It was all teed up to be an unmitigated disaster. The coming red wave in the 2022 midterms was going to bring 30, 40, maybe even 50 new Republicans to the House of Representatives—and an extra two or three seats for the party in the Senate. A sizable chunk of the new GOP class was poised to be raging MAGA-heads and Marjorie Taylor Greene wannabes. Joe Biden’s presidency was going to be effectively over.
The right would have had a field day, casting Biden as a senile old fool and failed president. The centrist pundits and Blue Dog Democrats would have wagged their collective finger at Biden for having gone “too far left” on economics and brayed that wokery had consumed the Democratic Party. The left would have been on the defensive, trying to prove to anyone who’d listen—which, in Washington, wouldn’t have been many people—that they weren’t the ones who cost their party the election.
None of it happened. To everyone’s astonishment, it’s now #repsindisarray as Republicans scramble to figure out how everything went so spectacularly wrong. And lo and behold, something else happened: Joe Biden’s political judgment—not accorded much respect before the election, given his underwater approval numbers—was vindicated.
Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, put it this way to me: “Joe Biden has been consistently underestimated because the political commentary culture highly values qualities that make someone a talented pundit on TV but undervalues the qualities that make someone a great national leader: wisdom, decency, and determination.”
Biden’s judgment and actions were vindicated in three specific ways. The first is with respect to the state of our democracy. Biden started out the fall campaign season with a major speech about democracy in Philadelphia on September 1 that was a sharp attack on Donald Trump and MAGA-ism. “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” he said. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.”
It was a good speech, in terms of content, but a number of commentators scratched their heads—or worse. Right-wingers trashed Biden over the speech’s staging—specifically the use of the two Marines who flanked Biden as he spoke—while the conventional wisdom quickly arose that democracy was too abstract for voters whose attention spans couldn’t allow them to look beyond concerns about the price of gas.
Biden defended the speech and ignored the critics—to such an extent that he gave a second democracy speech down the street from the U.S. Capitol six days before the election. “Joe Biden in the last few weeks reminded everyone how he got to where he is,” Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin told me after the midterms. “Biden has shown again that he has a strong instinct for finding the center of moral gravity in an election campaign.”
Highlighting the stakes for abortion rights is the second point where the results confirmed Biden’s approach. Back in the summer, Biden was criticized by some reproductive rights advocates for being slow to respond and not showing quite the degree of outrage they wanted after the Supreme Court eradicated Roe. But over the course of the fall, Biden corrected that. He gave a big speech on abortion rights on October 18, in which he made the lofty, if unlikely, promise that if the Democrats expanded their control of Congress, the first bill he would send to Capitol Hill would be to codify Roe v. Wade as federal law. “Biden’s decision to lean into the issue of abortion rights right at the time that the conventional naysayers counseled to pull back shows both a political savvy and a moral fortitude that has come to define his presidency,” said Ilyse Hogue, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Finally, Biden was (somewhat) vindicated on the economy. Yes, he and the Democrats surely lost votes, and maybe a few House seats, because of inflation. But it just wasn’t anywhere near the wipeout that was anticipated. It turns out that passing several pieces of impressive legislation and overseeing the creation of more than 10 million jobs in under two years—a record in the modern presidency; about 22 million jobs were created during the totality of Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidency—kinda help at election time.
California Representative Ro Khanna, one of the House’s more progressive members, who has been pushing Democrats for “a new economic patriotism,” said: “President Biden’s focus on bringing manufacturing jobs back home, reversing decades of the offshoring of production, resonated with people across the country and helped us make gains with working-class voters.”
So, what does he do for an encore?
After Republicans eked out control of the House, the Biden legislative agenda is obviously dead, and that’s just for starters. “A Republican House will likely be a disaster,” said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. “Owning the libs via endless investigations, hearings, impeachments, threats of default and government shutdowns, gotcha symbolic votes on the floor—all looking backwards to get even with past Democratic outrages and feeding the extremist MAGA base.”
