Biden's optimism collides with mounting political challenges

WILL WEISSERT and ZEKE MILLER
Associated Press
FILE - President Joe Biden listens to a question during an interview with the Associated Press in the Oval Office of the White House, June 16, 2022, in Washington.  Biden’s top political advisers are bracing for big midterm losses in November. They know that the party holding the White House nearly always losses congressional seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON — Democrats are going to hold onto the House after November's midterm elections. They will pick up as many as four seats in the Senate, expanding their majority and overcoming internal dissent that has helped stifle their agenda.

As the challenges confronting President Joe Biden intensify, his predictions of a rosy political future for the Democratic Party are growing bolder. The assessments, delivered in speeches, fundraisers and conversations with friends and allies, seem at odds with a country that he acknowledged this past week was “really, really down,” burdened by a pandemic, surging gas prices and spiking inflation.

Biden's hopeful outlook is in line with a sense of optimism that has coursed through his nearly five-decade career and was at the center of his 2020 presidential campaign, which he said was built around restoring the “soul of America.” In a lengthy Oval Office interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Biden said part of his job as president is to “be confident.”

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While presidents often try to emphasize the positive, there is a risk in this moment that Biden contributes to a dissonance between Washington and people across the country who are confronting genuine and growing economic pain.

Few of Biden's closest political advisers are as bullish about the party's prospects as the president. In interviews with a half-dozen people in and close to the White House, there is a broad sense that Democrats will lose control of Congress, and that many of the party's leading candidates in down-ballot races and contests for governor will be defeated in an election Biden himself can do little to help.

The seeming disconnect between Biden's view and the political reality has some in the party worried the White House has not fully grasped just how bad this election year may be for Democrats.

“I don’t expect any president to go out and say, ‘You know what, 'We’re going to lose the next election,’” said Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is in regular contact with the White House’s policy team. What might serve Biden well instead, Marshall said, would be “a sober sense of, ’Look, we’re probably in for a rough night in November, and our strategy should be to remind the country what’s at stake.’”

The White House is hardly ignoring the problem.

Jen O'Malley Dillon, Biden's 2020 campaign manager who now serves as one of his deputy chiefs of staff, runs the political team from the West Wing along with Emmy Ruiz, a longtime Texas-based Democratic political consultant.

O'Malley Dillon coordinates strategy among the White House, the Democratic National Committee and an array of outside party groups. Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman who co-chaired Biden's 2020 campaign and was one of his closest White House advisers, left for a job with the DNC in April.

“We understand that, you cannot govern if you can’t win,” Richmond said in an interview. “We are treating it with that sense of urgency.”

Returning to the White House is veteran strategist Anita Dunn. Biden turned to her during an especially low political moment in February 2020, giving her broad control of his then-cash strapped presidential campaign as it appeared on the brink of collapse after a disastrous fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucus.

But where White House officials last year harbored hopes that voters could be convinced of Biden’s accomplishments and reverse their dismal outlook on the national direction, aides now acknowledge that such an uphill battle is no longer worth fighting. Instead, they have pushed the president to be more open about his own frustrations — particularly on inflation — to show voters that he shares their concerns, and to cast Republicans and their policies as obstacles to addressing these issues.

In public, Biden has betrayed few concerns about his party's fortunes this fall, opting instead for relentlessly positivity.

“I think there are at least four seats that are up for grabs that we could pick up in the Senate,” the president told a recent gathering of donors in Maryland. “And we’re going to keep the House.”

Biden meant Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with potential longer shots in North Carolina or Florida possibly representing No. 4. Aides say the president is simply seeking to fire up his base with such predictions. But one laughed when asked if it was possible that Democrats could pick up four Senate seats.

The party's chances of maintaining House control may be bleaker.

Biden has traveled more since last fall, promoting a $1 trillion public works package that became law in November, including visiting competitive territory in Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire. During a trip to Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne’s Iowa swing district, the president declared, “My name is Joe Biden. I work for Congresswoman Axne.”

Bernie Sanders, the 80-year-old Vermont senator who was the last challenger eliminated in 2020, has not ruled running should Biden not seek reelection. That has revived questions about whether Biden, 79, might opt not to run — speculation that has persisted despite the White House political operation gearing up for the midterms and beyond.

The more immediate question of Biden's midterm appeal could be even trickier. He campaigned for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia last November, after winning the state easily in 2020. McAuliffe lost by 2 percentage points, a potentially bad omen for the 16 governorships Democrats are defending this fall.

“We know there are going to be national headwinds, there always are," Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, said recently. But she insisted she would be happy to campaign with Biden or top members of his administration.

But Democrat Beto O'Rourke, running for governor in Texas, told reporters, “I’m not interested in any national politician — anyone outside of Texas — coming into this state to help decide the outcome of this race.”

Biden's overall approval rating hit a new low of 39% last month. Even among his own party, just 33% of respondents said the country is headed in the right direction, down from 49% in April. The president's approval rating among Democrats stood at 73%, falling sharply from last year.