A month ago, Joe Biden’s presidency was on the brink of failure. His legislative agenda was moribund, the economy was teetering on the precipice of recession, and Democrats were speculating in the press about who else they could nominate for president in 2024. Biden, like Jimmy Carter, seemed destined to be remembered as a president overwhelmed by economic crosscurrents and a Democratic Congress he could not productively lead.
The situation has changed with astonishing speed. Biden has salvaged his domestic-policy agenda, his party’s base has snapped out of its torpor, and the economy is showing signs it just might pull through. And while not all these developments are his own doing, nor do they completely extinguish the political danger he faces, they all redound to his benefit. In the span of a few weeks, Biden’s presidency is back from the dead and looking something close to triumphant.
The event that triggered the turnaround was the decision by five Republican Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. In so doing, the Court’s right wing disregarded the advice of its more cautious chief justice, John Roberts, who reportedly tried in vain to steer his colleagues toward an incrementalist strategy that would avoid a backlash.
Roberts’s fears have been vindicated. One reason midterm elections almost always punish the president’s party is that the public has an instinct to curtail the powers of those in power. The Dobbs decision inverted that calculation, creating a context in which Republicans were responsible for dramatic social change and Democrats could stand for the restoration of the status quo.
The altered political landscape has been reflected in polls showing the public moving back toward a preference for Democratic control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections. It was reflected even more strongly in a series of surprising votes. A special election in a Nebraska House district in June that had voted for Donald Trump by 15 points went to a Republican by less than half that margin. In August, a special election in Minnesota, in a district that Trump won by ten points, went Republican by just four. Usually, special elections, held outside the normal November election time, give exaggerated strength to the out-party, whose partisans have more motivation to turn out. Instead, it was Democrats who overperformed.
An even more surprising event occurred between those two elections. In early August, Kansas held a statewide referendum to repeal the personal-autonomy clause in its Constitution and thus enable strict limits on abortion, if not its outright abolition. Republicans favored a midsummer vote on the assumption it would be dominated by anti-abortion activists, and polls projected a close race. Instead, the pro-choice side prevailed by nearly 20 points.
The Kansas shock was followed by a second thunderbolt: Senator Joe Manchin, last seen shoveling dirt onto Biden’s domestic agenda, suddenly announced his support for a robust combination of economic reforms. The Manchin-crafted plan, while falling well short of the full-scale welfare-state expansion Biden had originally hoped to enact, had the advantage of confining its ambitions to the most popular elements of Biden’s vision: higher taxes on corporations; allowing Medicare to bargain down the cost of prescription drugs and pass savings on to the consumer; giving the IRS resources to provide better customer service to average taxpayers and catch wealthy tax cheats; expanding subsidies for Obamacare; and subsidizing the green energy transition while allowing more fossil-fuel production in the short run.
What these proposals may lack in transformative sweep they make up for in campaign-ad appeal. Indeed, other than warning preposterously that Biden was planning to unleash an army of IRS agents on his political enemies, Republicans have hardly bothered to attack Biden’s signature bill at all. They may be crazy, but they can read polls.
What could matter more than the content of the Inflation Reduction Act is the transformed narrative surrounding his presidency. Signing a domestic legacy bill won’t make Biden any younger or better at reading from a teleprompter, but it will make Democrats less freaked out about how old he looks and sounds and will reduce the stream of news stories about his frailty to a slow trickle.
There is no easy way to measure the connection between the tone of the news coverage about a president and how his party fares at the ballot box. Still, there’s a reason every president cares intently about it. And the media narrative around Biden’s presidency has turned sharply from failure to success.
While he hasn’t fulfilled every campaign promise, Biden’s most outlandish-sounding promise has actually come to pass: He has revived bipartisan lawmaking. He has signed a spate of laws enjoying support from both parties, many of which have slipped under the radar: a gun-safety measure, health care for veterans, a $280 billion bill funding scientific research and semiconductor production, reform of the Postal Service, more than half a trillion dollars in funding for infrastructure, and a national holiday for Juneteenth. Congress may not be done: A reform of the Electoral Count Act (the horribly written 1887 law setting out the procedure for certifying the Electoral College vote) and a law codifying marriage equality both stand a strong chance of enactment.
Several of Biden’s accomplishments are measures his predecessor promised but failed to take. Donald Trump vowed to get Congress to pass a giant infrastructure bill, to let Medicare “negotiate like crazy” on prescription drugs, and to withdraw from Afghanistan. Biden did all these things instead.
Biden likewise co-opted the one defensible, substantive element of Trump’s political appeal: his promise to revive American manufacturing. Other than imposing tariffs, which aided a handful of favored industries at the expense of disfavored ones, Trump did almost nothing to bring back the dying industrial towns he claimed he would save. Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Chips and Science Act, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in energy funding, Biden has actually enacted an ambitious program to move the manufacturing supply chain onshore.
The success of this strategy will take years to measure, and there’s no telling yet whether Biden will gain any political benefit from it. (Only a small minority of voters know the infrastructure act even happened.) But there is no question that the scale of Biden’s actions to encourage blue-collar jobs dwarfs anything undertaken by Trump. Perhaps this success would be more evident if Biden stopped comparing himself to FDR and started comparing himself to the president he defeated.
Biden’s biggest problem, inflation, is one he can do the least about. But here, too, the gods have begun at last to smile on him. The most recent economic reports showed faster-than-expected job growth and lower-than-expected inflation. He may yet escape Carter’s fate.
Other than the economy, Biden’s greatest handicap is that Trump’s crudest campaign taunt, “Sleepy Joe,” was beginning to look broadly accurate. But the conclusion that the economy and Congress were too difficult for Biden to handle was premature. Just as Biden’s presidential campaign burst to life after pundits (including this one) had already delivered the last rites, so too has his presidency roared suddenly back. He is sleepy no more.