Tuesday’s midterm election results gave President Biden a much-needed political boost, as his party’s better-than-expected performance enabled him to avoid a damaging setback and tamped down Democratic calls for him to consider ending his presidency after one term.
The post-election news conference was the same forum that recent predecessors had used to publicly lick their wounds after their own midterms, when the president’s party typically loses dozens of congressional seats. President George W. Bush acknowledged a Democratic “thumping” in 2006 and President Barack Obama bemoaned a Republican “shellacking” in 2010, while President Donald Trump lashed out against members of his own party after losing 41 congressional seats in 2018.
By contrast, Biden spoke of his “obsessive optimism” on Wednesday, cutting the figure of a man who has previously been considered politically endangered only to defy at least the direst predictions. He said he planned to spend much of the rest of his first term implementing policies Democrats have already passed, perhaps an implicit acknowledgment of the political reality of a divided government.
“I’m not going to change anything in any fundamental way,” Biden said.
But most analysts say the Democrats were buoyed by voter concerns over abortion rights and by Trump’s reemergence, rather than Biden himself. And while escaping the worst outcome, Biden’s prospects are likely to change significantly if Republicans take control of the House, even with a narrow majority. Such a power shift would probably bring much of Biden’s legislative agenda to halt and subject his administration to a slew of investigations and subpoenas, while also adding brinkmanship and turbulence to must-pass bills for funding the government and raising the debt limit.
With several Senate races too close to call as of Wednesday evening, there remained a possibility that Democrats would also lose their slim majority in that chamber — a development that would further stymie Biden’s agenda and probably frustrate his ability to fill federal judgeships and appoint another Supreme Court justice, should an opening occur in the next two years.
The president struck a defiant tone when asked about the numerous investigations pledged by House Republicans. “Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say,” Biden said. Of the occasional GOP impeachment threats, he added, “I think the American people will look at it for what it is. It’s almost comedy.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the would-be speaker if the Republicans retake the House, said Wednesday that voters wanted to send a message to Democrats on issues ranging from inflation to crime. “The American people are ready for a majority that will offer a new direction, that will put America back on track,” he said. “Republicans are ready to deliver it.”
But with the strongest showing of any incumbent president in a midterm since 2002, Biden quieted public expressions of concerns by Democrats worried that his age and low approval ratings would be a drag on the party. He acknowledged that some Democrats breathed “a sigh of relief” that hardline Republicans had not won many of the competitive races.
As Biden’s supporters were quick to note, his party is on track to lose far fewer House seats than Obama, Trump or President Bill Clinton. While the final tally is in flux, it is clear Democratic losses will not be as devastating as in 1994 or 2010, which ushered in the Republican revolution and the tea party wave, respectively.
Biden also benefited from widespread predictions of a “red wave,” which allowed him to cast Tuesday’s modest Democratic losses as a vindication rather than a disappointment. Several Democrats had signaled this week that if Democrats lost more than 20 House seats, they would publicly call on Biden to announce he was forgoing reelection.
Instead, many Democrats offered support for Biden on Wednesday.
“We can put aside any silly talk about primaries or new candidates in the presidential [race],” said Jim Messina, who was Obama’s reelection campaign manager. “Joe Biden’s focus on democracy and abortion with a positive message on the economy was the winning game plan.”
By contrast, Trump, Biden’s potential future challenger, had one of the worst nights of his political career. Trump-endorsed candidates lost or trailed in key races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and elsewhere. And his leading rival within the GOP, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, cruised to a blowout reelection victory.
Biden, asked whether he would rather run against Trump or DeSantis, instead hinted that they might engage in a divisive Republican primary fight. “It would be fun watching them take on each other,” he said, adding that it was his intention to run for reelection in 2024 and that he expected to make a final decision by early next year.
The president, who leaves the country Thursday for a week-long trip to Asia, may have to wait weeks to know the final outcome of the midterm races. Several races, including Senate contests in Arizona and Nevada, were too close to call as of Wednesday evening. The Senate race in Georgia, where incumbent Democrat Raphael G. Warnock led Republican challenger Herschel Walker, is headed to a Dec. 6 runoff that may determine which party controls the upper chamber.
But the mood in the White House was one of relief on Tuesday night, as officials realized their worst fears would not be realized. Junior staff gathered in a command center to watch the returns, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private gathering. Aides munched on pizza while getting hourly updates on key races, as Democrats held on to several congressional seats Republicans had targeted and even unexpectedly flipped some GOP-held seats.
Some aides found tweets by prominent figures who had prognosticated a gloomy night for Biden and publicly reminded them of their flawed predictions. Others ridiculed McCarthy, who had previously said Republicans could flip 60 Democratic seats, as he had to delay his appearance at a victory until well past midnight as an early GOP takeover failed to materialize.
Biden stayed up through much of the night, relishing the better-than-expected results and placing congratulatory calls to several victorious Democratic candidates. He tweeted out a picture of himself smiling while on the phone and wrote that some of the “winners” he had called had appeared with him on the campaign trail.
While some Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Biden during the campaign, amid his low approval rating in their states, the president called a number of Democrats who had welcomed him to their districts and prevailed.
On Wednesday, Biden said he planned to place calls to Republican leaders and invite members of both parties to the White House this month to talk about how they could work together. He acknowledged that many voters feel unsettled about the direction of the country, saying crime, inflation and the state of democracy were among Americans’ top concerns.
“As I have throughout my career, I will continue to work across the aisle to deliver for the American people,” Biden said, adding that the results of the election indicated that Americans want bipartisanship and cooperation.
But he also laid out red lines on a number of GOP priorities, saying cutting taxes for the wealthy, rolling back climate measures, raising the cost of prescription drugs and cutting Social Security or Medicare would be non-starters for him.
“I will veto any attempt to pass a national ban on abortion,” Biden said. “But I'm ready to compromise with Republicans where it makes sense on many other issues.”
Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist, said Tuesday’s results suggest Biden’s approach of reaching out to Republicans while also pushing his party’s priorities had some merit. “Democrats have to be thoughtful about policy priorities heading into a new Congress and into 2024,” Payne said. “But the better-than-expected midterm results would certainly suggest some resilience of the Biden brand and the Biden approach to governing and coalition building.”
The president acknowledged he would be unable to win over all Republicans, while arguing that some were open to working together.
“I don’t think we’re going to break the fever for the super-mega-MAGA Republicans,” Biden said. "But I think they’re a minority of the Republican Party.”