The year ahead in American politics looks daunting for Democrats

IN 2021 OF JOE BIDEN The presidency began with early success, not long after a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill by staunch supporters of Donald Trump. In 2022, a change of fortune is likely. Any enthusiasm the Biden administration still has may fade after the midterm elections in November, a date that will also mark the unofficial start of the next presidential contest, which right now looks like a prelude to Trump’s coronation.

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Consider first the declining fortunes of the son of Scranton. After the success in passing a gigantic stimulus package (in hindsight, it was too big), Biden’s presidency stalled. The blows followed one after another: high inflation, fueled in part by fiscal stimulus; a relentless pandemic; the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the inability of the White House to convince Democratic majorities to vote for the legislation. His approval rating has dropped by 25 percentage points since the start of his term, making him almost as unpopular as Trump at this point in his presidency (see chart). Before Christmas, a pivotal senator dealt a deathblow to Build Back Better (BBB) law, a climate change mitigation and social benefits package that was destined to be the landmark legislation of his presidency.

Adding to the unease is the upcoming election in November, in which Biden will likely lose whatever ability he still has to legislate. Presidents almost always suffer losses in their first midterm elections, and the slim majorities Democrats retain in both houses of Congress are unlikely to hold. Republicans need to take just five seats in the House of Representatives to win a majority and an explicit veto on all legislation Biden wants. In 2010, Barack Obama lost 63 seats in his self-styled “bombing.” In 2018, Trump lost 35.

If Biden’s approval rating were higher, he might have reason to hope to escape this eventuality. Unfortunately for him, it is not. Betting markets give Republicans an 82% chance of winning the House and a 70% chance of retaking the Senate.

The retirement announcements of veteran congressmen, who prefer not to leave office due to electoral rejection, are a harbinger of what is probably to come. So far, 25 House Democrats have said they won’t seek re-election, including some powerful committee chairs, compared with 12 Republicans. Importantly, 17 of those Democrats are not going to seek another high office or position (“pure retirements”), compared to four of the Republicans. In previous election years, retirements have been the main indicators of losses for the party in power. Exogenous events, such as the Supreme Court’s restriction of constitutional abortion rights that sparked a backlash in the suburbs, may help Democrats on the sidelines. But the end result is unlikely to remain full Democratic control of Washington.

That leaves just a few months for Democrats to make use of their unified control of Congress and the White House. Much of the seemingly high-priority legislation promised to his supporters (to strengthen voting rights, boost unions, reduce police brutality, and reform the immigration system) is dead on arrival, because Senate filibuster allows the Republican minority denies its approval. The obstructionism itself, which progressives once hoped would be dispensed with, is destined to stay.

Rather than spend too much time pointing to bills with little chance of passage, Democrats will likely spend months resurrecting a pale version of BBB (which in itself is theoretically acceptable only because a special budget procedure can circumvent the filibuster). Tough negotiations with Joe Manchin, the top Democrat holdout, are the only way forward for the president if he wants to have something substantive to present to voters in November. They are likely to drag for months. The demands of the campaign season and the difficulty of the actual passage may leave little time or inclination for anything else.

So by the end of the year, the momentum will likely have shifted from Democrats to Republicans. The electoral victory will appear to validate the party’s failure when considering its leader’s serious attempts to subvert the elections. In fact, you may be even more indebted to him.

Few of the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his actions after his election loss will remain in office. After the purges in the party primaries, the internal resistance to Trump’s whims will be weaker. Former statesmen who made peace with Trumpism will see rewards. Kevin McCarthy will likely ascend to the House Speaker he covets. All of this will be accomplished without the need for the GOP to craft a political agenda in response to the 2020 losses.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ ambitious political agenda will likely languish as the usual forces of gridlock and partisanship come to dominate a divided Congress. Like Obama before him, Biden will have to rely on temporary actions and executive orders to get almost anything done.

In both parties, the competition for the next presidential election is already underway, although the contest may be a repeat of 2020. Both Biden and Trump are arrogant enough to refuse to cede power to younger politicians. However, they are both old enough that their health prevents them from running. Kamala Harris, the vice president, will remain heir apparent to the Democrats, despite her dismal campaign in 2020 and her difficult first year as her second-in-command. If Trump doesn’t run, a populist fashioned in her image, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is her likely successor. Even if the older men stepped aside, America would likely be treated to a duel of seconds.

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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “An Overwhelming Year for Democrats.”

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