The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Midterm backlash will hurt Democrats but could help Biden

The legislative rush caused by fears about 2022 may — in a vicious cycle — make the backlash worse. But the president’s fortunes may be brighter.

Democratic House members celebrate Friday after passing the expansive social and environment bill titled the Build Back Better Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The specter of midterm election doom has haunted the Biden administration throughout its first year in office. In general, the party that wins the presidency tends to lose seats in the next congressional election. No one has to remind President Biden of this prospect, given that he was vice president when the Democrats took their very memorable midterm “shellacking” in 2010 — losing 63 House seats (and control of that chamber) and six Senate seats (retaining a narrow majority).

One part of the dynamic driving this trend is inescapable: When a party gains control of government — as the Democrats control Washington now — it owns everything that happens to the country, whether the government is really responsible for it. Problems for which voters may punish Democrats next year include the persistence of the pandemic (despite miraculous new vaccines), supply chain difficulties and rising inflation.

Increasing party polarization makes midterm losses for the party in power even more likely than they otherwise might be. That’s because as Democrats and Republicans have drifted further apart, their coalitions easily unite against the terrible things that they collectively think the other party would do in office. As a new administration begins to make policy choices, those decisions simultaneously energize the “out” party and disappoint some members of the majority-party coalition. We’re seeing that now, as Democratic liberals and moderates clash over policy goals while Republicans unite against the Democratic agenda and their resentment toward Biden builds. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating keeps sinking. (Gallup puts it at 42 percent approve, 55 percent disapprove, among American adults — Trump-like figures.)

The threat of a midterm backlash can also shape how presidents govern when in power, which, itself — in a vicious circle — hastens the likelihood of a backlash at the polls. As the political scientists Frances Lee and Morris Fiorina have pointed out, unstable majorities with frequent changes in party control encourage a grab-as-much-as-you-can-while-you-can approach to policymaking. Reactions to major legislative pushes then further polarize the electorate, adding a self-fulfilling element to the midterm-backlash phenomenon.

Put all of this together and Biden’s current dilemma becomes easier to understand: He and congressional Democrats must scramble to get their massive Build Back Better bill passed on a party-line vote, knowing this may be their one chance to pass such ambitious legislation. At the same time, they are energizing Republicans. And the methods by which they had to get the bill passed — suspending normal legislative process, lumping the agenda into a massive bill to limit chances for obstruction — make it hard to sell its constituent parts to the public. (If covid relief, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and BBB had been passed as hundreds of separately passed legislation, nobody would be questioning Biden’s accomplishments, as they are now.) The Democrats are grabbing as much as they can — but doing so also fires up the opposition.

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If Democrats face a tough 2022, thanks to the rough logic of midterm elections, that doesn’t mean that Biden is doomed in 2024 — far from it. While a setback for Democrats in those elections would obviously hurt Biden’s ability to set policy, in some ways it could free him to govern in a way that plays to his strengths.

Assuming the Republicans take control of the House or Senate, or both, in 2022, they will inherit some degree of responsibility for what happens to the country in the run-up to the 2024 election. If they oppose measures that might alleviate the pandemic, they will own part of the blame. If they end the investigation of Trump’s role in Jan. 6 and he emerges as the likely presidential candidate in 2024, they will be more closely tied to him and his statements, which will unite and energize the Democratic base. And if Republicans refuse to take the money that has been allocated to pay for repairing roads, bridges and infrastructure, they may face a backlash from voters in their communities.

The Democrats would still be able to direct “BIF” money into relatively popular infrastructure projects — addressing, for example, the extreme-weather resilience concerns and expenses that are hitting states very hard right now. To prevent dangerous wildfires in the West, more sensors might be placed around utility lines, for instance. If the BIF money were targeted in the right way, a “no” vote could become a political liability and a yes vote could be seen in a much more positive light.

Biden, too, may be more comfortable governing when his party does not have “trifecta” control of government. Recall that before the surprising victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs, few people expected the Democrats to control Congress. The Georgia victories raised policy expectation within the party ranks and placed Biden in the unexpected, and unenviable, role of navigating between “left and lefter” policy disputes. Under divided government, policy expectations would necessarily be lowered, relieving the congenitally centrist Biden to some degree from dealing with messy internal party tensions.

Biden is hardly a shoo-in for reelection. But a setting in which Democrats don’t control all three branches of government may be one that is calibrated more to his strengths. If Democrats lose the Senate or House in 2022, but then Biden triumphs in 2024, it will be a reminder that parties may sometimes pay a political price when they gain power — yet they can also reap a political benefit when they lose power.