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analysis

President Joe Biden speaks outside Independence Hall, on Sept. 1 in Philadelphia.Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

For a president dismissed by opponents as ineffective and old, Joe Biden has new reason for vigour in his fist-pump.

After months of legislative setbacks, Mr. Biden can claim success in measures that are pouring new money into infrastructure, climate, student debt forgiveness and relief for military veterans exposed to toxins from waste burn pits.

With pivotal mid-term elections months away, his party has begun to outperform expectations, even vanquishing name-brand opponent Sarah Palin, a favourite of Donald Trump, in Alaska this week. Public opinion is shifting further in favour of legalizing abortion, a key Democratic plank since the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision early this summer. Mr. Trump’s legal woes continue to mount while voter views on Mr. Biden have begun to improve.

It was all enough to merit an impassioned effort to seize momentum, which Mr. Biden sought to accomplish this week with a primetime speech in which he inveighed against “MAGA Republicans” who “spread fear and lies — lies told for profit and power.” Mr. Biden, by contrast, said he has “never been more optimistic about America’s future,” going so far as to promise the end of “cancer as we know it.”

Yet there is reason to doubt how much has changed. Mid-term congressional elections can shift the balance of power, stripping the president’s party of the ability to effectively legislate. They do not tend to favour incumbents, and history shows that presidents with approval ratings below 50 per cent lose, on average, 37 seats in the House of Representatives, according to an analysis by Whit Ayres, a long-time Republican pollster. Mr. Biden’s latest polls show him at 42.7 per cent approval, according to data tracked by fivethirtyeight.com.

“History would suggest that a president whose job approval is in the low 40s is a substantial drag on his party’s candidates in the mid-term elections,” Mr. Ayres said.

Republican Party leaders are less circumspect.

Democrats are “about to get creamed,” said Matt Rinaldi, who chairs the Texas Republican Party.

Mr. Biden, in his speech on Thursday, sought to marshal support against Mr. Trump, who he described as a dangerous demagogue.

Mr. Rinaldi saw it differently, pointing to the optics of the President’s address conducted before a background saturated with scarlet lighting. “It had the aura of a dictator, with him standing before the blood red lights with his fists pounding on the podium,” he said. He dismissed the “tiny bump” in the polls for Mr. Biden, and scoffed at the Democrats’ focus on the anti-democratic tendencies of some in the U.S. far right.

“They want this election to be about Trump and not the disasters in the economy that they caused,” he said.

Record-high inflation has dominated Americans’ worries about their own well-being, while conservatives continue to simmer against what they see as liberal policies that have left the country’s southern border too porous. Republican strategists say those issues are still top of mind for voters.

But cost-of-living fears have, in small measure, begun to ease as inflation shows signs of cresting.

There is evidence, too, that American anxieties are being directed to subjects outside the economy.

Surveys show a five-point gain in the percentage of people who believe abortion should be legal since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. That decision has galvanized a new fury among liberals — and some centrists — against the conservative politics that brought forward a slate of justices now reworking the country’s legal framework.

“The abortion issue is a very, very hot issue. Maybe the biggest one out there,” said Tim Malloy, a polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University Poll, which maintains a regular barometer of U.S. political views. The latest, released this week, showed a nine-point jump in approval for Mr. Biden.

“How women – Democrats, Republicans and independents – are going to react to that could be the sleeper issue,” Mr. Malloy said.

Abortion was among the reasons Alaskan voters this week chose Democrat Mary Peltola as the first Indigenous woman to represent the state in the U.S. Congress. Ms. Peltola, a former state legislator who served as a judge in the Yup’ik tribal court, won in a special election, a kind of poll that tends to favour more conservative candidates in Alaska. But she beat Ms. Palin, a former vice-presidential candidate who is an ally of Mr. Trump.

Although local concerns matter most, “the abortion issue is front and centre on a lot of people’s minds,” said Mike Wenstrup, who chairs the Alaska Democratic Party.

“We had very large turnout for an August election.”

The Cook Political Report, an influential newsletter, this week moved five Congressional seats into safer Democrat territory, citing rejuvenated Democratic prospects that “could rein in [Republican] gains.”

Meanwhile, the former Republican president continues to exert an outsized influence. In coming months, “the largest unknown is what’s going to happen with Donald Trump’s legal issues,” Mr. Ayres said, pointing to near-daily revelations about the handling of classified documents as well as an investigation in Georgia into efforts to overturn election results there.

Yet there remains reason to doubt whether any of this is enough to forestall electoral defeat for Mr. Biden’s party in November.

Enthusiasm among Democrats for voting has now likely equalled that of Republicans, but is “not greater than Republicans,” Mr. Ayres said. That may be enough to throw into doubt the outcome of votes in the U.S. Senate, where Mr. Trump has backed several novice candidates. Not so in the rest of Congress.

“Things have gotten somewhat better for Democrats, but not so much better that they are somehow favoured to take over the House,” Mr. Ayres said.

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