The Democrats’ Midterm Identity Crisis

Biden’s agenda is stuck. His party hasn’t figured out how to replace it.

A shattered mirror showing a "D" for Democrats
Getty; The Atlantic

President Joe Biden arrived in office with a throwback theory of how to expand his party’s support. He sought to focus his presidency on delivering kitchen-table benefits to low- and middle-income families—for example, with stimulus checks and an expansive child tax credit—while downplaying his involvement in high-profile cultural disputes and emphasizing bipartisanship. Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey would have recognized this approach: It was an updated version of the economics-first political formula that allowed the New Deal–era Democrats of Biden’s youth to dominate blue-collar communities, like his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, from the Depression through the 1960s.

But nearly 16 months into his presidency, Biden’s plan has been battered on both ends. Republicans in Washington, D.C., have dashed his hopes of cooperation (apart from a deal on a bipartisan infrastructure package), and his desire to de-emphasize the culture wars has been undermined by a red-state blitzkrieg on social issues and the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade that exploded into public view last week. Simultaneously, opposition from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—combined with moments of intransigence from the party’s left—have blocked Biden from delivering the full suite of material benefits he hoped would move more working-class families, of all races, back toward the Democrats.

It’s not unusual for presidents and their political strategists to find that events confound their initial theory of how to expand and solidify their coalition. Bill Clinton wanted to win back working-class white people and independents with his “third way” centrism, but he ultimately revived his presidency by staring down the Newt Gingrich–era Republican Congress over the federal budget (before shifting course again to make some high-profile deals). George W. Bush initially hoped to woo moderate voters and Hispanics as a “compassionate conservative” before becoming a wartime leader focused on maximizing turnout among the Republican base. Barack Obama aspired to be a unifying figure of generational change and racial reconciliation, but he found himself struggling to lead the nation out of its worst economic downturn since the Depression, against fierce Republican resistance that culminated in the emergence of the racially resentful Tea Party.

Events forced each of these presidents to make significant course corrections that in turn helped each win a second term. The challenge for Biden is that he is still searching for the course correction that will enable him to recover—with six months to go until the midterm elections and at a time when his approval rating is stuck at about 40 percent.

The resulting vacuum has plunged Democrats into a cacophonous argument. Centrist party strategists are insisting, more loudly than at any point since Clinton’s presidency, that the president must explicitly renounce the Democrats’ liberal vanguard, especially on cultural flashpoints such as crime and immigration. Progressives, meanwhile, believe that Biden must do more to fulfill his 2020 campaign promises through unilateral executive action, such as canceling more student debt. They also want him to call out Republicans more forcefully, for their hard-right turn on social issues as well as their embrace of state-level voting restrictions and candidates backing former President Donald Trump’s discredited conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

Condemning Republicans might be one area of consensus for Democrats. In recent weeks, Biden has appeared more willing to describe the GOP—or at least its MAGA faction—as “the most extreme political organization that’s existed … in recent American history,” as he put it in a May 4 speech. Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum also believe that the threat to abortion rights from the GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority and state-level Republicans will help them energize their base voters in the midterms and narrow the enthusiasm advantage that polls have documented for the GOP.

A unifying message about Republicans is a relatively easy puzzle for Democrats, though. Their bigger challenge is defining their own priorities and direction—for this year and beyond. The party right now “is a little stuck, and it’s a little mired,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president and chief strategist for Way to Win, which helps fund organizations and campaigns focusing on voters of color. “But we don’t have time to keep fighting about it.”

Both parties generally agree on the two main reasons for Biden’s low approval ratings. First, with the country facing its highest inflation levels in four decades, Americans are expressing in polls towering levels of economic dissatisfaction and assigning a big share of the blame to Biden’s policies. Second, the persistence of COVID disruptions with the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants, as well as the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, severely dented Biden’s attempt to project competence, one of his core campaign promises.

“People voted for competency and normalcy,” says Doug Sosnik, who served as a senior political adviser in the Clinton White House. “Well, we don’t have normalcy—a lot of that’s not his fault. And there have certainly been some areas where you could accuse the Biden administration of being less than competent.”

Less agreement exists over how much Biden’s own legislative strategy and broader positioning have contributed to his distress. To Republicans, and some centrist Democrats, the main reason for the president’s decline in approval is that he “ran as a center-left politician, and he has governed as a politician from the left,” as the longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres puts it. Ayres cites an observation from Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, who said of Biden, “Nobody elected him to be FDR.” She “had it right,” Ayres told me. On issues including immigration, crime, taxes, and government spending, he said, Biden “has persisted in making liberal choices over moderate choices.”

