The Democrats’ deepening dilemma

Stuart Rothenberg
CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House on July 16, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall victory aside, Democrats have had a difficult few weeks and now find themselves in an increasingly tricky political position.

No, I’m not referring to President Joe Biden’s job approval in national polls, which has dropped noticeably over the past few weeks. Those survey data reflect the impact of the coronavirus’s delta variant, growing questions about COVID-19’s longer-term impact on the economy, and to a lesser extent recent developments in Afghanistan.

Surrounded by bad news, it’s not surprising that Biden’s job approval has fallen from the low-to-mid 50s in June and July to the 40s in late August and September.

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But it’s still 13 months until the midterms, and the public’s views on those matters could change — which would impact Biden’s standing one way or the other.

More importantly, Republicans have plenty of time to do what they now do best — act like sociopaths who are willing to ignore the rule of law and replace it with the rule of former President Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

A rocky landscape: But almost everywhere they now look, Democrats find fundamental challenges, along with roadblocks and pitfalls.

With virtually no margin of error in the Senate and the House, Republicans doing their best to cause chaos, and Biden stumbling too frequently for his own good, the next few weeks and months look difficult for Democrats.

Congressional Democrats may eventually pass both an infrastructure bill and a much more expensive reconciliation measure, but not before West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, Democratic House pragmatists, and party progressives give each other indigestion.

If Democrats succeed in enacting the White House’s agenda, they will have dramatic accomplishments that will both boost party morale and demonstrate they delivered on their promises, many of which are popular with the American public.

But trillions of dollars of additional spending, higher taxes, an increase in the debt ceiling, and a more expansive government will also open Democratic officeholders to GOP attacks in politically competitive states and districts.

Even worse, if Democrats fail to deliver on infrastructure and/or reconciliation (most likely because party moderates and progressives can’t agree on bottom line spending), Biden will look weak. That outcome would fuel the narrative that Democrats are divided and ineffectual, which would severely damage Democratic prospects in the midterm elections.

The Aug. 14-17 NBC News poll already showed Biden losing support most notably among independents, a crucial swing group of voters who tend to reflect the public mood.

The administration’s handling of the United States’ exit from Afghanistan obviously put Democrats on the defensive, and the fallout from a misdirected drone strike in Kabul didn’t make things any better for the president and his secretary of Defense, especially given the government’s initial insistence that the strike had saved American lives.

Biden looked stubborn on Afghanistan — not as bad a Trump often looked during his term, but not the empathetic, smart, measured foreign policy veteran that his supporters once applauded. Maybe there was no way to stop the return of the Taliban, but events have raised new questions about the U.S. military’s “over the horizon” capabilities and strategy.

But the administration’s list of headaches continues to grow, now including confusion over COVID-19 vaccine boosters, trouble at the U.S.-Mexico border or the president’s inept roll-out of a new United States-United Kingdom agreement to sell submarines to Australia.

Now it’s about Biden, not Trump: Democrats’ fundamental problem is that over the past few weeks, most of the political focus has been on Biden, not Trump.

Yes, the former president has injected himself into primaries and political spats (including reports suggesting that he has been looking to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as party leader in the Senate.)

But while journalists and political junkies follow these sorts of news stories, most Americans have been focused on the coronavirus, the economy and jobs, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

For the moment, the nation’s focus is on Biden and his performance in the nation’s top job — not on Trump. But that is likely to change as the midterms approach.

In California, Democrats successfully made Newsom’s recall at least partially about Trump and the Trumpification of the Republican Party. They will no doubt need to do that again in the 2022 midterm elections to motivate their voters, though that strategy will be much more difficult to pursue given they won’t be fighting in states and districts that favor Democrats so strongly.