The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats approach a midterm message but struggle to deliver it

Biden signals a message for the midterms: Democrats bring results, Republicans bring MAGA. But there’s little sign the party is delivering it with any energy or regularity.

President Biden speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One on April 22 after an Earth Day event in Seattle. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

PORTLAND, Ore. — President Biden has stepped up his domestic travel schedule, hitting the districts of numerous vulnerable Democrats. He has resumed in-person fundraising. And he is fine-tuning a message criticizing the GOP as an off-the-rails force that “ain’t your father’s Republican Party.”

As an anxious Democratic Party hurtles toward the midterm elections led by a president whose approval ratings have dropped precipitously, Biden is beginning to put the pieces together for an aggressive campaign to help limit Democratic losses in November.

But it’s an effort some in the party say is long overdue, and despite Biden’s ramped-up efforts, there is no finalized, comprehensive strategy for the midterms inside the White House. There’s no overarching document that outlines the president’s involvement in key races, nor a set message that will carry the party through November, according to multiple people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

Even the president has acknowledged he is struggling to convey to voters what his administration has accomplished, including a covid relief package, an infrastructure bill and creating millions of jobs.

“I admit to you, what I haven’t done — and the reason I’m getting out on the road again instead of dealing with the day-to-day emergencies in my office — is making the case of what we’ve done,” Biden said Thursday at a Democratic fundraiser in Portland, Ore.

In the past two weeks, Biden has crisscrossed the country to visit Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington. It’s a vastly stepped-up travel schedule, including his first trips in nearly a month besides weekend travel to Delaware and only his second trip to the West Coast since he took office.

Biden vowed to keep up that vigorous travel schedule, but he has made such promises repeatedly only for his plans to be eclipsed by international affairs and the persistence of the pandemic. Much of Biden’s time in recent months has been consumed by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

What to know about the midterms

Democratic strategists say the White House is still moving too slowly and remains too disorganized ahead of the midterms, when many Democrats fear their party will lose control of the House and possibly the Senate.

“There is as much a plan to win the midterms as there was to airlift Afghans out of Kabul,” said one Democratic political adviser who remains close to the White House. “They’re putting us all in a bad place.” The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the party’s prospects, was referring to the chaotic, deadly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last summer.

The adviser said the White House’s top-down political decision-making process is often impeded by bottlenecks, which hinder coordination with party committees, state parties, advocacy groups and donors. Information reaches stakeholders at the last minute, the adviser said, which results in resources being wasted or misdirected.

A Biden adviser disputed the criticism, maintaining that the White House works closely with the Democratic National Committee and other party groups to deliver Biden’s message and support candidates running in November.

The president’s recent statements amount to a rough but unmistakable Democratic message: We bring jobs and results, and Republicans bring madness and mayhem. But there is little sign the party is pushing that message with cohesiveness, regularity or energy.

The president’s party almost always loses numerous seats in the midterm elections, and with Biden’s approval rating hovering around 40 percent, Democrats are bracing for debilitating losses. If the party loses one or both chambers of Congress, it will usher in an entirely new, more difficult chapter of the Biden presidency.

With that prospect looming, a reshuffling at the White House is coming: Anita Dunn, one of the president’s close advisers, will be returning to the White House in a senior role with an expansive portfolio. Dunn, who briefly took over Biden’s struggling presidential campaign, has remained a key sounding board for the president since leaving the White House in August, and her full-time return has reassured allies who are concerned about the state of Biden’s political operation.

If Republicans regain control of Congress after the November midterm elections, the White House will face an onslaught of GOP-led investigations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Emmy Ruiz, the director of political strategy and outreach at the White House, recently returned from maternity leave, and Deirdre Schifeling, who worked as the director of advocacy on Ruiz’s team and was a key conduit to outside groups, just left the White House. A White House official said Schifeling’s departure was part of standard turnover after a year and a half, and she will be replaced.

Democrats try to coordinate better on midterms

The White House has also started to prepare for the potential of an onslaught of congressional investigations should the GOP take control, suggesting the administration recognizes the political realities the Democrats face in November, even as officials insist publicly they expect to retain both chambers of Congress.

Biden’s newly packed travel schedule has seemed to energize a 79-year-old president who relishes the opportunity to work a rope line and glad-hand voters. It has also given him the opportunity to visit with big Democratic donors, many of whom have lamented the lack of access and face time since Biden was elected.

