No, the war is not a reset for Joe Biden and the Democrats
The immediate aftermath of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address supplied the fuel for the folly.
A snap poll conducted by Marist College at the top of March displayed the president’s approval rating leaping to 47%, up 8 points since February. On his handling of the pandemic, 55% registered their support. And most importantly in the moment, 52% saw Biden’s initial response to the Russian bombardment of Ukraine as the right one.
The “rallying around the flag” effect that drew on Americans’ natural sympathy and inherent resolve teased some Democrats into believing a pulverizing ground and air war in eastern Europe could somehow revive Biden’s sluggish political status at home.
The unity that Biden had promised long ago had finally flourished, even if it took a cataclysmic conflict to get us there.
But it was ephemeral.
Like late night McDonald’s.
Or drunk Snapchatting an old crush.
And now two weeks later — as the war in Ukraine pushes into its fourth punishing week, the debate around U.S. involvement has predictably polarized, Biden’s options to intervene have shrunk, and Americans have returned to their dim view of those in power.
Pew Research, which polled 10,000 respondents last week, found that the public’s views of Biden have changed very little since the year began. 41% gave Biden a positive rating then versus 43% now. The difference: A smidgeon more Democrats approve.
It’s a reminder of how difficult it will be for Biden and his party to reverse their fortunes in the next seven and a half months before voters issue their midterm penalty.
Unfortunately, the longer this brutal conflict goes on, the more it will naturally recede from news headlines and the front of American minds. The chief concerns of voters shall remain the rudimentary issues of inflation, gas prices and whether we’re headed for another ‘Rona outbreak or cascade of personal restrictions.
No, a faraway war is not a chance for Biden or Democrats to reset. If anything, it will consume Biden’s time and reduce his focus on a domestic agenda and party politics.
When confronted with images of civilians digging graves to deposit their neighbors bodies, as was witnessed this week in Mariupol, the political survival of Abigail Spanberger suddenly looks small.
And rightfully so.
There’s also the budding realization that there may not be much Democrats can due to reverse course in the short-term. That even if they muscled through more of Biden’s agenda — relief on prescription drug prices, a clean energy incentive — it wouldn’t drastically move the needle, given the time it takes for policy to be implemented and recognized.
“The truth about being president is your power is far more limited than people think. And they just want you to fix everything, even if its not within your power to fix. And I am worried that really what people are going to see at the end of the day, is high gas prices and inflation and scary stuff in the world and I’m not sure that that cuts to the benefit of the incumbent most times,” said Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesman for Barack Obama, on his podcast, Pod Save America, this week.
The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin reported earlier this week that Democrats are quibbling about about their midterm message. Build Back Better vs. Democrats Deliver. Like the finesse of a phrase will bring new fortune.
Nolan McCarty, a Princeton University political scientist, says the messaging muddle largely misses the point.
"Messaging can have a modest impact but the main thing that's going to determine the elections is how people feel about the economy and their personal situation,” he says.
"I don't think Democrats can improve their situation a whole lot with messaging…I don't think there's a whole lot they can do other than things they've been trying to do…There's not a whole lot of short-term fixes. They should mostly concentrate on not making things worse. Cross their fingers a little bit on the economy...and not do things that make it worse,” McCarty says.
Michael Kazin, a historian and author of the book, “What It Took To Win: A History of the Democratic Party,” says another problem Democrats face is the lack of an urgent mass movement creating urgency around their policy proposals.
“There’s not a movement. There’s not a labor movement, there’s not a movement of ordinary Americans demanding some of these things, as there was earlier in American history.”
“It’s important to note, I mean people think, especially in Washington, somehow the message of the party is all-important and getting your people together is all-important but politicians have to feel pressure. And if they don’t feel pressure from below to pass these things, then they can go their own way.”
“A party can’t do it by itself.”
Instead of handwringing about their own message, Kazin recommends his party go back to basics and make a withering contrast with Republicans on a single issue. Place voting rights, police reform and race-based policies aside, he says.
“If you want to win elections, you can’t be perceived as talking mostly about those policies, because Black people are only 13% of the population,” says Kazin.
And attack the GOP as the party of the rich who doesn’t believe the wealthy should pay higher taxes.
“Americans believe that rich people have too much power and Democrats should talk about that. And keep pressing it and not get waylaid from it.”
Jon Favreau, another former Obama aide and Pod Save America host, essentially agrees:
“It’s constantly a choice. They want to raise your taxes and take away your health care. And we are fighting to do all of these things. Some of them they’ll be able to do before the midterms, some of them, give us a bigger majority and we’ll do them.”
This isn’t revolutionary advice, or even guaranteed to stick. The cold hard truth for Dems — and political reporters seeking new narratives — is this cake might be baked no matter what the party attempts.