The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden urges swift action as Democrats scramble to deflect voter anger

President Biden on Nov. 3 pushed back against the notion that the off-year election results were a repudiation of his presidency. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden urged Democrats on Wednesday to swiftly pass his domestic agenda after an off-year electoral wipeout highlighted the fragile state of the party’s electoral majorities in the House and Senate. But a new round of bitter recriminations threatened to dash Democratic hopes of quickly moving past the stinging defeats.

From Virginia’s Tidewater region to the Philadelphia suburbs to Long Island, voters on Tuesday issued an unmistakable repudiation of the Democratic Party that was wider and deeper than even some of its more pessimistic tacticians were anticipating.

Scrambling to make sense of the election results, White House officials and Democratic congressional leaders said they concluded that voters were unhappy with their incomplete push to spend trillions of dollars on public works, the social safety net and combating climate change. These Democrats said there is now a clear incentive to accelerate their work.

Addressing reporters on Wednesday, Biden effectively argued that the party’s problems boil down to its execution, not its vision. He did not accept blame for the election results, even as some in his party held him culpable.

“People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things, from covid to school, to jobs to a whole range of things,” Biden said at the White House. “If I’m able to pass and sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of those things ameliorated quickly and swiftly.”

The president said he had hoped his agenda would have made it through Congress before the election, but expressed uncertainty whether that would have been enough to overcome the high turnout in conservative strongholds in Virginia.

Despite the president’s encouragement, it was far from clear that Democrats would be able to resolve the complex divisions that have slowed them down for months. Even the process of searching Tuesday’s electoral wreckage for clues about how to fix their problems was disorderly, echoing the ideological disagreements that have plagued the party for much of Biden’s presidency. By day’s end, there remained real disputes about who was to blame for the debacle and what changes would need to be put in place to realign the party with voters.

“We’ve got to get outside of our comfort zones,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). “The progressives saying this, the moderates saying the other. The moderates don’t want to trust the progressives, the progressives don’t want to trust the moderates.”

He added, “If we want to be successful, we’ve got to get beyond that.”

Much of the concern, in private conversations, has been focused on the decisions and performance of Biden, who took a huge political risk by pushing for a far-reaching liberal legislative agenda after running for office as a unifying moderate figure and winning only the slimmest governing majorities.

Other Democrats blamed liberal members of Congress for making demands in the negotiations over the spending bills that they felt had hindered progress and prevented the party from having something to showcase on Election Day. Still others criticized what they felt was a reluctance by the party to adequately explain its views on culturally divisive debates over education and race, which Republicans like Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin seized on effectively in the final weeks of his campaign against Democratic nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D- Va.) spelled out the frustration felt by Democrats in vulnerable districts. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

There and in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) barely held on to win what Democrats thought would be an easy reelection bid, critics also cited what they saw as an overreliance on attacks tying GOP candidates to former president Donald Trump. Democrats had believed that was their strongest argument to turn out their own voters.

Biden, speaking at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, defended his relentless attacks on Trump on the campaign trail by arguing that he was defending voters’ interests. “The issues he supports are affecting their lives every day and they are a negative impact on their lives,” he said.

Asked what Democrats should do in the face of GOP attacks, Biden said the party should “produce for the American people.”

Youngkin and other Republicans have criticized Democrats and local school officials on a range of emotional topics, including how racism is taught in schools, the rights of transgender athletes and the decision in many places to keep schools closed during much of the coronavirus pandemic. McAuliffe fed into Youngkin’s pitch when he declared in their final debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Pressed on how to respond to those complaints, Biden said, “I think the whole answer is just to speak the truth, lay out where we are.” But he did not detail where that was, much as Democrats had dismissed the opportunity to do so during the campaign.

The widespread nature of the Democratic losses shined an especially bright spotlight on Biden’s dipping approval rating. His poll numbers have continued to fall in recent weeks after a large summer decline, proving to be a drag on Democratic candidates across the country, including McAuliffe, whose advisers identified the president’s support as a serious obstacle to victory.

“The president ran as a competent bipartisan centrist,” said Howard Wolfson, who serves as an adviser to former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and previously ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He has not governed that way. And I and a lot of other Americans miss the Joe Biden from the campaign and hope that guy comes back before it is too late.”

