Where Biden Goes From Here

The Democratic establishment is feeling the heat more than ever.

President Biden is struggling to pass his agenda.
Matteo Minnella / A3 / Contrasto / Redux

As Air Force One flew home over the Atlantic on Election Night, the televisions scattered throughout the plane were showing a miserable scenario for Joe Biden’s party. No White House staffers ventured back to the press cabin, a fairly routine practice on long flights. The president’s aides appeared grim. A weary Biden returned to the White House close to 2 a.m. and ignored shouted questions from reporters about the early results. The next day, after addressing the nation about children’s eligibility for COVID-19 shots, the president was asked about former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia. Biden nodded to congressional inaction and the 2022 midterm elections. “People want us to get things done,” he said.

The president grasps the moment’s peril. For months, Biden has sunk his time into negotiations over his massive infrastructure and social-spending package. He let a voting-rights bill languish to preserve a Senate filibuster rule that has become a Republican tool for thwarting his agenda. As Democrats continue to bicker among themselves, Biden’s job-approval rating has dipped into the low 40s. Last week, Republicans showed unexpected strength in two states that Biden won easily in 2020. Frustration inside the Democratic Party is peaking. If the bills had passed before the election, McAuliffe might have prevailed, his close allies told me. Catastrophe has a way of clarifying things, and now Biden seems on the verge of a reset. An immediate course correction may be his last, best shot at salvaging both his presidency and his party’s prospects next year.

“The results send a message that voters want to see action in Congress,” Kate Bedingfield, the White House’s communications director, told me. “They’re tired of the lengthy process. They want to see their government deliver for them, and that was a very clear message sent” in the election. Biden, she added, believes that “the time for negotiating is over and we need to get this done.”

A partial breakthrough came Friday night. House Democrats set aside an exhausting intramural quarrel and finally passed Biden’s $1 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s aging network of ports, roads, and public-transit systems. The more ambitious piece of his agenda, however, remains undone: a bill that would spend nearly twice as much to expand the social safety net and combat climate change. Biden believes that measure will also become law, he said at a news conference yesterday morning. What gives you that confidence? a reporter asked. “Me,” the president said.

Tuesday’s result still stings, though, and some close to the president have been dispensing blame, not accepting it. In the hours after McAuliffe’s defeat, Team Biden put out a message that the fault lies with anyone but the president. A Biden fundraiser told me that McAuliffe irretrievably damaged himself when he said during a debate that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach. The White House’s attitude is, “Terry stepped in it, and he shouldn’t have,” said this person, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about discussions with the White House. Winning candidates such as Eric Adams, New York City’s mayor-elect, ran on a Biden-esque message that emphasized helping middle-class families meet expenses, one Biden adviser told me. Implicit in the argument is that losing candidates (McAuliffe) pursued a flawed strategy that put collateral issues front and center. In any case, a few isolated races in 2021 aren’t necessarily predictive of the national outcome in 2022, some Democrats argue hopefully.

Whoever is to blame, the problem is largely Biden’s to solve. Panic is spreading throughout the party. Donors, strategists, and lawmakers want Congress to pass the nearly $2 trillion social-spending package that Biden promised now. When congressional Democrats campaign for reelection, they need to talk about what matters most to people: lower prescription-drug costs, or the paid-family-leave initiative that will bring the United States more in line with the rest of the developed world. But first Congress needs to pass the legislation.

After returning from Europe early Wednesday morning, Biden plunged into resurrecting his economic program. He called Democratic lawmakers repeatedly. At one point on Friday, he addressed the House Progressive Caucus on speakerphone, beseeching them to vote for the package.

Rifts remain. Moderate Democrats worry that the price tag for the safety-net bill is too high; progressives, too low. The two camps have been slow to coalesce, but Biden associates hope their collective fear of a drubbing next year might just force a détente. “I can’t tell you the number of emails and text messages I’ve gotten from Democrats who are totally frustrated,” Alan Kessler, a longtime party fundraiser and a McAuliffe supporter, told me. “If this isn’t a wake-up call, I’m not sure what it takes to get hit over the head.”

