Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Democrats are still gearing up for a brutal midterm election. The clouds hanging over the party have only darkened in the past few weeks, increasing the chances of another “shellacking” like the one President Barack Obama described after the midterm election in 2010, when his party lost the House majority by dozens of seats.
It’s been clear since the start of President Joe Biden’s term the midterms would likely be ugly. After all, he began his presidency with extremely narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin scrambled the Biden agenda by blocking the Build Back Better bill while Republicans prevented the John Lewis Voting Rights Act from advancing in the Senate. To top it off, a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research Poll shows only 39% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance, marking the lowest point of his presidency.
Now three major factors threaten to make conditions even worse for Democrats.
For one, the war in Ukraine continues to cause global instability. Turbulence overseas will also have ripple effects on the world’s economy and supply chains. And despite Biden’s success supporting Ukraine, shoring up NATO and avoiding a direct conflict with Russia, he is not getting much credit from voters for his handling of the war; 54% of Americans think he is not being tough enough, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC poll.
Then there is Covid-19. Biden’s ability to usher the nation back to some semblance of normality has always been a key measure of his success. Biden won the 2020 election over former President Donald Trump in part because he was seen as a stabilizing force who could more effectively curb the spread of Covid-19. While vaccines and therapeutic treatments have provided tremendous progress in terms of preventing hospitalizations, the pandemic is still raging. More than a million Americans have died from the virus and cases are on the rise once again.
The administration’s public health messaging has caused confusion on numerous occasions. Local and state policies have varied, with many areas choosing not to reinstate Covid restrictions despite the current surge. Federal courts have also undercut vital mandates and new Omicron subvariants are still wreaking havoc. Things could get worse as the midterms approach, with the White House warning 100 million people could potentially be infected in the fall and winter.
Congress has thus far failed to fund the administration’s request for a $10 billion Covid relief package, despite repeated warnings the consequences could be dire. And although Republicans are responsible for blocking the funding as part of a dispute over immigration, the public will likely lay the blame on the president if conditions deteriorate, disruptions abound and critical supplies like tests and therapeutics are not readily available.
Then there is the economy. The past month has been filled with warning signs. Democrats would do well to remember the political strategist James Carville’s famous maxim, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Inflation remains a persistent problem, despite economists who initially thought price increases and supply chain challenges would be transitory. The Consumer Price Index increased 8.3% in April 2022 compared to the same time period last year. And even though the unemployment rate has fallen to 3.6%, the lowest level in more than five decades, Americans have a dismal view of the economy.
During a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Katie Porter urged her colleagues to be more responsive to inflation and the squeeze this puts on American families, sharing a story about a recent trip to the supermarket where she discovered the price of bacon had risen to almost $10 a pound. When one Democrat later told her they weren’t seeing the issue reflected in the polls, Porter responded: “Well, you don’t know what to ask.” Democrats should heed Porter’s warning and be more responsive to the issues concerning average Americans.
The Federal Reserve has already started hiking interest rates in an attempt to tame inflation, although this is also driving fears of a recession. Meanwhile, an extraordinarily turbulent month on Wall Street has pushed the S&P 500 into a bear market briefly. Many economists are predicting things will get much worse before they get better, though there is disagreement over whether this will translate into a long-term period of stagflation.
None of this bodes well for Democrats. In recent decades, poor economic conditions have had a negative impact on the president’s party. In 1982, with unemployment topping 10% during what was dubbed the “Reagan Recession,” Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. In 2010, as the nation continued to reel from the economic fallout of the 2008 market crash and recession, Democrats suffered a wipeout in the House.
Although both Reagan and Obama went on to win reelection, the midterms led to a shift in congressional power that had profound effects on their agendas. For President Reagan, the House became a key obstacle that stopped him from achieving much of his agenda. Democrats were able to block the most draconian efforts to dismantle social safety set and pushed the administration to agree to compromises over issues like Social Security.
And after the 2010 midterms, Obama would never again find the kind of policymaking support he enjoyed in his first two years in office. Instead, he found himself fighting over the budget with members of Congress who threatened to send the nation into default. Obama resorted to using his executive power to achieve gains in areas like immigration reform.
To be sure, Democrats can still take steps in the coming months to dampen the political body blows. If the administration can make short-term progress on inflationary pressures by reducing tariffs Trump imposed on China, and calm the stock market by restoring confidence in the direction of the economy, voters might be less inclined to revolt come November.
This will require the kind of smart and effective messaging that has often been a missing element of the Biden administration. Democrats need to highlight the accomplishments that have gone unrecognized and take on issues like student debt that could demonstrate the administration making concrete progress.
Democrats could also focus on the radical nature of the GOP and the threat Trump-endorsed candidates could pose to our democracy. These sorts of appeals have worked before. In 1998, Democrats highlighted House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s extreme tactics and successfully turned the public against him. In 2022, Democrats would be wise to utilize the anger stimulated by the Supreme Court’s pending decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to generate the level of voter turnout Democrats will need to win.
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The first midterm election of a new presidency tends to be a referendum on the commander in chief, even if he isn’t on the ballot. Historic trends and poor economic conditions might just be enough to give Republicans the kind of majorities that would enable them to cause legislative chaos in the next two years of the Biden presidency.
Democrats will need all hands on deck from right now until the midterms, working the campaign trail to canvass, organize and register voters to facilitate turnout at levels that might potentially soften the blow that looms on the horizon.