The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s not yet the undertow Republicans expected

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28. (Yuri Gripas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The most unsettling moment of this week came when President Biden gave a shoutout to the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) during a White House hunger conference, forgetting that she had died in a car accident this summer. As he looked around the crowd on Wednesday, he asked: “Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?”

It was a rare break for Republicans who desperately want to keep Biden front and center after the rollback of abortion rights and former president Donald Trump’s legal troubles hogged the spotlight all summer. Biden’s lapse led to fresh rounds of stories about the 79-year-old president’s mental sharpness. Conservative outlets such as National Review sent push alerts on the topic, and commentators on Newsmax said the Cabinet should invoke the 25th Amendment. The gaffe broke through in a way few Biden gaffes do.

But it also served as a reminder that Biden, contrary even to his own expectations, benefitted from a low profile this summer. The less voters hear from him, the more popular other Democratic candidates seem to be.

Republicans are working hard, of course, to reverse this dynamic. They spent $67 million starting at the end of July into September to air 152,669 commercials that linked Biden to Democrats who will appear on the ballot in November, according to the tracking firm AdImpact. By contrast, Democrats spent $30 million to air 68,000 ads invoking Trump over the same period before the 2018 midterms.

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Yet, despite the river of GOP spending, Democrats across the map continue to outrun Biden and stay competitive in key races. The president’s approval rating is 39 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. But the same survey found that 46 percent of registered voters favor Democratic candidates, just one point behind Republicans. Thirteen percent of voters who disapprove of Biden still plan to support Democrats. Other reliable polls show similar divergences.

Biden isn’t — at least so far — the undertow Republicans had been counting on. The Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June galvanized suburban women who were previously focused on inflation and the economy. And the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August, which included the biggest investment ever in combatting climate change, energized younger voters. Meanwhile, revelations from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and the recovery of classified material from Mar-a-Lago reminded many independents of why they turned on Trump two years ago.

Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have kept their distance from the president. It spoke volumes that Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) didn’t join the Atlanta Braves when they celebrated their World Series win with Biden at the White House on Monday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending seven figures to run an ad in Georgia that says Warnock votes with Biden 96 percent of the time. In the spot, the senator looks into a mirror and sees Biden. Ads like this are playing from coast to coast. In Wisconsin, for example, you might think from his commercials that Republican Tim Michels is running against Biden and not Gov. Tony Evers (D), who is more popular than the president.

Biden has long argued that Democrats screwed up in the 2010 midterms by failing to aggressively tout what they accomplished. He has often recounted how he urged Barack Obama to take a victory lap after the Affordable Care Act passed, but the then-president said he didn’t have time. “As a consequence, no one knew what the detail of the legislation was,” Biden said during a January news conference. “The difference is, I’m going to be out on the road a lot, making the case around the country, with my colleagues who are up for reelection.”

But Biden has not traveled extensively. He’s not holding as many rallies as his predecessors or giving as many interviews. The Walorski gaffe shows why this approach might be prudent.

The president postponed a planned political trip to Florida this week because of Hurricane Ian. He is planning one or two trips a week in the run-up to the election and will focus on the industrial Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Michigan and Wisconsin. Whether he’ll go West to stump in Nevada and Arizona is an open question.

But if it’s up to the candidates themselves, Biden might help them most by staying home.

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