Biden, a president with unusually extensive experience in Washington, knows this well. As Paul Starr wrote in the American Prospect, “The confrontations are coming with the red states, congressional Republicans, the high court, and Trumpism itself, and the question will be how, if at all, Democrats can overcome them.”
Timing is everything in American politics. Great presidents understand that the time for legislating is always extraordinarily brief. Upon taking over the White House after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson would tell his advisers that they only had a short window for policy-making. Once members of Congress started turning their attention to the midterm campaigns, the politics of passing legislation would become much more difficult.
As I noted in my book, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society,” Johnson said to his adviser Bill Moyers, “Bill, I’ve just been figuring out how much time we would have to do what we want to do. I really intend to finish Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution . . . In an ideal world . . . we would have about 110 months to his 144 months . . . I’ll never make it that far, of course, so let’s assume that we have to do it all in 1965 and 1966, and probably in 1966 we’ll lose our big margin in Congress. That means in 1967 and 1968 there will be a hell of a fight.” And after the first set of midterm elections happened, the administration would be playing defense.
Biden finds himself in this exact situation — and he doesn’t have the kind of huge Democratic majorities that Johnson enjoyed. Already, the wiggle room for Democrats in the House and Senate is minimal. Despite the polls and optimism among Democrats, Republicans gained seats in the 2020 elections. This means that Democrats only possess a 219-to-211 majority, with a significant number of the Democrats who won in 2018 and 2020 coming from swing districts that could easily switch back to the GOP.
In the Senate, the party split is 50-50 (technically 48-50, but with Democrats depending on two Independents who caucus with them). Even without the midterms, Biden has more than enough to worry about. Health problems alone could cost the Democrats control of the chambers even before the 2022 election.
As Lyndon Johnson understood and Biden knows, midterms don’t usually go well for a new president. With only a few exceptions, such as FDR in 1934, Bill Clinton in 1998, or George W. Bush in 2002, the president’s party loses seats in the midterms, with an average of 27 House seats since 1946.
Putting aside the narrow margins and historical trends, Republicans are facing favorable conditions. As a result of the redistricting that will take place following the 2020 census, the situation for Republicans in the House is very strong. Republican strength in state legislatures and governorships stacks the odds against Democrats. Biden’s party could also feel the effects of voter restriction laws that are going on the books in states like Georgia and Texas, and could help undermine any benefits the party might enjoy from high levels of enthusiasm for the Biden presidency.
Then there is the Donald Trump wild card. Many people are waiting to see whether the former president decides to run for president in 2024. If he indicates before the 2022 midterms that he will, he could play a role in boosting Republican turnout, and if he entered after Republicans gain seats — or control of either chamber — he would add to the immense obstacles Biden would face in the final two years of his term.
Biden’s best chance to defy the odds stems from the enormously successful vaccine rollout, which could leave Americans feeling very good about the state of the country and the state of the economy, enough to dissuade many from voting for candidates from a radicalized Republican Party. The presence of extreme figures such as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene among the GOP’s elected officials offers a constant reminder to the electorate of just how for the GOP has moved away from the center. Republican leadership and much of the party have desperately opposed a commission to investigate the insurrection on January 6 for fear it will have a negative impact on their midterm election campaigns.
Concern about the midterms should intensify the President’s desire to close legislative deals soon. Biden’s window to move big measures through the legislative branch, when the option of party-line legislation remains viable, may close by the end of next year.
It should also motivate him to double down on persuading maverick Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to remain loyal to the party line. Finally, Biden needs to make voting rights legislation a top priority, even if practical partisan considerations are the reason he does so. Higher voter turnout tends to be good for the Democrats, the party with a much broader electorate than the GOP. In 2020, turnout among African Americans in states like Georgia was pivotal to the party’s success.
Biden has been around politics long enough to know that he will probably be in for one hell of a fight going into 2023. He remembers the enormous impact that the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 midterms had on the Obama presidency. Tea party Republicans spent the rest of his presidency stifling legislative progress on key issues such as immigration and climate change and pushing the government into dangerous high-stakes showdowns on routine matters, such as funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. This knowledge should be sufficient to make him feel the urgency of the moment and the need for swift and decisive action.