Ruy Teixeira, a veteran Democratic electoral and demographic analyst who has become one of the most ardent critics of the party’s left wing, largely agrees. Teixeira says that Biden’s initial strategy for expanding the Democrats’ base, by emphasizing economic issues and bipartisanship, remains “a perfectly good theory about how to build a broad majority coalition.” But he complains that Biden allowed progressives in the House of Representatives to demand a much more sweeping economic agenda in the Build Back Better legislation than could realistically pass a closely divided Senate. “He may have wanted to be ‘Scranton Joe,’” Teixeira says. “But he got elected as a president in a party and a political context that won’t let him do that.”

To those on the Democratic left, that analysis might as well have originated in the Upside Down. The problem, they argue, is not that the left is foisting unpopular policies on Biden; it’s that Manchin and Sinema, from the party’s center-right, are preventing Biden from passing popular ideas. “The evidence is much more credible about this being driven by economic perceptions”—primarily about inflation—“rather than the idea that Biden is too left-wing,” says Sean McElwee, a progressive pollster.

If anything, McElwee argues, the failure to pass the BBB legislation’s major climate provisions has contributed to the fact that Biden’s approval rating, compared with his 2020 vote share, has fallen most sharply among young people. Bryan Bennett, the senior director of polling and analytics at the Hub Project, a progressive organization, points out that a survey conducted by the group’s Navigator poll recently found that two-thirds of adults said they support a package that would lower drug prices, confront climate change, and expand Medicare benefits to services such as hearing aids, all of which essentially describes the pared-back version of Build Back Better that has received the most discussion on Capitol Hill.

Sosnik sees some merit in both arguments. He agrees that Biden and Democrats would improve their position for 2024 if they could pass some of the tangible economic assistance in the BBB plan, though he doubts that those programs would be felt in time to boost the party’s prospects this coming fall. But he also believes that Biden mismatched the scale of his ambitions and the size of his legislative majority, and misread the signals swing voters sent when they reduced the Democratic House majority even while electing him to replace Trump in 2020. “Biden got elected mostly as an anti-Trump vote,” Sosnik says, adding, “The signs were there in the 2020 election about the limits of the activism” his voting coalition would accept.

The coalition that elected Biden—primarily people of color, young adults, and college-educated, socially liberal white Americans—very much reflected the Democratic Party’s evolution over his lifetime. But Biden has always seemed eager to reconstruct the Democratic coalition of his youth, which relied on more support from working-class white voters. One White House official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal conversations, told me that Biden is intent on framing his economic agenda “in a very blue-collar-oriented way.” The president often stresses his plans’ benefits for workers without four-year college degrees—a clear departure from both Clinton and Obama, who emphasized the importance of moving workers up the education ladder. Biden also has rejected calls from even some Democrats to roll back international tariffs or his tougher “Buy American” procurement provisions in order to combat inflation. He’s much more likely than either Clinton or Obama to praise labor unions and less inhibited about criticizing China. Biden rarely seems happier than when appearing at a manufacturing plant.

Yet in the 2020 election, according to most data sources, he improved only slightly on Hillary Clinton’s anemic 2016 showing among white voters without college degrees. As president, Biden’s approval rating among those white blue-collar workers has fallen into the mid-20s in some polls.

Biden still clearly sees his economic plan as his best chance to reverse those numbers: In his State of the Union address and again in his May 4 speech, he reframed key elements of the stalled BBB package—including bigger child-care and health-care subsidies and measures to reduce drug prices and utility bills—as a means to help financially strapped families. But calling attention to any provisions in the plan always risks reminding voters that Democrats so far have failed to pass it—and that Manchin might not accept any remnant of the economic package Biden once hoped would restore the Democrats’ New Deal–era identity as the party delivering for average families.

If anything, the gap between the competing Democratic factions is even greater on cultural issues. And the dispute is as fundamental as where Biden should aim his fire.

Some centrists—including Teixeira and Will Marshall, of the Progressive Policy Institute—have told me they believe that Biden should focus more on what they see as cultural extremism from the left. They want the president to forcefully and consistently condemn the progressive voices who have backed defunding the police or decriminalizing illegal border crossings.

