As if Democrats needed any more convincing Tuesday’s midterm elections carry enormous stakes, President Joe Biden offered a bluntly dire assessment during a fundraiser last Friday in Chicago.
“If we lose the House and Senate, it’s going to be a horrible two years,” Biden told the small crowd gathered inside a hotel ballroom, where cameras weren’t allowed. “The good news is I’ll have a veto pen.”
After two years of Democratic control of Congress, a change in leadership in the House or Senate – or both – would thrust Biden’s presidency into an entirely new phase. Biden himself has been projecting optimism in the final days of the campaign, but reality is setting in for Democrats their majority rule in Congress could soon end – and Biden’s ability to get his top priorities passed could go with it.
White House officials have begun pointing out their losses aren’t likely to be nearly as bad as previous midterm wipeouts, including in 2010, and say the fact Democrats have a fighting chance at all is a positive sign for Biden. But his advisers privately acknowledge that they don’t see a viable path for Democrats to hold onto their House majority, though the president and his senior team are starting the day with the view that the prospect of Democrats holding on to their Senate majority is real – even if it’s one that may take days, or longer, to be fully realized.
With the intraparty blame game set to boil over in the weeks ahead, the White House moved Tuesday to separate Biden’s agenda – and the president himself – from the list of targets. The White House circulated an Election Day memo to allies more than two dozen individual poll results they say underscores the popularity of the key individual elements of Biden’s agenda, ranging from his cornerstone legislative achievements to his actions on student loans, marijuana and his administration’s response to Covid-19
“Before all the votes have even been cast, pundits are declaring that these midterms have been a referendum on the president’s agenda – nothing could be further from the truth,” the memo, which was obtained by CNN, says in its introduction.
Yet even Biden has acknowledged that his agenda, no matter how it polls in isolation, hasn’t translated to an American public that has taken a largely negative view on the direction of the country.
“We’ve passed so many good things,” Biden said at a fundraising event last week. “They’ve been so good people haven’t realized how good they are yet.”
The effort to get in front of expected losses comes after months of frontline Democratic candidates actively seeking to separate themselves from Biden, relegating the party’s leader mostly to Democratic states and districts as the party scrambled to save its majorities. It’s a reality advisers say Biden doesn’t take personally. After 36 years in the Senate, Biden’s view has long been that the candidates know what’s best for their state or district. But as Biden’s approval ratings started to inch up in the last few months, White House officials have bristled at the view that he was a singular drag on Democrats.
The defensive tone in the memo echoes a message Biden has repeatedly sought to emphasize in the closing days of the campaign, one that centers on the idea that the election represents a choice between two parties, not a referendum on Biden or his presidency.
A loss of a few seats – Republicans need only pick up five seats to take control of the House – would mean dramatic changes for the president.
Here are four areas that are at stake this Tuesday for Biden and his administration:
Republicans on Capitol Hill have made abundantly clear that if they take control of Congress, Biden should get ready: Investigations are coming his way.
A majority in the House or Senate would hand GOP lawmakers powerful chairmanships on a number of oversight committees, giving them the ability to launch investigations targeting Biden, the White House and even members of the president’s family.
And so far, Republican members have indicated that they’re eager to target all of the above.
GOP lawmakers including Reps. James Comer and Jim Jordan, who are likely to chair the House Oversight and Judiciary committees respectively, are getting ready to probe a range of issues, from the business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter; to what Republicans allege is political interference by the FBI and Justice Department; to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And that’s not to mention the drumbeat of impeachment talk – for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or even the president himself.
White House officials have been expecting and preparing for this new world for months, including by making personnel hires earlier this summer to beef up its oversight operations. Officials say if Republicans do in fact, take control of Congress, the White House is prepared to beef up those efforts even more with additional hires, and believe it will be ready to push back on future GOP investigations as lacking in merit, politically motivated and nefarious.
While officials have been cautious not to get in front of any GOP actions or pre-judge the results of the election, they are also keenly aware of political dynamics that may work in their favor, people familiar with the matter said.
“American people historically don’t respond well to egregious overreach,” one of the people told CNN, specifically citing a new Republican majority’s battles with former President Bill Clinton. “We’ll be prepared, but it’s tough to look at House Republicans and think this won’t wander into that territory.”
The historic likelihood that Biden would lose seats – and majorities – in Congress has loomed over the White House his entire term so far. It is part of what motivated the president’s ambitious legislative agenda, including major Covid-19 relief and a bipartisan infrastructure package, in the earliest months of his presidency.
If Republicans gain control of one or both chambers, the era of big, progressive bills will likely end. Instead, Biden will be on the defense as Republicans work to undo much of what he accomplished in the first two years of his term.
The GOP has already vowed to roll back elements of Biden’s signature legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, including its new, higher taxes on corporations. And they could work to roll back or challenge some of the president’s climate initiatives that are included in the package.
Other areas where the president has vowed action, like cementing into law the nationwide right to abortion, would have no chance of advancing if Republicans take control. And other programs, like student loan relief, could be subject to blocking efforts by the GOP.
In all of these areas, Biden is poised to wield his veto pen in rejecting potential Republican attempts to undermine his agenda. As president, Biden has not vetoed any bills, a facet of Democratic control on Capitol Hill.
