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The political unicorn that goes poof in midterm elections

Political Theater, Episode 240

President Joe Biden hands a copy of his speech to Speaker Nancy Pelosi alongside Vice President Kamala Harris as he arrives for his State of the Union address on March 1.
President Joe Biden hands a copy of his speech to Speaker Nancy Pelosi alongside Vice President Kamala Harris as he arrives for his State of the Union address on March 1. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Pool)

There is a reason that when one party controls the White House and Congress, they tend to be very ambitious with their agenda: It’s rare. To quote Steve Winwood, while you see a chance, take it.

In the last 50 years, only six first-term presidents have been graced with their party in the majority in the House and Senate. And for one of them, George W. Bush, that only lasted a few months in 2001, when Sen. James Jeffords left the GOP and made Democrats the majority party in that chamber. 

The others were Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Of those, only Carter held onto the majority in both chambers after his first midterm election in 1978. Clinton lost both chambers to the GOP in 1994. Obama and Trump lost the House but held the Senate, in 2010 and 2018, respectively.

I figured it was best to keep things to the last 50 years or so. Before that, things just get almost unrecognizable. (Liberal Republicans? Segregationist Democrats? It wasn’t that long ago there were lots of both.) But if you really want more, the always helpful American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara goes back to the Depression era with those numbers and includes presidential approval ratings as well.

All of this leads us to President Joe Biden, who came into office with narrow majorities last year but with a big to-do list. Biden gave his first State of the Union address Tuesday, the same day as the midterm primary season got under way, down in Texas. 

Biden made pleas for national, and international, unity on behalf of Ukraine in its war against Russia, as well as pushed versions of a stalled agenda on lowering prescription drug prices, child tax credits and enhanced child care. With Congress still not even done with the current fiscal year’s spending bills, that is a somewhat optimistic ask.

Republicans grumble-grumble-growled that it was the same-old, same-old from Biden, and he was doubling down on policies that in such a short period of time had driven the country into the ditch, spiked inflation and made everyone’s coffee lukewarm.

But it’s not like Biden, regardless of his public approval ratings, was going to all of a ditch the Democrats’ agenda and adopt the Republican Party platform. (Maybe one reason is that the GOP platform hasn’t been updated since 2016.) So we’re in for some digging in on all sides, as people revert to what is familiar in an election year: tempering their ambitions for breakthrough legislation and, at least publicly, saying the November elections will provide a mandate.

On this week’s Political Theater podcast, Nathan Gonzales and I discussed the midterm campaign dynamics, sprinkled in a little State of the Union react and riffed on the difference between “good” and “great.”

Among Nathan’s biggest takeaways is that midterms are consistently referenda on the president, which is why they so often are hard on his party. To circle back to Steve Winwood: “It’s all on you.

Show Notes:

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