Biden's recent wins could give Democrats a boost heading into the midterms
Updated August 12, 2022 at 5:50 PM ET
For the better part of a year, Democratic divisions have been a dominant storyline.
Moderates and progressives couldn't come up with a deal on President Joe Biden's legislative agenda, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was the poster child for progressive anger and Biden was struggling with the base and suffering politically because of it.
But that picture has started to change. The House passed a significant piece of legislation Friday and sent it to Biden to sign into law. The Senate, with the help of Manchin, passed it over the weekend. It marks a few weeks of legislative successes for Democrats, as the primary season starts to turn to general elections for these midterms.
What does this latest bill do?
The legislation, while less than Biden originally proposed or progressives wanted, is a big win for the White House and the party.
"Teddy Roosevelt got his Square Deal, FDR got his New Deal, Truman got the Fair Deal. I'd call this Biden's good deal," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and former leadership aide to the late Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid. "This is a good deal for President Biden and for Democrats. And it's something that they can talk about over the next few weeks."
The bill is 'something to run on'
One piece of legislation won't solve all of Democrats' (or Biden's) problems. They still face the headwinds of a president's first midterm, Biden's unpopularity, inflation that's at a four-decade high and gas prices, though they have come down of late, are still higher than most struggling to pay bills would like.
The bill is even named the Inflation Reduction Act. Though the legislation's effect on inflation may be negligible, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it's a clear sign that Democrats see the threat of what Americans are saying is their top concern.
But Democratic strategists say it's a start.
"It gives you something to run on," said Jon Kott, a former senior adviser to Manchin.
He noted that Democrats' inability to pass legislation at the end of last year made it harder for the party to mount a strong message in the campaign for Virginia governor, for example.
"You want to run on your record when you're in office," Kott said, "and you want to go there and say, 'I did this. I helped you get this. I made your life better through this piece of legislation.' "
It also adds to the momentum Democrats have been building for the last few months, said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts polling for NPR.
"If you start connecting all the dots," he said, "everything is going the Democrats' way at this point, given that not too long ago, nothing was going their way."
In addition to passing the most recent legislation, Miringoff pointed to the Jan. 6 committee hearings that have dented former President Donald Trump with his base and that there's been a marked jump in Democratic enthusiasm after the Supreme Court's conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade.
The midterm landscape has changed
The intensity around the issue of abortion led to the major victory for abortion-rights supporters on a ballot measure in Kansas last week. It is raising eyebrows for Republicans and is giving Democrats hope that they can stem what could have been a red wave in the House – and potentially hold the Senate.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the group tasked with trying to help Democratic candidates win House seats, says its data show the Supreme Court's opinion overturning Roe and tying it to Republicans has proven to be the "top testing negative" attack in competitive districts.
The DCCC has also launched multimillion-dollar ad campaigns to try and mobilize voters around the issue.
Strategists still expect Republicans to win control of the House, given gerrymandering, historic precedent and the narrow five-seat majority Democrats are clinging to. But keeping the margins down is hugely important for any party to live to fight another cycle.
What's more, Democratic candidates are outpacing Biden's approval rating in the generic congressional ballot test, a question that asks if voters could cast a ballot today, would they vote for a generic Republican or Democrat.
The more favorable landscape to Democrats – and some hard-right Republicans running in a handful of key states – may wind up having the most notable effect in Senate races. Democratic candidates are holding up well in states that are expected to be close, according to public and private surveys, as well as reporting with campaigns.
"Democrats seem to be in far better shape than they ever could have imagined possible," Miringoff said. "It doesn't mean they're going to rack up big victories, but if they hold where they are right now and win a seat or two in the Senate, they would have easily bargained for that six months ago."
To get over the finish line, Democrats need their base to be fully on board
But to get over the finish line, Democrats need their base to be fully on board. Many progressives had been deeply disappointed with Biden for not fighting more boldly and not delivering on campaign promises, like major climate initiatives and student loans.
Whether the left interprets this latest piece of legislation as a major victory and goes to the polls could be the difference between Democrats mitigating damage in the House and holding the Senate – or not.
"You have to take yes for an answer sometimes," Kott said. "And I don't think either side gets everything they want. But I think if you get 70% of what you want, that's pretty good. And you should be happy with that."
This summer has found Biden handed a string of bipartisan legislative victories, from addressing gun violence, billions for incentivizing the semiconductor production in the U.S. and, now, this current legislation.
Each of those victories came, ironically, with Biden, the former longtime senator, being what Payne called a "bystander president."
"The reason why the bystander approach worked in these last few weeks is because the other players stepped up," Payne said.
When a president isn't involved and things don't get done, though, he said, it can be "very frustrating to parts of your coalition." That's why it's critical, Payne said, to "get the politics of it right." And that means a president and White House doing a good job telling the story of what it has accomplished.
"I think that's something that maybe the president and his team and his allies have struggled with," Payne said. "And I think what you're hoping now is that there's a more complete story to tell, that that is now something that can land better with members of his coalition."
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