Biden gets a big victory and Democrats get some November talking points

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
President Biden walks out to the South Lawn for a signing ceremony on Aug. 9 at the White House.

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has suffered through many bad weeks and difficult months. Last week wasn’t among them.

Final passage of the Inflation Reduction Act on Friday notched a major victory for the president and his fellow Democrats, capping events over the past 60 days that could – could – redraw the landscape for the November elections.

A few months ago, Republicans were expansive in their predictions about what would happen in the upcoming midterms. Democrats were in the dumps. Many Republicans remain quite bullish about their prospects – and for many good reasons. But today, Democrats are cautiously optimistic about their chances to defy those early predictions and deny Republicans the big gains once seen as inevitable.

Democrats who weathered the 2010 midterm election, which saw the party take a beating and lose control of the House, say the political climate, while still tilted toward the Republicans, is not nearly as bad as it was then. “When I would walk into a coffee shop, or a McDonald’s, or a gas station, I was getting yelled at,” said one Democratic elected official who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could speak candidly. “And this isn’t even anywhere near that – not even close.”

Still, this veteran politician was reluctant to sound too positive, at least not before taking soundings with voters over the coming weeks. Like other Democrats, he knows the overall climate isn’t good and sees the Labor Day start of intensive campaigning as a better point for measuring the state of the races. But as Congress breaks for its August recess, there’s a different mood, one that some Republicans sense as well.

The Wall Street Journal opinion editors sounded an alarm this past week, issuing an editorial that warned that a GOP victory in November isn’t assured and “the predicted red wave may be breaking far from the electoral shores.” They noted signs of resurgent energy among Democratic voters, coupled with the potential weakness of GOP nominees backed by former president Donald Trump.

In 2010, Democrats were on the defensive for what they and then-President Barack Obama had done, namely the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, which was roundly criticized by the right.

This year, Biden and congressional Democrats have been on the defensive in part for what they hadn’t done, as the president’s legislative agenda stalled after some early victories in 2021. Roadblocks in Congress led to increasingly vocal frustration among rank-and-file Democrats that the president wasn’t delivering on the promises of his campaign.

Today Biden can point to having produced an expansive legislative record with the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and House. That won’t free him from criticism by Republicans over specific policies, or solve some of his other problems, but it has the obvious potential of raising the energy level of his base.

There was a view inside the White House six weeks ago that the summer could produce the kind of good news that now has materialized. This was at a time when things were beginning to change politically. It was just after the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, injecting a powerful issue into the campaign dialogue that is energizing many women voters. It was also after Congress had approved the first gun safety bill, modest as it was, for the first time in 30 years.

White House officials saw other accomplishments potentially on the horizon. The hope was that Congress could finish the summer on a strong note, with actions that would negate the negativity within the Democratic base and persuade persuadable voters not to instinctively vote against the party in power in November, as is customarily the case in midterm elections.

That wish list has now become a reality. It began with passage of a bill to support manufacturing of semiconductors in the United States and of legislation to provide support for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Both were approved with some Republican votes.

The capstone came Friday when the House approved – on a straight party-line vote – legislation that encompasses long-sought Democratic goals: the biggest investment ever ($370 billion) to fight climate change; giving government the power to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices; extending health-care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. To pay for all of this, the bill establishes a new minimum tax for some of the nation’s largest corporations and a surcharge on stock buybacks by major corporations, while adding funding to the Internal Revenue Service to go after tax cheaters.

The Inflation Reduction Act fell well short of what was under discussion a year ago at this time, the so-called Build Back Better Bill that had a much heftier price tag but that never survived the negotiations with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both blessed the new bill, making passage possible. So what began as a summer in the doldrums for many Democrats has become a time of tempered celebration. But will it be short-lived?

The White House didn’t wait for final passage of the bill to issue its fall campaign messaging memo, with hard-edge language on how Democrats and the president had taken on and defeated corporate and special interest groups – from big drug companies to the gun lobby to oil and gas companies.

“The president and congressional Democrats beat the special interests and delivered what was best for the American people. Every step of the way, congressional Republicans sided with the special interests – pushing an extreme MAGA agenda that costs families,” said the memo from White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield and senior adviser Anita Dunn.

Many Democrats have urged the White House to take this kind of populist line as a way to frame the choice in the fall, and they were heartened to see the memo. The question is whether Biden and his White House team can maintain the discipline to keep driving these points throughout what still promises to be a rough fall election season. Based on the past 18 months, there is doubt about that, even among Democratic loyalists.

There was news beyond Congress that the White House also viewed as favorable. The inflation rate for last month came in at 8.5% above a year earlier, still near a 40-year high and therefore still a Republican talking point. But it was down a tick from the previous month’s 9.1% level, raising the question of whether inflation has peaked and if it has, will voters really notice.

Meanwhile, the national average for gasoline prices dipped below $4 for the first time since last spring. Prices are still well above where they were when Biden took office, but given how sensitive consumers are to any movements in the price of gasoline, the softening was also welcome news to Democrats.

The economy remains a puzzle, even to experts, as it toggles between inflation, a strong jobs market and signs of a possible recession. Conditions were captured by a smart headline in The Post last week, which described the economy “sizzling or fizzling,” take your pick.

The same confusion currently applies to Republican prospects for the November midterm elections. Will it still be the blowout some Republicans have been predicting or could the GOP emerge disappointed by the results?

All of this is stirring at a time as the biggest news story of the week threatens to toss in another wild card to the fall election outlook: the federal search warrant that brought FBI agents to remove boxes of documents, including 11 sets marked classified, from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

This was more bad news for the former president, who has had to endure damaging revelations by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.

Though the fact that he was keeping classified documents on his property represented a fresh black eye for Trump, the immediate aftermath of the FBI search was a huge backlash among Trump supporters and Republican politicians.

But such quick reaction by some Republican elected officials, who have little to no knowledge of the true nature of the Justice Department’s investigation, risks embarrassment and charges of hypocrisy for a party that spent so much time and energy investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails.

The summer has been anything but quiet, and what’s happened has given Biden some bragging rights and Republicans some reasons for pause. That’s not yet the full story of Election 2022, and no one can confidently read the road ahead. But at this moment, it’s a different story that it was when the summer began.