Joe Biden was billed as the steadying antidote to four turbulent years of Donald Trump. But after being buffeted this summer by one crisis after another — Covid, Afghanistan, wildfires in the West and Hurricane Ida in the East — his young presidency is confronting a make-or-break fall.
Democrats are well aware of what happened to the last two Democratic presidents after a choppy first two years. Halfway through Bill Clinton’s first term, in 1994, Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight in the Senate, ceding control of both houses of Congress to Republicans for the first time in 40 years. The carnage during Barack Obama’s first midterm was even uglier: Democrats lost 63 seats in the House.
If Biden doesn’t regain his footing within the next few months, many party veterans fear, his party’s chances of holding on to its narrow majorities in Congress are almost non-existent.
“There’s no good news here. This is all on his watch,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean. “You can argue what he’s doing or not doing, but it’s almost irrelevant. If things are chaotic and wrong, it ain’t going to help him.”
Democrats are already beginning to calculate the potential cost to the party in 2022. Over drinks on the sidelines of a recent meeting of the Democratic Governors Association in Aspen, Colo., party donors and operatives privately took stock of the damage that Afghanistan and the resurging coronavirus pandemic might hold for the party’s prospects in the midterm elections next year. The assessment was bleak.
“When Biden was elected, it was supposed to be, ‘Oh, the adults are back in the room to take charge,’” one strategist who was in Aspen said. “It turns out, we can’t do anything. Any Democratic strategist who thinks this is not going to impact the midterms or impact Biden being reelected, clearly they don’t know what the f— they’re talking about.”
Biden’s sagging approval rating is especially alarming to Democrats because a president’s approval rating is closely correlated with a party’s performance in the midterms.
Biden’s approval ratings, which have sunk to the mid-40s, stand about where Clinton’s did at this point in his presidency, and they are worse than Obama’s in 2009, before his self-described “shellacking” in the midterms the following year. Democrats today hold a slimmer majority in Congress than either of those presidents had, with less margin for error in the next midterm elections. And that was before a summer in which nothing seemed to go right.