ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden is hitting the road this week — and facing a challenge to convince voters why they should keep Democrats in control of Congress.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has predicted Democrats will not only keep their narrow House majority but expand it. Some Senate Democrats and outside strategists have suggested they see reasons why the party might maintain its paper-thin Senate edge.
But those forecasts break with the projections of most political analysts, who are projecting Republicans will likely take control of the House and possibly the Senate come January. That means congressional Democrats have a steep uphill climb between Easter and November’s midterm elections.
First-term presidents typically lose seats in their first congressional elections — and, sometimes, as then-President Barack Obama put it in 2010, their party suffers a “shellacking.” The RealClearPolitics polling average for the “generic ballot” question of whom voters prefer gives the GOP an edge.
A major problem for Democrats is Biden, partly due to his own missteps and partly due to factors beyond his control, lacks any real coattails. Some Democratic incumbents and candidates are campaigning with more than a little daylight between themselves and POTUS.
Biden’s approval rating in the regular CBS News-YouGov survey hit the lowest mark for that survey since he started his job: 42 percent. That’s down from 50 percent in August and 62 percent in March 2021, according to the same survey.
But that overall approval number fails to paint the whole picture, and it’s not a pretty one for Biden and his fellow Democrats.
Consider the president’s disapproval ratings on kitchen table issues like his handling of the economy, rising consumer prices and increased gas prices. The number of Americans dissatisfied with his performance on things that impact their wallets every single day typically clocks in no lower than 55 percent in the CBS-YouGov poll — and on many issues, the figure hovers around a whopping 70 percent.
Biden will stop in Iowa and North Carolina this week to deliver remarks on how his administration is implementing the bipartisan infrastructure law, addressing record inflation and trying to pare high gasoline prices. Former President Donald Trump easily won Iowa and narrowly took North Carolina in the 2020 presidential election.
White House officials and Biden confidants say the president will be active on the midterm campaign trail and express confidence Democrats have accomplishments to tout this year, but it is unclear if that will move voters to their column.
’Just got to tell it‘
Barack Obama, visiting the White House last week for the first time since leaving office in January 2017, told reporters that Democratic candidates should do this during the heart of the midterm campaign season: “You’ve got a story to tell — just got to tell it.”
But do voters want to hear it?
Sixty-three percent of those surveyed in that latest CBS-YouGov poll said they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy. On inflation, 69 percent are dissatisfied. And more than 60 percent of those polled expressed disapproval with Biden’s handling of immigration and crime.
Biden also is underwater on his handling of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, though his 55 percent disapproval level against 45 percent approval more closely reflects a country split into two political camps.
Much of this era of Biden-Democratic control, following a strong start combating the COVID-19 pandemic, has come with a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don’t feel.
For instance, conservative media outlets both describe Biden as a doddering, feckless 79-year-old figurehead who cannot speak coherently — and the mastermind of a liberal attempt to throw open the country’s borders while creating a socialist megastate.
Voters get in on the act, too. Biden’s scrapped “Build Back Better” domestic spending plan, as a whole, was unpopular with voters — but individual parts, when brought up separately by pollsters, got relatively good marks.
There also is a mounting feel of a snakebitten president. On several days when Biden was slated to deliver remarks on his administration’s agenda or perceived accomplishments, tragedies have overshadowed his message. It happened again on Tuesday: Before his Iowa remarks on his team’s economic efforts, a man launched an attack in Brooklyn in New York City that left at least 16 shot or injured in the subway system.
Troublingly for him and other Democrats, voters are not just siding with Republican arguments on domestic matters. New polling shows voters are siding with Republicans on how to handle the Russia-Ukraine war.
Administration officials say they have slapped sanctions, trade and other economic penalties on the Russian government, companies and individuals in an “unprecedented” way. They also tout hundreds of millions of dollars in military weaponry and other aid Washington has sent to Ukrainians.
But pollsters are being told by GOP and Democratic voters one clear thing: Biden has not done enough, nor quickly enough.
Like GOP senators and House members, the new CBS-YouGov poll shows 75 percent of Americans want to get Ukrainians more weapons — and much faster.
The same is true about sanctions. Seventy-four percent said U.S. sanctions on Russia should be increased.
‘We should ship it’
Like on domestic issues, with a deadly and sometimes-barbaric war raging in Europe, Republicans have an edge. They are, in short, winning the messaging battle.
“We know who the Ukrainians are. They’re freedom fighters. We know who Putin is. He bombs women and children,” Senate Intelligence Committee member Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said last week, before turning to pleas from Ukraine’s president: “We’re a superpower and [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy challenged us to act like it. Zelensky needs more.”
Sasse then spoke for nearly three-quarters of Americans, adding this about various missile systems and remotely piloted aircraft: “If it shoots, we should ship it. More S-300s, more Javelins, more drones, more Stingers, more everything.”
After four years of a Trump administration that was chock full of officials with little or no government experience, Biden has made good on his campaign trail promise to fill his with experienced technocrats. They respect policy-making in a way the Trump disrupters and dismantlers admitted they didn’t. Team Biden is methodical, measured and all about inter-agency task forces, whole-of-government approaches and cumbersome processes to produce policy options to Biden.
Voters, however, are hungry for action. On inflation, on gas prices, on COVID-19 and on Russia’s brutal war.
“This administration is constantly giving process answers,” a frustrated Sasse told reporters. “The administration talks about this (Ukraine) like it’s somehow some nerd lawyer discussion, not like it’s a moral battle between good guys and bad guys, and we need the good guys to win.”
Biden administration officials also curiously describe some diplomatic process that seem detached from reality. An example came Sunday, when national security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked about European allies giving Ukraine Soviet-era fighter jets on which their pilots are trained.
“So the only thing the United States has expressed reservations about is sending fighter jets from a U.S. air base in Germany into contested airspace over Ukraine, flying them from point A to point B,” Sullivan on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “If a country in Eastern Europe wants to supply MIG-29s or other forms of Soviet aircraft, we have said that is their sovereign decision.”
Except: Washington — no matter which party occupies the White House — remains the Ghostbusters of Western affairs. Meaning: When major tactical decisions need a final approval from the most powerful NATO member, who (else) you gonna call?