Vulnerable, Moderate Dems Breaking With Biden More Frequently as Midterms Approach
Vulnerable, Moderate Dems Breaking With Biden More Frequently as Midterms Approach

By Joseph Lord

News Analysis

As the 2022 midterms draw nearer, several Democrats are distancing themselves from President Joe Biden, whose popularity has dwindled since taking office.

At the beginning of Biden’s presidency, congressional Democrats marched largely in lockstep with the president. But as his first year in office approaches its end, that situation has changed drastically.

Still reeling from the public opinion hit incurred by the Afghanistan withdrawal, and faced with ongoing supply chain, inflation, and energy crises, Biden has become far less popular with voters—a fact that has not gone unnoticed by congressional Democrats, who have started to break with Biden more and more frequently.

At the end of May, Biden’s approval rating hit a peak of 55 percent according to Rasmussen’s Daily Presidential Tracking Poll. This popularity would be short-lived and would fall sharply following Biden’s controversial Afghanistan withdrawal.

On Aug. 9, before the Afghanistan fiasco began, Biden’s approval rate was still at 49 percent. But after the fall of Afghanistan left hundreds of Americans trapped in the country, public support for the president plummeted.

Polling at the time showed that nearly three-fifths of the country—59 percent—felt that the Biden administration was not doing enough to save Americans trapped in the country.

Afghan Withdrawal Prompts First Signs of Trouble

By Sept. 1, the tide of public opinion had turned substantially against the president, with only 42 percent of likely voters approving of Biden.

This sudden drop in public support prompted the first wave of defections among vulnerable Democrats, who rushed to distance themselves from the president.

Rep. Crissy Houlahan (D-Penn.), whose seat has been rated vulnerable by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), was one of the first to criticize the president in a public statement.

In her statement, she contended that she and others had warned Biden of the danger but said that those warnings “fell on deaf ears.”

Several other vulnerable House Democrats quickly followed suit.

In the Senate as well, some Democrats began to distance themselves from the president: Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), and others made a point of criticizing the withdrawal and promising action and oversight.

Since then, things have only gotten worse for President Biden, prompting more and more Democrats to jump ship in an effort to save their seats in 2022.

Biden Unable to Bridge House Progressive-Moderate Disputes

Beginning in September, House moderates and progressives descended into open conflict over Biden’s plans to force passage of both the budget bill and the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill at the same time.

Progressives argued that if the moderate-preferred infrastructure bill was passed, progressives would have no leverage to force moderates to vote on the much more controversial budget bill. Moderates, for their part, argued that the Senate’s passage of the infrastructure bill was “a bipartisan victory for our nation” that should not be linked to the far more partisan budget.

One moderate, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) went so far as to suggest that “Democrats can’t afford to do everything” in the budget bill, despite Biden’s contention that the bill would be fully paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy.

Two closed-door visits by Biden to Capitol Hill—an exceedingly rare event—were insufficient to bridge these gaps, and neither the moderate faction nor the progressive faction yielded to Biden’s plea to pass both bills.

Eventually, both bills were passed through the House, but the reasons for both sides relenting in their demands are not entirely clear; The bills passed weeks after Biden’s second visit, making it unlikely that he played a significant role in the change.

Whatever the cause for this eventual success, one member of the moderate faction, Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), voted with Republicans against the legislation. Like so many others distancing themselves from Biden, Golden’s seat is considered vulnerable to a Republican takeover.

Vaccine Mandate Challenged By Some Senate Democrats

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), a self-described “conservative Democrat,” announced on Dec. 3 that he would join Republicans in a motion to strike down Biden’s unprecedented private sector vaccine mandate.

Though Manchin often stands alone in opposing his party’s proposals, he has been joined by another Senate Democratic colleague, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

The mandate, announced by Biden in September, would be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and has faced strong criticism from Republicans, business leaders, and others.

Under a 1990s piece of legislation, Congress can overturn OSHA rules through a filibuster-proof simple majority vote; Manchin’s and Tester’s decision to join all 50 Republicans in this endeavor all but guarantees that the rule will be overturned in the Senate.

The motion will nevertheless still need to pass through the House, where Democrats will face another litmus test to gauge lawmakers’ support for the Biden rule.

Vulnerable Rep. Axne and Others Call on Biden to Address Inflation

For the past several months, Democrats in both chambers of Congress and the Biden administration have insisted that the extreme inflation facing the country is only transitory, even as projections show that it will continue to rise.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Biden himself have been especially supportive of this argument, insisting that the inflation is merely the short-term result of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.

But as inflation begins to squeeze middle America’s pockets and with the looming threat of midterms on the horizon, this is a narrative that many Democrats facing reelection can no longer afford to parrot.

In a Dec. 2 letter, Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) led a petition signed by 21 other House Democrats calling on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to address increasing inflation.

“We are concerned about the ongoing disruptions to our nation’s supply chain, which are causing delays and increasing inflation for our constituents,” the letter begins.

“Congress must do more,” the letter continued.“We urge additional action by the House of Representatives to further address the disruptions and higher costs our constituents are experiencing.”

Only a few of the Democrats who signed the letter are not considered vulnerable by the NRCC.

While the letter’s signatories were careful not to place the blame on Biden himself, the mere recognition of inflation as a problem requiring congressional intervention is a break from the White House’s position.

Biden’s Many Crises May Make Him a Liability in 2022

As an inflation crisis, an energy crisis, and other economic woes continue to plague the first year of Biden’s presidency, sticking close to the president may not seem as safe a strategy as it has been in the past.

Historically, presidential endorsements of tight congressional or state-level races have carried considerable influence; in fact, former President Donald Trump continues to exert considerable influence over the outcome of some races.

But Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election showed the cracks in Biden’s ability to sway elections.

Despite the efforts of Biden, former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, and others, Republican Glenn Youngkin handily defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in what some predicted would be a tight race.

Observers argued that the race was a litmus test to gauge public support for Biden as he approached the end of his first year, a fact that encouraged Democrats to throw millions of dollars and a slate of high-profile endorsements into the race. Still, Youngkin, who said that “a vote for me is a vote for Donald Trump,” won by safe margins.

In another surprise, the gubernatorial race in New Jersey was extremely close, with Republican Jack Ciattarelli losing by extremely thin margins for the historically blue state.

Some Democrats, like former Hillary Clinton running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), doubled down on their support for Biden’s policy goals after the race.

“A lot of politics is about timing,” Kaine said. “And there was a time to [pass Biden’s spending bills] that would have helped in both Virginia and New Jersey.”

Moderates in the party disagree, however.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a relatively moderate Democrat, told reporters that the fault lies with McAuliffe.

“You can’t win in Virginia if you only appeal to very liberal voters,” Warner commented.

But the message to vulnerable Democrats is clear: An endorsement from Biden cannot guarantee victory, even in states that have been historically blue or states that went blue in both 2016 and 2020.

And the president’s poll numbers have continued to drop, with Rasmussen showing that on Dec. 8, only 42 percent of voters think Biden is doing a good job. According to another Rasmussen poll, only 31 percent of likely voters think that the country is headed in the right direction under Biden and the Democratic Congress.

Now, with midterms drawing nearer and no end to the supply chain, inflation, energy, and other crises in sight, even more Democrats may find themselves faced with the decision to distance themselves from the president or be defeated in 2022.

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