All that is true. But if the Republicans’ majority is small—just three or five seats, say—they may not be able to inflict as much damage as they’d prefer. Everybody focuses on the Freedom Caucus, and with good reason. The hard-right group of more than 40 members, formed in 2015, had a lot of leverage over previous GOP speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. If Kevin McCarthy manages to get their votes for speaker, they’ll have leverage over him, too.
At the same time, though, the House GOP caucus is going to have several new members from swing districts. The four seats in New York state picked up by Republicans? All are rated as “toss-ups” by the Cook Partisan Voting Index.
New York isn’t an outlier, either. New Jersey’s 7th is rated basically a draw by Cook. Virginia’s 2nd is R+2. Texas’s 15th, a majority-Hispanic district, is R+1. McCarthy, or whoever the new speaker is, will have roughly eight to 10 first-term incumbents representing swingy districts. They will be begging their leadership not to go all MAGA—an impeachment of Biden for some ginned-up reason that no one outside of the hard-core base buys will risk their seats, and the majority.
Even though Democrats maintained their majority in the Senate, he’ll run into the same problems he ran into in 2021 and 2022: Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. If Raphael Warnock wins the December 6 Senate runoff in Georgia over Herschel Walker, Manchin and Sinema will have marginally less leverage, simply because the Democrats will hold 51 Senate seats instead of 50. But they will still be able to play outsize roles. And both are up for reelection in 2024. Assuming he doesn’t retire, Manchin will be running in a state (West Virginia) that Trump or any Republican will carry two-to-one, so he will likely spend the next two years acting as Republican as he can. Sinema doesn’t face that kind of pressure in Arizona, but she has obviously decided that her path to a long career in the Senate is to suck up to the state’s business interests.
In the meantime, there’s a whole other Biden agenda that does not depend on who runs Congress: the regulatory and anti-monopoly goals that can be pursued through edicts and lawsuits. Two days after the election, the Federal Trade Commission under Chair Lina Khan moved to crack down on predatory pricing and other corporate abuses. In mid-October, the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department under Jonathan Kanter pressured several corporate board members to resign their positions, charging that they violated antitrust statutes against interlocking directorates, reinvigorating so-called Section 8 enforcement. On environmental policy, labor policy, and other areas, there’s a lot the administration can do, and is doing, that has nothing to do with legislating. And of course the administration will be busy implementing the big bills that have passed.
All this might put Biden in a pretty strong position as 2024 approaches. But using the outcomes of 2022 to predict 2024 could be as foolhardy as the assurances of a red wave in the midterms, thanks to economic headwinds Biden could face the next time people vote. Inflation receded a bit in October but hasn’t disappeared. Recession fears are real; politically, it all depends on when it hits. If a recession (two straight quarters of negative growth) comes in the first half of 2023 and is only mild, then the economy may have bounced back nicely by election time. But if it hits in late 2023 or early 2024, as some economists believe, that would obviously pose greater problems.
There is also the unavoidable question of Biden’s age. He turned 80 on November 20. Biden says he’ll decide in the early part of 2023 whether he’ll run again, and it seems certain that he’ll have to address the issues of his age and health. “There will just have to be a big and honest judgment made by everyone,” Raskin said, “starting with Biden himself, about the problem of age and ageism in our politics and how to address it. Every political leader has a puzzle to solve, and this is his.”
That will sort itself out in time. And in the meantime, there’s no indication that the midterms have given the GOP’s leadership the nerve to finally cast out the extremists who populate their base. “MAGA has repeatedly shown it cannot win national elections,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN, who was one of the few voices in Washington to predict non-disaster for Democrats ahead of November. “Unless Republicans can somehow walk away from MAGA, Democrats have to be considered favorites next election.”
It’s pretty hard to imagine an 86-year-old president of the United States, which is what Biden would be at the end of a prospective second term. But if his health holds up, Democrats are going to be hard-pressed to come up with good reasons to say no to a guy who passed several pieces of major legislation, held his factionalized party together, and defied history in the midterms. The subset of Democratic presidents in the past century who can make all three of those boasts is exactly two: Biden—and Franklin Roosevelt.