is unsettled. Keith noted that in a recent poll of Democrats and left-leaning independents only 21% indicated they want Biden to be their party’s nominee in 2024, which she characterized as “not normal” at this stage of a first-term presidency. Behind some of that thinking, she said, may be that Biden is already 79, and at least implicitly pitched himself in the last election as a the bridge to a new generation of Democratic leaders.

Still, Keith said, Biden is effectively freezing the field of potential Democratic presidential candidates, too, by indicating now that he plans to run for reelection again in 2024. Whether he truly plans to run or not, Keith noted, it would be almost impossible to say otherwise.

“If he were to say tomorrow that he’s decided he’s not running for president in 2024, it would immediately make him a lame duck, and you can’t be a lame duck a year and half into your presidency,” she explained. “And if he were to say he wasn’t running, the race to replace him would immediately become all-consuming.”

In response to audience questions, Keith linked the strident partisanship in America to the absence of a shared set of facts at a time when people can live in their own self-chosen news bubbles or echo chambers. She urged Americans to pay less attention to Washington and engage more in their local communities, where it is easier to make a difference in people’s lives and see other people as human beings rather than bots yelling at each other on the internet. She also encouraged the education of younger Americans on “news literacy” at a time when many people and organizations are putting out information designed in large part to drive internet traffic.