Democrats fighting to retain their majorities in this year’s midterm are grappling with a disappointed electorate that sees their party as having promised more than it has delivered.
Much of the last year was focused on the Democratic effort to pass a huge social spending and climate change package known as the Build Back Better agenda, which toppled in the face of opposition from a Democratic senator — Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Progressives said the Build Back Better legislation was the real legislative prize for a White House and Congress controlled by Democrats, casting it as much more important than a separate piece of legislation — a $1.4 trillion infrastructure bill that did become law with GOP support.
Some on the left even threatened to vote against the infrastructure bill, which has complicated Biden’s efforts to present it as a major achievement of his first year in office.
That’s not the only disappointment for Democrats either, who failed to pass new voting rights legislation or a change to the filibuster rule in the Senate.
Now that disappointment is biting the party. An NBC News poll released late last month showed 67 percent of Republicans saying they had a high level of interest in the midterms. By comparison, 50 percent of Democrats said they had a high level of interest.
An ABC News/Ipsos poll released April 10 found an even wider gap: 55 percent of Republicans said they are very enthusiastic about voting in the midterms, compared to 35 percent of Democrats who said the same.
Some Democrats are sounding the alarm, warning that the party is in for a disappointing election season if it can’t rally together and fulfill some high profile promises to energize its base.
“I think we need to get stuff done, and that’s the G-rated version of it. We really need to finish delivering on some big deal promises we made during the 2020 election and on the ones we can’t deliver on because we don’t have 50 votes, then we need to be shown swinging the bat as hard as we can,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said this week on “Pod Save America.”
In a New York Times op-ed, Warren urged President Biden to use his powers to cancel student loan debt and lower prescription drug prices. She wrote that Democrats in Congress should come together to close tax loopholes for the ultra-wealthy and corporations.
Biden in a January press conference denied that he over-promised to voters what he could get done and pledged to “stay on this track.”
But in the months since, inflation has remained high, the U.S. has grappled with new coronavirus variants, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has upended global markets and consumed much of Biden’s attention.
Democratic strategists largely did not fault Biden for coming into office with sweeping plans for addressing climate change, racial inequality, voting rights and other issues.
“Ambition is good, and I think ambition is what you want to hear from our elected officials, and I think he came in with an ambitious agenda,” said Michael Ceraso, a progressive strategist and founder of Winning Margins.
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way, noted it’s not unusual for presidents to come in and fail to pass a key part of their agenda. He pointed to Bill Clinton’s inability to pass health care reform and Barack Obama’s inability to get a cap and trade deal over the finish line.
“There are groups of voters that would have liked Biden to have achieved more in their areas of interests,” Bennett said. “It isn’t clear to me that Biden’s approval ratings are low because voters think he hasn’t done enough. They’re low because of inhalation, and there’s not a lot he can do on that in the short term.”
White House officials acknowledge there is more they’d like to get done before November, when Republicans may well take majorities in both chambers of Congress. But they point to a laundry list of accomplishments Biden has to campaign on, including the infrastructure bill, the American Rescue Plan, strengthening the Affor-dable Care Act, the confirmation of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, a largely successful vaccination campaign and consistently low unemployment numbers.
Asked about Warren’s op-ed at a White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki pointed to making the tax system more fair, funding child care and family care programs, providing more funding to fight the pandemic and an innovation bill meant to strengthen the ability for the U.S. to compete with China as items the administration would love to see passed this year.
“I would say I’m not going to make political predictions from here,” she added when asked if passing those items would be enough to retain majorities in Congress. “What I will say, though, is that everybody looks at a choice and what each party is fighting for, is advocating for, has gotten accomplished, but also what their vision is for the future. And we’re proud of our vision.”
For Biden, the problem may be more about getting the message across about what he’s done.
Speaking to donors in Portland, Ore., on Thursday night, Biden expressed optimism that Democrats could not just retain the majority in the Senate, but pick up two Senate seats. And he indicated he would make a more concerted effort to connect with voters and explain what Democrats have achieved over the past year.
“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.
“I’m determined to make sure we keep the House and the Senate,” he added.
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