Russian invasion scrambles Democrats’ agenda
House Democrats setting their annual strategy face a pivotal moment for both the party and the presidency of Joe Biden, who is scrambling to stabilize a volatile economy at home, defuse a bloody war in Europe and fortify democratic traditions that are under fire around the globe.
For much of Biden’s presidency, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democratic leaders have braced for a bloodbath in November’s elections — a midterm cycle that’s been routinely brutal for the party of the incumbent president. Their prospects appeared dimmer still in the face of a massive spike in inflation, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the national apprehensions that have accompanied both.
Yet Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine has unified the country against a common foe — in this case Russian President Vladimir Putin — in that rare, black-and-white fashion no administration has achieved since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Putin’s unprovoked siege has given Biden a global stage from which to rally both the Western world, which is racing to Ukraine’s defense, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have overwhelmingly condemned Putin’s aggression and endorsed the major components of the administration’s response.
How the war in Ukraine plays out — and how its evolution might affect the U.S. economy, Biden’s domestic standing and the Democrats’ midterm chances — remains unclear. But heading into their annual retreat in Philadelphia — which itself is threatened to be scrambled by battles over an omnibus spending bill — Democrats are hoping the confluence of earth-shattering events marks a drastic shift in the political headwinds blowing against them.
“It’s not good enough during these hot times, as I would call them, to try to moderate your way out of it. It’s time to stand up; let me see your fastball,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a 13-term New Jersey Democrat. “Joe looks at the anguish of these heavy issues hanging over us right now as an opportunity for him to show his stuff.
“It’ll change the atmosphere,” Pascrell continued. “Because we’ll be judged mostly by what he says and what he does — that’s just the facts. ‘What the hell did I have to do with this?’ Well, you can’t say that [to voters]. You’re one party.”
Democrats hoping to keep the House have a tough road ahead. The midterm cycle for any first-term administration is historically difficult, as the president’s political capital runs dry and voters sour on the party in power.
Democrats lost 63 seats, and the House majority, in 2010, the first cycle following former President Obama’s ascension to the White House. Republicans suffered a similar fate in 2018, the first midterm under former President Trump, when control of the lower chamber shifted back to Democrats.
Complicating the Democrats’ task has been the endurance of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the lingering controversies surrounding Biden’s public health response — as well as a volatile economy that’s seen inflation on consumer goods skyrocket at historic rates.
As a sign of waning morale, more than 30 Democratic incumbents have already announced their retirements at the end of the term. And Republican leaders are not merely honing their campaign message heading into November’s elections, they’re plotting a legislative course under the assumption that the House is theirs for the taking.
With the arrival of the Ukraine invasion, however, there are signs that Biden is improving his image in the eyes of the voters. Following last week’s State of the Union address — a speech that included Washington’s plans to counter Putin — the president’s approval ratings, which have been in the low 40s for months, ticked up across a spectrum of polls. The rise was moderate, but it was not overlooked by his allies in Congress.
“Polls go up, polls go down. And, you know, I think several of us noted with some interest that in the immediate aftermath of his State of the Union address, we’ve seen his polls begin to go back up,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), head of the House Democratic Caucus. “And I expect that’s a trajectory that we’ll continue to see.”
Biden’s standing has been boosted by several factors. The prevalence of COVID-19 is easing around the country. Ukraine’s defenses — backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons from the Pentagon — is performing better than anyone anticipated. There is also Biden’s high marks from both parties for his strategy of sharing U.S. intelligence on Putin’s intentions with America’s allies around the globe.
“All the tools that he had in his toolkit, he’s using,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). “And that’s going to benefit us.”
Yet if the war has given Biden a bump in approval, it’s also exacerbated some of the economic troubles that were already dogging the president and his party even before Russia’s invasion. Gas prices, in particular, have skyrocketed in recent weeks as a result of the conflict, adding to the slow but steady increase that’s followed a larger inflationary trend over the last year. Biden’s move this week to ban Russian fuel imports — oil, gas and coal — is likely to spike gas prices further, experts say, heightening concerns among many Democrats that Biden will bear the blame — and Democrats on the ballot in November will suffer the backlash.
Biden himself is already bracing the public for more cost hikes at the pump, and Democrats on Capitol Hill are joining the chorus.
“It falls on us to message, to tell the truth, to remind people that Joe Biden didn’t have bad policy or bad leadership that created this crisis at the pump. It was Putin,” Lawrence said. “If we say we really support [the Ukrainians], we’re going to feel a little pain along the way. And it’ll get better.”
Republicans, while many are backing Biden’s oil ban, have also shown no inclination to pull punches if the same policy they’re advocating leads to higher consumer prices. Indeed, the Republican leaders in both chambers — Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — are already putting the blame squarely on Biden.
“These aren’t Putin prices,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol. “They’re President Biden’s prices.”
Such costs will be a test for American consumers who have rallied behind Ukraine in overwhelming numbers since Putin’s advance. The oil ban, in particular, is a rare issue that has united Americans across the political spectrum. A new Wall Street Journal poll found that a whopping 79 percent of respondents favor the ban, including 72 percent of Trump supporters.
“Politically there is unity behind this policy,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). “Hopefully the American people will see through the cynicism.”
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