Can Democrats Avoid a Wipeout in 2022?

A GIF shows an image of Joe Biden superimposed on a map of the United States. A wave of red sweeps over the map.
Jim Watson / Getty / The Atlantic

Updated on April 29, 2021 at 11:13 a.m. ET

The good news for Democrats who watched Joe Biden unveil a historically ambitious agenda last night is that newly elected presidents have almost always passed some version of their core economic plan—particularly when their party controls both congressional chambers, as Biden’s does now.

The bad news: Voters have almost always punished the president’s party in the next midterm election anyway. The last two times Democrats had unified control—with Bill Clinton in 1993–94 and Barack Obama in 2009–10—they endured especially resounding repudiations in the midterms, which cost Clinton his majority in both chambers and Obama the loss of the House.

The scale of the agenda Biden laid out last night underscores Democrats’ conviction that their best chance to avoid that fate again in 2022 is to go big with their proposals. Counting the coronavirus stimulus plan approved earlier this year, Biden has now proposed more than $5 trillion in new spending initiatives over the next decade—far more than Clinton or Obama ever offered—to be partially paid for by tax increases on corporations and affluent families. On cultural and social issues, Democrats are likewise pursuing a much more ambitious lineup than Clinton or Obama did; Biden is endorsing measures related to a panoramic array of liberal priorities, including election reform; police accountability; citizenship for young undocumented immigrants; statehood for Washington, D.C.; LGBTQ rights; and gun control.

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“There’s a very different strategy this time,” David Price, a Democratic representative from North Carolina and a former political scientist, told me. “There’s an openness now to the sense that a bolder plan, ironically, might have greater appeal for independents and others we need to attract than trying to trim and split the difference” with Republicans.

That “bolder plan” from Biden and congressional Democrats is so all-encompassing that historians are legitimately comparing it to the two titanic 20th-century programs that  transformed government’s role in American society: the New Deal under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and the Great Society under Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. “This is definitely FDR and Johnson territory, especially in the current age of polarization, where so little gets done,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian, told me.

What makes Biden’s approach especially striking is that he’s pursuing these goals with a tiny House majority and a Senate split exactly 50–50 between the parties. (By comparison, Democratic senators had a 23-seat advantage during Roosevelt’s presidency and a 36-seat advantage during Johnson’s.) Biden’s job-approval rating stands only slightly above 50 percent; most surveys suggest that his base of support hasn’t changed much since the November election, despite a recovering economy and his success at accelerating the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Republicans believe the magnitude of Biden’s plans will inspire significant backlash from GOP voters in 2022. “Democrats get in trouble when they overreach on spending, taxes, regulating guns, and when the border is a mess,” Bill McInturff, a longtime Republican pollster, told me. “You can see the possibility already [that] all of this could come together in 2022 and create a difficult cycle for President Biden and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.” Democrats, for their part, are hoping that they “will be rewarded for solving big problems and … Republicans will be punished for sitting on the sidelines and just driving political rhetoric,” John Anzalone, one of Biden’s lead pollsters during the election, told me.

Yet Democrats’ fear of failure may be fueling the ambitions on vivid display last night just as much as their hope of success is. While most Democrats believe that going big offers them their best chance of maintaining at least one of their majorities next year, many quietly acknowledge that, no matter what they achieve, they face long odds of holding the House in the first midterm election after the decennial redistricting process spurred by the census. And given the difficulty of reaching consensus with Republicans, many Democrats think that their window for significant legislative accomplishments will slam shut if the GOP wins either chamber in 2022.

“There is this recognition of this moment and how fleeting it is, and an evaluation that, absent the trifecta of control, it is very hard to move big policy,” said a senior official at one of the party’s leading outside advocacy groups, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategizing. “So you have to take your shot. I think that’s part of what undergirds ‘Go big.’”

In one sense, past presidents’ first two years in office offer Biden and congressional Democrats reason to be optimistic about executing their plans. Looked at another way, though, that history is discouraging, dauntingly so.

What’s encouraging is how past presidents have managed to push through important parts of their agenda. Presidents don’t get everything they want during that initial two-year period. Clinton, for instance, failed to pass comprehensive health-care reform, and Donald Trump failed to repeal the comprehensive reform that Obama did pass—the Affordable Care Act. But presidents whose party controls Congress typically do pass some version of their core economic proposals during their first two years, even if it usually happens after some significant remodeling.

Trump and George W. Bush each pushed massive tax cuts through a Republican-controlled Congress during their first year in office. In his first months, Ronald Reagan muscled through a landmark tax reduction, despite a Congress divided between a Republican Senate and a Democratic House. With the support of a Democratic-controlled Congress, Obama signed both a large economic-stimulus package and the ACA, and Clinton, by the narrowest possible margins, likewise enacted his deficit-reduction and public-investment plans.

In each of these cases, the president was compelled to abandon or trim key elements of his blueprint. Congress forced Clinton to jettison his BTU tax (an early attempt to tax energy consumption) and accept the creation of a commission to study entitlement cuts. Dissent from two moderate Republican senators forced Bush to slash his tax cut by nearly one-fourth. Obama was compelled to reduce his stimulus spending to win over Senate Republican votes, and to drop the ACA’s public option to obtain the last Democratic votes he needed. Even Reagan’s watershed reductions in personal-income-tax rates were scaled back. Yet while these concessions were seen at the time as major setbacks, they are now remembered, if at all, as merely smudges on legislative achievements that rank among each of these presidents’ most consequential.