Biden has edged in this direction by underscoring his support for reforming but “funding”—not defunding—the police, most visibly in his State of the Union address. But Teixeira said “it defies logic” to think that will be enough to persuade voters drawn to Republicans’ claim that Democrats are soft on crime. “It would take a sustained campaign in and outside the party to really convince voters that Democrats are tough on criminals,” he said. “To simply say that to defund the police is not a good idea—I don’t think works.”

Teixeira also is skeptical that Democrats should push back harder against the GOP’s cultural agenda. He argues that in many instances—such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law or the restrictions on classroom discussion of race—Republican politicians are responding to justifiable parental concerns and that Democrats can’t condemn the initiatives “as sheer bigotry.” “I know people who say the Republicans are so far out of their skis on this that all we have to do is oppose them, and people will come to their senses,” Teixeira said. “And I believe that is not the case.”

For progressives, this counsel once again springs from the Upside Down. “There is an old tendency” among party centrists “to call out the left and do the Sister Souljah thing,” says Ancona, of Way to Win, referring to Clinton’s denunciation of a young hip-hop star who called for violence against white Americans during the 1992 campaign. “That’s an old playbook that needs to be thrown out.”

Ancona argues that Biden should target what she and other progressives see as cultural extremism from the right: the potential overturn of Roe and the wave of red-state laws to restrict abortion, LGBTQ, and voting rights; ban books; and censor how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexual orientation. The advice that Biden should reassure swing voters by picking a fight with the left, she says, ignores the reality of a Democratic coalition that now relies on people of color for about two-fifths of its votes, and also depends on the white voters who “want to be part of a multiracial society [and] in coalition with Black people who are fighting for justice.”

Instead of targeting the cultural left, progressives I spoke with said Democrats should employ the “race-class narrative”—which argues that Republicans are emphasizing cultural and racial issues to distract voters from their real priority of tilting economic policy toward the rich. Ancona says candidates should take their cues from the way Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock integrated economic and racial equity in their messaging during their stunning victories in Georgia. “If I were going to look at who to emulate,” she argues, “I would not look back to Clinton in the 1990s; it would be to look to Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia in 2021.”

The Justice Department has filed federal lawsuits in almost all the policy areas Republicans are targeting. And Biden has criticized elements of that cultural agenda, particularly Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But he has not mounted any sustained effort to call attention to these policies or paint them as extremist. Multiple outlets last week reported that Biden’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe was the first time he had uttered the word abortion as president.

A 79-year-old practicing Catholic who once criticized Roe before shifting his view, Biden has always been an unlikely figure to rally the forces of cultural change. But his choice not to engage more forcefully has dispirited some Democrats—particularly as Republican-led Senate filibusters have blocked House-passed legislation attempting to counteract red-state moves. The enormous show of support for Michigan Democratic State Senator Mallory McMorrow’s impassioned response to a Republican who accused her of wanting to “groom and sexualize” young children shows how hungry Democrats are for a stronger rebuttal to the right’s escalating cultural offensive, Ancona argues. At a fiery press conference last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom also articulated that impatience, describing the Republican cultural agenda as “extremism at a scale I’ve never experienced in my lifetime” and then pointedly asking: “Where the hell’s my party? … Why aren’t we standing up more firmly, more resolutely?”

The draft opinion overturning Roe seems certain, at least for a while, to sublimate this intraparty dispute: Democrats of every stripe were quick to condemn it, Biden included. Teixeira told me in an email that “this issue is different since Democrats fairly unambiguously are on the center ground and don’t (yet) have any crazy they really need to disassociate themselves from.” But party divisions over cultural issues are bound to resurface as Biden confronts questions such as how to balance criminal-justice reform and public safety and whether to revoke Trump’s Title 42 restrictions turning away migrants at the southern border on public-health grounds.

If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, a big backlash against it could reconfigure the midterm landscape. But it remains more likely that whatever message Democrats choose, the combination of high inflation, Biden’s sagging approval rating, and the historical pattern of first-term midterm losses for the president’s party will generate significant Republican gains in November.

The 2022 elections, like all midterms, might turn mostly on voters’ assessments of immediate conditions in the country. But that probably won’t stop both sides in the Democrats’ internal debate from arguing that the results show why Biden should move in their direction. After November, the struggle over the party’s identity is guaranteed to grow even more urgent and intense—especially because so many Democrats are afraid that if they don’t get it right, the consequence will be a Trump restoration. “That’s one thing for certain,” Sosnik says. “If Democrats have a bad election, we will have a full-throated, public, six-month debate about why we lost.”