The GOP’s widespread voter-suppression campaign poses a mortal threat to Democrats’ chances in both the midterms and the 2024 presidential race. Loyal Democratic constituencies are demanding new voting protections that would make it harder for Republican-controlled legislatures to lock in majorities through gerrymandered districts. “Black voters have gone out and stood in line and done everything we’ve asked them to do, and now we have to stand up and protect their rights,” Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, told me. The Freedom to Vote Act would prohibit partisan mapmaking. But nothing will pass unless Senate Democrats first roll back the filibuster rule, which requires a 60-vote supermajority.

Coming off the election defeat, Democrats are more likely to return to the bill once the fate of the larger spending package is decided. Moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have thus far refused to support the idea of abolishing the filibuster. And until recently, Biden, an institutionalist who spent 36 years in the Senate, has hedged on whether he wants it gone. The senators could agree to keep the filibuster intact while carving out an exception for a voting-rights bill that’s in the party’s self-interest and important to the republic’s survival, in that it would beat back the calculated Republican effort to make voting more difficult. All told, 19 states have enacted 33 laws this year that impose obstacles to voting.

At a CNN town hall last month, Biden signaled that he’s losing patience with the filibuster, saying he’s open to revising it. For people who have worked closely with him, that statement was a monumental and surprising shift in his position. “During the campaign, we wouldn’t touch [the filibuster issue] with a 10-foot pole,” the former Biden campaign aide told me. “That’s markedly different from where Biden is now.” When I asked Bedingfield if Biden is ready to retool or ditch the filibuster, she said that “he believes we have to look at a range of options. I don’t have a whole lot more that I can say beyond what the president himself has said on this, but it’s fair to say he views the [voting-rights] issue as existential.” That’s a careful formulation, but it sounds like Biden isn’t prepared to let the Freedom to Vote Act collapse.

Will any of these steps help the Democrats, or is it already too late? Dropping the filibuster now could turn out to be self-sabotage. The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections—more so when the president’s approval rating is underwater, as Biden’s is at the moment. Democrats can’t afford to lose any seats in the Senate next year. So the dilemma they face is that if they get rid of the filibuster now, they could find themselves in the minority without the protections the rule affords. Biden could veto legislation coming from a new Republican majority, but 2024 isn’t far off and Democrats could lose the White House.

It is far from certain that the infrastructure bill’s passage will make a difference in the midterms. Come fall 2022, voters aren’t likely to be drinking water from gleaming new pipes and gliding to work on newly widened roads. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, part of which was set aside for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. A year later, he would concede, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” Democrats lost a whopping 63 House seats in the 2010 midterms, smashing a 70-year-old record.

As my colleague Ronald Brownstein wrote last month, history shows that it is “extremely difficult for presidents to translate legislative success in their first year into political success” in their second. Early legislative victories can help a president’s reelection bid but won’t necessarily forestall midterm-election losses. All of which suggests a Democratic midterm wipeout is almost unavoidable. (Bedingfield is more optimistic: “There’s plenty of time to talk to the American people about what we will have been able to achieve with the ‘Build Back Better’ agenda.”)

Early Tuesday night, Biden-world knew that the Virginia race was turning ugly. Polls had narrowed to a point that even if McAuliffe had eked out a win, the result wouldn’t matter so much as the public perception that the contest should never have gotten so close, the Biden fundraiser told me. The night of the election, I went to the McAuliffe party in a hotel in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Big donors and party strategists mingled in a VIP room with an open bar and buffet table featuring little pork sandwiches. Party foot soldiers—the union members and activists who had knocked on doors and cold-called voters in Virginia—gathered in a main ballroom nearby. Guests seemed to know what was coming once all the votes had been tallied; they weren’t happy about it. “We control everything—the House, Senate, and White House,” a party strategist told me. “There are no excuses.

I spoke with Representative Don Beyer, a Democrat from the Northern Virginia suburbs, about what might happen next year. He spun a dream scenario: Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan passes soon and Democrats make it the centerpiece of their midterm campaign. “When we get all these things passed, we’ll have a very substantive record that changes people’s lives,” he said. As the night went on, the mood of the party continued to sour. Loud music was blaring through the speakers, and one song caught my attention: “Livin’ on a Prayer.”