This history augurs well for Congress eventually approving some version of the infrastructure and human-capital plans Biden touted last night, even if the plans are adjusted to win approval from the Democratic Party’s most conservative senators, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. (Democrats can pass most of Biden’s economic agenda through the reconciliation process, which requires only a simple-majority vote in the Senate. His noneconomic priorities face much dimmer prospects of passing in the upper chamber, unless Senate Democrats agree to curtail the filibuster.) Democrats often blame the devastating losses Obama suffered in 2010—he lost more House seats than any president in a midterm since 1938—on his administration’s overly cautious approach, and they don’t want to repeat that mistake. “Trying to placate the Republicans with a bunch of tax cuts and going for a more modest package, thinking that would gain support, turned out to be dead wrong,” Price told me. “You got a weaker bill and no bipartisan support: the worst of both worlds. We are trying to get a stronger bill and assuming the net effect will be to increase pressure on Republicans” who are opposing it.

Price, Anzalone, and other Democrats cited several reasons to feel confident that the party can pass a sweeping agenda and avoid the big losses that Obama and Clinton suffered early on. For starters, compared with 1994 and 2010, the party isn’t defending as many conservative-leaning House or Senate seats: In 2022, the party will not be defending a single Senate seat in a state that backed Trump, and will have to protect only seven Democratic lawmakers in House districts that he won. Another key difference: For all of his other ambitions, Biden isn’t trying to remake the health-care system, as both Clinton and Obama were in their first two years. Nothing in Biden’s agenda “so touches the intimate lives of the American public” as health care or provokes as impassioned a reaction, Sean McElwee, a pollster for progressive Democratic candidates and organizations, told me.

Without health care on the table, Republicans haven’t been able to mobilize the kind of uprising from powerful business interests and grassroots conservatives that coalesced against both Clinton and Obama. (The Tea Party emerged during Obama’s first two years.) The absence of such sustained opposition—key business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have in fact praised many of Biden’s proposals—may help explain why public polls have been in Biden’s favor: They’ve consistently found a substantial majority of Americans supporting Biden’s stimulus plan, and a narrower but still consistent majority backing his infrastructure proposal. “That’s in large part because there has not been a coherent message against Biden’s plan or a large mobilization against his agenda,” McElwee said.

Most of the key elements of the American Families Plan that Biden laid out last night—such as the expanded tax credit for children, universal pre-K, and paid family leave—poll well too, as does raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to pay for them. The Republicans’ “problem is they can’t scare Americans anymore on this,” Anzalone said. “These are things Americans want at the 60 and 65 percent level, so scare away and see if that works.” Voters, Anzalone insisted, are “going to reward action and solving the problems America faces.”

Yet even with all these potential differences, electoral history still looms heavily over Democrats. Midterms don’t typically produce significant losses for the president’s party in Senate elections, but they are very much the rule in the House. Assuming there are no surprises in any of the pending special House elections, Republicans can win back the lower chamber if they gain five seats next year. In a recent analysis circulated among Democratic activists, Michael Podhorzer, a senior official at the AFL-CIO, calculated that in the 41 midterm elections held since 1870, the president’s party has kept its House losses to fewer than five seats only five times. Even most presidents with approval ratings that exceeded 50 percent (as Biden’s average rating does now) lost more House seats than that, Podhorzer calculated. Further compounding the risk: 2022 will be the first election after a redistricting process in which Republicans will control the drafting of many more districts than Democrats will, because of the GOP’s dominance in state legislatures and governor’s mansions. That alone could cost Democrats several House seats.

Republicans see a conventional midterm dynamic developing. “I can already tell you GOP intensity and turnout will be through the roof in 2022,” McInturff, the veteran GOP pollster, tweeted this week. In the latest national NBC News poll, which McInturff’s firm conducts with a Democratic partner, the share of Republicans who strongly disapprove of Biden’s performance now roughly equals the share of Democrats who strongly disapproved of Trump in 2017, ahead of the 2018 Democratic wave (about three-fourths in each case).

The prospect that Democrats can gin up strong enthusiasm among their base is the party’s biggest source of optimism. The Democratic voter-targeting firm Catalist has calculated that some 92 million Americans voted Democratic in at least one of the past three elections; to hold one or both chambers, the party might need only a little more than 50 million of them to turn out next year.

Biden last night showed one approach to mobilizing those voters: underscoring what he will do for them in his first two years. But if Democrats are to avoid the midterm deluges that submerged each of their past two presidents, some in the party believe an even more urgent task may be one that Biden, with his emphasis on bipartisanship, hasn’t really begun: showing Democratic voters what Republicans will do to them if they regain power in Congress next year. In the meantime, Democrats are racing the clock to pass an agenda that rivals FDR’s and LBJ’s—in a country and a Congress divided far more closely between the parties than when those presidents made their indelible marks on history.