As pollsters and political professionals alike attempt to divine which issue – or issues – will drive the outcome of the midterm elections, the internal White House view of the current dynamics isn’t exactly hidden.
President Joe Biden’s schedule this week provides the roadmap in a less than subtle, real-time triage effort to fire up Democrats and stanch political bleeding on the economy. His push this week in some ways demonstrates the limits of his power, both on the policy and the politics. He remains at the mercy of an increasingly fragile international economy, major ground war in Europe and a global oil market turned on its head by OPEC+ earlier this month.
Major campaign rallies are virtually non-existent, with Democrats across battleground states and districts wary of Biden’s low approval numbers and choosing to take advantage of the President’s fundraising prowess instead. It’s a reality Biden’s advisers say he’s fairly sanguine about, given his five decades in politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in an MSNBC interview, may as well have spoken for Biden when she responded to Democrats calling for a change in leadership with the words made famous by former NFL owner Al Davis: “Just win, baby.”
It does, however, have the effect of placing another hurdle in front of his ability to shift any dynamics.
Yet it’s also clear that the White House – whether through future, if tenuous commitments on abortion rights, action on gas prices or leveraging major legislative wins like the bipartisan infrastructure law – is pressing to deploy any available tools to bolster Democratic prospects.
The abortion remarks on Tuesday were pegged to the “big” commitment that Biden’s first legislative action in a new Congress, should Democrats hold their majority in the House and expand it in the Senate, would be a bill to codify Roe vs. Wade – and that Biden would sign it on the 50th anniversary of the Roe ruling.
Everything about that is absurd on its face, not the least of which is the fact there isn’t explicit legislative text to show for it. Roe, after all, isn’t an actual bill and congressional Democrats have proposed going much further in the legislation they’ve considered this year.
Regardless, pledging to sign a bill in the next Congress on a specific date – less than three weeks after that Congress is supposed to gavel in – is the equivalent of cotton candy: A satisfying political pitch that’s not necessarily tied to actual substance.
Instead, it represented an overt effort to elevate – or re-elevate – an issue Democratic officials (including Biden’s political team) have grown concerned is fading from its central role this summer in driving Democratic energy in a series of special elections and in a decisive rejection of a Kansas abortion ballot measure. Biden’s request, twice, in his remarks for voters to remember how they felt the day the Dobbs decision came down wasn’t subtle. Nor was his explicit focus for almost half of his speech on a direct pitch to young voters.
There’s a reason for both. The intensity is simply not registering in their tracking polls as it did in the summer – and given the economic headwinds driven by inflation, that’s a problem.
Biden’s remarks on gas prices on Wednesday likely would’ve happened in the weeks leading up to the midterms in some shape without the OPEC+ decision to cut output targets by 2 million. It’s a reflection of the laser-like focus, bordering on obsession, key members of Biden’s team have on the issue – and for good reason.
Biden’s approval is almost directly related to the price of gas. So is consumer sentiment. So is the ability for voters to weigh the importance of other issues more favorable to Democrats, like abortion rights. Even before the OPEC+ decision there were internal policy discussions under way on new options to try and dampen prices further. Obviously the cartel’s decision accelerated – and expanded – that effort.
What Biden announced Wednesday is not technically a new plan. The 15 million barrels comes from the supply earmarked in his unprecedented March announcement . It’s not a huge sale either – 15 million doesn’t even cover a full day of US oil use. The auction doesn’t even take place until December. But it does send a message to the market, especially when paired with an explicit commitment that Biden will aggressively pursue more SPR releases – and that is what they care about.
Once again, there is no subtlety about this: Biden is trying to explicitly carve a few cents (or more) off of gas prices. Nothing is more real for consumers, and that bleeds directly into their views of the economy and the party in power. Nearly three months of dropping gas prices helped drive the burst in optimism about the prospects Democrats could overcome history – and the economy – and prevent a big GOP night. Prices in the last week have stabilized a bit, and in some parts of the country – primarily California and the Midwest – have started to drop. Biden’s announcement Wednesday is timed to accelerate that trend.
It also helps explain why Biden has, over the last several months, repeatedly come back to rhetorical broadsides against oil companies, specifically on the spread between retail and wholesale prices. Officials have seen some signs of correlation between Biden’s warnings and a drop in prices. It’s a global market with several major dynamics at play by the time it reaches the actual pump, but in a moment where every cent matters, Biden will once again zero-in on oil and gas executives on Wednesday, officials say.
Biden travels to Pennsylvania, the one state he seems comfortable visiting on a regular basis. Over. And over. And over again.
The visit, however, isn’t some big, blowout campaign event for Pennsylvania Democrats in tight races up and down the ballot. It’s an official event, on infrastructure, followed by a fundraiser for John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who is the Democratic Senate nominee.
This is the playbook Biden has repeatedly utilized – followed through basically his entire West Coast swing last week – designed to highlight local projects or policy issues that can bolster candidates. But the fundraiser underscores that Democrats – and White House officials – have coalesced behind the idea that Biden’s biggest value add is raising money, which he’s done to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
Biden travels to Delaware to talk about student loan forgiveness, which has been an issue he hasn’t gone out of his way to make front and center in the weeks after his executive order to cancel up to $10,000 in loans for individuals making less than $125,000, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients in the same income range.
Yet some White House officials have been struck by the way the move, which Biden had long been skeptical of triggering out of concern it would direct benefits to those who didn’t need the help, has resonated with young voters – young minority voters in particular. The reasons aren’t complex, particularly on the latter front. Pell Grant recipients are disproportionally made up of minority students that fall squarely within the plan’s income thresholds.
Biden’s plan to speak at the historically Black university in his home state strikes directly at that reality – and underscores that White House officials have concluded would be beneficial to move toward center stage when possible, especially as they see success in the website process to apply for debt forgiveness with more than 12 million users on the site in roughly over two days of its beta operations and a single day fully operational,
National Republicans, despite their vociferous opposition and a handful of lawsuits, are hardly mentioning the action in campaign ads, officials note. It’s something that creates the possibility for an opening to motivate the very voters Biden focused on in his abortion remarks – and a critical piece of Biden’s 2020 coalition.
It’s a coalition, with poll after poll showing that inflation and the economy remain the dominant voter concerns, Democrats desperately need to turn out in their favor.