Administration

Five issues that will define the months until the midterms 

The attention of the political world is beginning to shift to the midterm elections, now less than one year away.

President Biden and the Democrats face an uphill climb to hold on to their tiny majorities in Congress. The party that holds the White House usually loses seats in the first midterm elections and Biden’s approval ratings are poor.

But a lot can happen in almost 12 months. Here are five big issues that will reverberate between now and Election Day 2022.

COVID-19

The pandemic is still the most important issue facing the nation, because of both its direct health effects and the way it ripples through other areas, notably the economy.

COVID-19 cases have begun to rise again but they are nowhere close to their all-time high, which occurred early this year.

During the worst of the pandemic in January, around 250,000 new cases of COVID-19 were being diagnosed every day. Now, the figure is closer to 90,000, according to New York Times data.

The Biden administration had made huge progress with vaccinations and the president’s handling of COVID-19 has consistently been the issue on which he polls most strongly.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll earlier this month, 47 percent of Americans approved of Biden’s conduct of the battle against COVID-19, by comparison with the 41 percent who approved of his overall job performance.

But the pandemic has been characterized by its unpredictability — something that has been underlined yet again by the emergence of the omicron variant.

The U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African nations starting Monday. The UK, the European Union, Canada and Israel are also imposing restrictions.

The electorate already appears frustrated by the sheer length of the battle against the pandemic and the massive disruptions it has caused to work, schooling and other aspects of daily life.

If the nation is definitively moving past the pandemic by spring, it would be great political news for Biden and his party. But serious setbacks, from omicron or future variants, would likely spell doom.

Inflation

Inflation hit its highest level in more than 30 years in October, coming in at a startling 6.2 percent. Everything from gas prices to grocery costs has spiked — and the rise has exacted a significant toll on Biden’s popularity.

A CBS News/YouGov poll released last Sunday found that 67 percent of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of inflation. Eighty-two percent report that the items they usually buy have grown more expensive.

Biden is at pains to avoid appearing detached from the issue.

His last public speech before the Thanksgiving break, on Tuesday, announced the largest-ever release from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a move intended to ease gas prices. In a Saturday tweet, the president highlighted action that has eased congestion at ports. Earlier in November, Biden declared that taming inflation was “a top priority” for him.

But the problem is at least twofold: First, inflation is an inherently difficult problem to tackle without undercutting the economic recovery; second, the main tool in the fight — the capacity to adjust interest rates — is in the hands of the Federal Reserve, not the White House.

Republicans are blaming Democratic-led spending for inflation, while the president and his party colleagues insist it is a temporary problem caused by supply chain disruptions and the unique circumstances of the pandemic.

Much will depend on which of those explanations gets traction with the American public in the months ahead — and whether inflation comes down anytime soon.

Trump

For all the tumult that former President Trump causes, the public view of him retains a remarkably consistent shape — the Republican base adores him and much of the rest of the population detests him.

In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, 84 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of Trump. Among the general population, that figure cratered to 39 percent, with 56 percent holding an unfavorable view.

The disapproval of Trump appears to be even more fervent than his support. In the Economist poll, 47 percent of the population said they had a “very unfavorable” view of him, more than twice as many as the 23 percent who had a “very favorable” perception.

The former president has stayed central to the political landscape, despite his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection — an action that made him the only president in history to be twice impeached.

He is far and away the most popular politician in the country with Republican voters, and he would be the prohibitive favorite to become the 2024 GOP presidential nominee if he enters the race.

Trump also revels in using his muscle in internal GOP politics, backing primary candidates who have displayed their loyalty to him and these days disparaging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as an “old crow” on a regular basis.

Democrats believe Trump’s prominence helps them, given that he is so broadly unpopular.

But there is a large question mark over whether fear of Trump is potent enough to motivate voters to turn out for Democrats — especially when the former president is not on the ballot.

The strategy ostentatiously failed for Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who tried to get his old job back as governor of Virginia in November only to lose to GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The New York Times in an interview published last weekend: “This notion that saying ‘We’re not Trump’ is enough — this is such a deeply demoralizing message.”

Immigration

The nation — and its partisan media landscape — increasingly appears cleaved into different universes, and immigration is one of the clearest examples.

The topic receives only passing mentions on liberal-leaning cable news channels, where the chief concern is often whether enough is being done to help unauthorized immigrants who are already here.

Meanwhile, in conservative media, immigration controls are portrayed as hopelessly lax, and the issue more broadly is seen as an ongoing, frightening crisis.

Liberals may be being too complacent, politically and substantively.

Encounters between unauthorized migrants and border patrol agents at the southern border reached their highest level in 21 years in July, when there were more than 213,000 such interactions. The numbers have dropped slightly — but only slightly — since then. In September, they stood at roughly 192,000.

The perception that the administration is not in control of the borders is deepened by high-profile episodes like the chaos seen in southern Texas in September, when thousands of mostly Haitian migrants amassed under a bridge in squalid conditions.

On the other side of the coin, progressives within the Democratic Party are eager to preserve a legislative measure within Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would give about seven million unauthorized immigrants the right to live and work in the United States for two five-year periods.

The progressives argue that Latino voters, in particular, will be demoralized if the Democrats don’t do enough to help others in their community acquire legal status.

One way or another, Biden’s performance on immigration is another weak spot. An Associated Press/NORC poll released at the start of October found just 35 percent of the overall population — and an unusually low 60 percent of Democrats — approving of how he is handling the topic.

The upshot: It’s likely that the more salient immigration is to next year’s campaign, the worse for Democrats.

“Wokeness”

What does it even mean? Lots of people vehemently disagree about the answer — and therein lies part of the problem.

Conservatives, in particular, have thrown together a loose collection of divisive social issues under the label. 

Broadly, “wokeness” has come to represent a set of attitudes that include a view of racism as systemic in the United States; strong backing for transgender rights; a hypersensitivity about language, especially as it pertains to minority groups; and a desire to fundamentally reform the police.

There are reasons conservatives like to fight on this battlefield.

The slogan “Defund the Police” polls catastrophically.

A backlash from conservative-minded parents over the perceived radicalism of school curricula helped Youngkin to win his gubernatorial race last month.

An Atlantic magazine/Leger survey in October found 56 percent of Americans agreeing that the country “is becoming too politically correct” — and only 15 percent disagreeing.

Democrats protest that the vast majority of their elected officials, including Biden, are staunchly opposed to defunding the police, and that the ultra-controversial critical race theory is rarely taught to anyone until college.

But the degree to which Democrats can rebut conservative attacks, and at least battle to a stalemate in the new culture wars, will be politically vital next November.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Election 2022 Glenn Youngkin Immigration Joe Biden midterms Mitch McConnell Terry McAuliffe

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