Just 46 percent of Virginia voters approved of the job Biden was doing, according to exit poll data collected by Edison Research, compared with 53 percent who disapproved — a strikingly negative judgment in a state that Biden won last year by 10 points. The vast majority of those who disapproved of the president said they voted for Youngkin, while a similar majority of those who approved of Biden said they voted for McAuliffe.

Youngkin, like other Republicans on Tuesday, was powered by high turnout in rural conservative areas and gains in swing suburbs where Democrats had notched wins during Trump’s presidency that eventually handed them control of the federal government.

In key battlegrounds such as Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, which Gov. Ralph Northam (D) won in 2017 and Biden in 2020, McAuliffe lagged behind, failing to crack 50 percent.

The party’s problems, and the disavowal of liberal ideas, extended well beyond Virginia. In Pennsylvania’s “collar counties” around Philadelphia, which trended left during the Trump administration, Republicans won back many of the local offices they lost four years ago. In Nassau County on Long Island, Republicans swept offices, defeating a well-funded Democratic candidate for district attorney by attacking a cash bail reform he had supported.

In New York City, voters elected former police captain Eric Adams, who ran as a law-and-order Democrat, to succeed term-limited liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio. In New Jersey, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, was trailing Republican Edward Durr, a commercial truck driver who is believed to have spent less than $200 on the race.

The shift to the right came as Biden has aligned himself with the party’s liberal wing in his pursuit of a transformative domestic agenda, as some Democrats have urged more incremental targets. While Biden has spent months chasing a sweeping domestic spending agreement that aides argue is an attempt to deliver on campaign promises, voters have flocked toward candidates and ideas with centrist profiles.

On Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Biden’s spending proposals grabbed much of the focus among anxious Democrats bracing to defend narrow majorities in next year’s midterm elections. Democratic congressional leaders said they would move urgently toward a quick resolution to months of painful legislative stalemate that have undermined the party’s standing in the country.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the election results show the importance of acting quickly, so voters feel the results.

“What is making people angry is we haven’t fixed the problems of the economy and the pandemic, but we have a real plan to do it,” Maloney said. “The scale and impact of the plan we are putting in place needs to show up in the family budgets and daily lives of the people we hope to win.”

He also emphasized the importance of selling the plan once it passes, something Democrats throughout the party think was poorly done after the passage of a pandemic relief bill earlier this year. Maloney also said education concerns would be something Democrats needed to find a way to better address, even as he argued that the roots of the Republican complaints around teaching about race are unfounded.

Others likewise suggested a recalibration in the way Democratic candidates talk about education.

“What Democrats have to take from this is that the kind of trust that they have built with parents and with teachers needs to be revived and resurrected, and you can’t run from the anger and the agita and the anxiety that people feel over the course of the last two years of disruption,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who campaigned with McAuliffe.

“You can’t sugarcoat the defeat in Virginia,” she continued.

But the education concerns in the Virginia race extended well beyond the curriculum issues, according to Republican strategists. McAuliffe’s dismissal of parental complaints, they said, only fed the backlash.

“Republicans listen. We hear you. We know the places that we can improve and we make this promise to you: We will soon unveil a ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights,’ ” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Outside Washington, Democrats were also looking for answers on what went wrong. Ohio state Rep. Allison Russo, who lost a special election in the state’s 15th Congressional District, said her defeat was “not incredibly surprising” in an environment where independents looked at Washington and saw dysfunction. It would have helped, she said, had Democrats passed their spending packages before the election.

“Being able to point to real results from Washington is always helpful,” Russo said. “People don’t care about the infighting among progressives and moderates. They want results.”

Yet as the Republican trend became clearer, Democrats in every faction of the party pointed the blame at the others. Virginia Del. Lee J. Carter, a self-proclaimed socialist who had run against McAuliffe in the June primary, tweeted photos of the nominee hugging Trump in the White House.

“Who would’ve guessed that this guy running a 100% ‘Trump Bad’ campaign would lack the authenticity needed to win?” Carter asked sarcastically in a tweet.

Four left-wing groups, including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, released a joint statement accusing McAuliffe of having “no comprehensive pro-worker economic message” and offering “an uninspired return to yesterday.”

But the left had few victories of its own to celebrate. In Buffalo, where democratic socialist India Walton had beaten Mayor Byron Brown in a June primary, Brown appeared to win a write-in campaign to keep his job. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) endorsed Walton shortly before the election, but Brown successfully dragged his challenger down with ads warning that she would fire police officers.

Mike DeBonis and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.