While Biden’s only explicitly political events during his recent travels were Democratic fundraisers in Portland and Seattle, the White House has deliberately chosen places and issues that could boost some of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress.

In Menlo, Iowa, Biden announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would allow a gasoline blend known as E15, which is 15 percent ethanol, to be sold over the summer in an attempt to lower gas prices. He held the event alongside Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who endorsed Biden during his presidential campaign and is likely to face a tough reelection in November.

“When you hear about progress we’re making in Iowa on everything from biofuels to bridges, you can thank Cindy,” Biden said.

In Portsmouth, N.H., the president touted his bipartisan infrastructure law at an event with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), whom he praised as a “key player” in passing the law, and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), who the president said “did a hell of a lot of work to get this done.”

And in Auburn, Wash., Biden delivered a speech about his efforts to lower costs for families, particularly around health care, flanked by Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), a vulnerable Democrat and a pediatrician, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is running for reelection.

Alongside these softer-edged official events, the political fundraisers served as a testing ground for the president’s more aggressive attacks on Republicans, whom he castigated as out of touch with the American public. “This is not your father’s Republican Party by any stretch of the imagination,” Biden said at one point. “This is the MAGA party.”

Biden, and the White House more broadly, has seized on an agenda put forward by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who heads the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. To the dismay of many of his fellow Republicans, Scott’s plan suggests more Americans should be subject to taxes and urges expiration dates for all laws, including those that created Social Security and Medicare.

Rick Scott goes to war

Biden advisers say the president will continue to focus on this contrast in the coming months, presenting the election as a choice between his party, which understands costs are going up and is trying to lower them, and Republicans, who he will argue have no plan to address Americans’ day-to-day challenges.

He says he has accomplished much in the face of formidable obstacles but recognizes Americans are still struggling. “Between Ukraine and covid, we have been really stymied in a big way,” Biden said in Portland, Ore. “Jobs are open, jobs are up, pay is up for people, the average pay has gone up. But guess what? Inflation really is killing people.”

Despite Biden’s low poll numbers, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said vulnerable Democrats are eager for him to visit their districts.

“When Joe Biden shows up and talks about working families and the things they deal with, it’s good for the party, it’s good for the country,” Maloney said. “He’s a human being who understands what’s going on out there. When he shows up, it works.”

Maloney sketched out his party’s midterm argument: that Democrats may not be perfect, but they are working hard to help people, while the Republicans condone the violent attack on the Capitol and are trying to suppress Americans’ votes. “We’re for jobs. They’re for mobs,” he said. “We are fixing your country, and they are fixing elections.”

He added one of Biden’s trademark slogans: “Don’t judge us against the almighty. Judge us against the alternative.”

But Maloney swiped away questions about an overarching White House strategy to win the midterms, saying the DCCC and the White House work “hand in glove” while dismissing questions about a specific plan. “I wouldn’t overthink it,” he said. “We just want the president to do good things and tell people about them.”

Yet so far, it seems to be Republicans’ message that is resonating more. GOP leaders are framing a message that the country is falling into chaos under Biden, from high prices to rising crime to crushing immigration to out-of-control schools.

“I think his policies have not worked, beginning with the precipitous and ill-advised withdrawal from Afghanistan, which became kind of a metaphor for the incompetence that’s been on full display during this administration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on “Fox News Sunday” recently.

“None of the policies they’ve pursued have worked out well,” McConnell added. “The $2 trillion they dumped on the economy last year, against the advice of economists like Larry Summers, produced the wave of inflation everybody is seeing when they fill up their automobiles and when they go to the grocery store. Their policies have produced virtually open borders.”

In interviews around the country, some Biden voters sympathized with the president and the challenges of working with narrow margins in Congress.

“There’s so much pushback from the Republican side,” said Susan Stevens, a resident of Greenfield, Iowa, as she put gas in her car. “Anybody in that position would have a hard time making everyone happy.”

But even voters supportive of Biden’s predicament are feeling the economic pain.

Stevens, a single mother of two who is not registered with a political party, works as an administrative assistant in Stuart, Iowa, and stopped on a recent afternoon at the gas station close to her office. But she put only enough gas in her car to get home — a station closer to her home was a few cents cheaper.

“Just making ends meet is harder,” she said.