White House officials have already been quietly preparing for the areas where agreement is a necessity – spending bills and an increase of the nation’s debt limit. The two issues represent must-pass items that have been at the center of a series of Congress vs. White House battles over the last decade.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has been among a number of House Republicans who have pledged to deploy similar tactics should they take the majority.
The first concrete signs of how that may play out will quickly become apparent. Lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill this month with a matter of weeks to reach an agreement to fund the government.
At the same time, Biden has a long history of working with Republicans to advance pieces of legislation. And he vowed when running for office to find areas to work across the aisle, something he was able to do on several of his key cornerstone legislative wins.
Biden advisers point to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law and the $250 billion semiconductor manufacturing and science bill as providing a road map to bipartisan success.
Biden’s 2024 decision
As soon as the 2022 midterm election results are in, national attention will immediately turn to 2024 – including on the question of whether Biden will seek a second term.
While Biden and his aides have been quietly thinking about his political future for months and they have accelerated conversations in the last month, those deliberations will accelerate with the close of the midterm cycle. Biden has pointed to family meetings during the holiday stretch as important to his decision-making, though people familiar with the matter say first lady Dr. Jill Biden and others are on board with another run.
For weeks, the president and his advisers have maintained that his intention, for now, is to run again. Biden moved quickly to transfer his 2020 operation to the Democratic National Committee after he defeated former President DonaldTrump. The party committee has spent the last two years maintaining and beefing up his grassroots list, fundraising pipeline and building out state-level infrastructure that would make up the critical infrastructure of a nascent campaign.
They’ve also said that no decision is final until the president has had ample opportunity to discuss his political future with his family. But Biden’s 2024 decision won’t just be a family affair – there will also be strong political dynamics at play.
For one, Trump’s decision to seek a second term – and the timing of that potential announcement – is expected to be a key factor. Biden advisers continue to believe that the president is best positioned to take on his predecessor, and are confident about a second Biden vs. Trump contest.
Another consideration: How fellow Democrats respond to the results of Tuesday night. Polling from this fall indicates a majority of Democrats say they do not want Biden to run again in 2024. And losses for Democrats could only exacerbate the sense within the party that a change in direction is required.
While many elected officials in Biden’s party have been loyal in expressing their public support for a second term, some others have openly called for change.
Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who said over the summer that he does not believe Biden should run again, told CNN on the eve of Election Day that he believes “a majority of Democrats” feel the same way.
“Regardless of tomorrow’s results, I believe Democrats must rebuild our brand and repopulate our bench of future leaders – for both Congress and the White House,” Phillips said. “President Biden has fulfilled his promise to serve as a stabilizing ‘bridge’ to the future, and I expect a majority of Democrats will be seeking a next generation candidate to take the baton in 2024.”
Biden has seen remarkably little turnover in the first two years of his tenure among his Cabinet and senior team. The halfway mark of his first term, however, could be a natural moment for staff changes.
It reflects a reluctance to shake up his team, despite calls at various points to dismiss members of his administration. Biden has refrained from firing or asking for the resignation of any members of his Cabinet and sought to lock in his senior team months ahead of this year’s midterms.
There has been turnover among his senior staff, including in top West Wing positions. His press secretary, White House counsel and senior adviser for public engagement all left earlier this year. Some officials decided to leave the White House around the one-year mark of the administration, while others departed at the start of summer.
But Biden’s inner circle remains mostly intact. That includes chief of staff Ron Klain, senior advisers Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, deputy chiefs of staff Bruce Reed and Jen O’Malley Dillon, communications director Kate Bedingfield and top communications adviser Anita Dunn.
Officials have said changes are possible both to the president’s Cabinet and his senior White House staff later this year, though no moves are guaranteed. Should Biden announce his decision to run in 2024, several of the members of his core team are considered likely to shift over to the political operation.
Earlier this fall, the White House established a talent search project to prepare for potential vacancies across Cabinet and senior administration roles following the midterm elections.
Klain brought forward the talent search idea, which will be overseen by two Biden White House alums, Jeff Zients and Natalie Quillian. The pair served in similar roles during the 2020 presidential transition.
“It’s just good government to make sure that you’re thinking ahead,” O’Malley Dillon said during an Axios event last week. “The people that are part of this and helping make that change are the people that you’d expect, and you want to see.”
Zients and Quillian – who both served in Covid-19 response roles at the White House earlier in Biden’s presidential term – have specifically been conducting a wide and diverse search for prospective candidates outside the administration to fill Cabinet, deputy Cabinet and senior administration roles.
Some top officials, like Covid adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, are preparing to leave soon. Climate envoy John Kerry has told CNN he plans to stay in the administration at least until this week’s major climate conference in Egypt – without indicating whether he’ll stay longer. And Biden recently appointed a seasoned veteran of Democratic White Houses, John Podesta, to serve as his climate adviser.
The future of other officials is unclear. Klain has been the subject of speculation, and it is typical for White House chiefs of staff to serve only a portion of a president’s term. But as Biden faces the inevitable personnel transition that all presidents experience after the midterms, Klain’s deeply ingrained role in all corners of the West Wing’s operations may create even more incentive for him to stick around, some officials note, even as they acknowledge he’s given no indication of his intentions.
A potential replacement has been floated in Dunn, who would be the first woman to serve in the role.
“I like the job I have,” Dunn insisted at the Axios event. She added, “I hope Ron Klain stays as long as Joe Biden is president.”