the inside game

The Vindication (for Now) of Joe Biden

Being underestimated is not new to those who’ve been with him from the start.

Photo: Kenny Holston/KENNY HOLSTON/The New York Times
Photo: Kenny Holston/KENNY HOLSTON/The New York Times

Starting around the time polls close every two years for as long as any of his confidants can remember, Joe Biden rips through a series of chats with allied Democratic candidates, cycling through a call list on a rotation of aides’ phones that are handed to him in quick succession. Usually, the calls are quick and simple offers of congratulations or condolence. Sometimes they’re heartfelt and involved. Seldom have they been particularly uplifting. Biden heard little good news on the line in 2014 and even less in 2016. 2018’s conversations were complicated because most of his endorsed Democrats won, but Donald Trump remained in office, and every other caller pleaded with Biden to run in 2020. Only rarely are the chats uniformly hopeful. But this week, as Biden prepared to join a long line of first-term presidents to face a midterm drubbing, an unexpected buoyancy set in early.

Shuttling between the pizza-and-soda-stocked Roosevelt Room and an office they’d set up as an election-monitoring hub in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door, aides knew they were in for a better-than-expected night around 10:30 p.m., when endangered Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger won her seat in Virginia. A few feet away, splitting his own time between the residence and the West Wing, Biden himself was on the phone with Spanberger, delighting in her victory as he did with the new Democratic governor of Massachusetts and the reelected leaders of Rhode Island and Colorado. A few minutes later, aides sighed in relief and started to believe their party might outdo their dismal expectations when New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan held onto her spot in the Senate, defeating a Trump-y election denier who even some senior Democrats close to the president and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had begun to think could win. Biden, feeling good, kept his calls going, catching not only Hassan but other victorious senators such as Colorado’s Michael Bennet; governors such as Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer; and members of Congress like Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur — even including a triumphant mayor before long.

White House officials were growing downright giddy as midnight approached and it was clear the threat of a red wave had receded. Democrats were losing far fewer House seats than anticipated and saw a path to saving their Senate majority. They gloated over terrible pundit predictions, and as the night stretched on, they joked about Ubering over to Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy’s empty party across town. Before dawn, some were recirculating the clip of an exasperated Biden telling the skeptical New York Times editorial board in early 2020, “I ain’t dead, and I’m not going to die!”

It was a new feeling within a White House that’s been struggling with an overheated economy and an electorate unconvinced by the nearly 80-year-old president’s performance, not to mention months of assumptions that the midterms would be a forceful rebuke of the president. But it wasn’t entirely new to Biden or to those Democrats who’d been at his side longest. To that crowd, the sense of vindication — emergent when it became clear Democrats might hold the Senate but fully cemented for the president by the time he learned that far more young voters had turned out than expected — was familiar. To them, the results carried an echo of the last presidential election, when Biden was all but counted out in the primary before storming to victory over the course of two weeks.

The chip on Biden’s shoulder was visible when he fielded reporters’ questions on Wednesday, leaning one arm on his lectern as he considered his future in response to the idea that two-thirds of voters believed he shouldn’t run again, so surely that would factor into his considerations. “It doesn’t,” he scoffed. What was his message to those skeptics? “Watch me,” he deadpanned.

And it was visible too in the way his White House charges responded, uncharacteristically going on record for a victory lap. Deputy press secretary Andrew Bates, who called the assumption that Democrats would lose ground “the most predictable prediction from the same blue checks who chronically underestimated the president” in 2020 and so far in office, told me, “Thankfully we have years of practice offering disregard and backbone transplants ahead of vindication.”

Yet in the days since, it has become clear that this vindication is also short-term and possibly conditional. It comes on uncertain ground — post-midterm press conferences are customary and Biden projected nothing but confidence on Wednesday, but his nervous staff had refused to even confirm that he would answer questions at all until that morning — and no one close to him believes the results were a direct approval of him so much as a rejection of his political enemies.

“A lot of people were unhappy with the way things are going and just unhappy with life, so unhappy with the president as an expression of that, but didn’t really blame him for it,” said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster who worked for Biden’s presidential campaign. After exit polls showed Biden’s approval still in the low 40s, though with voters who were uncertain about him supportive of Democrats in general, it was possible to conclude that “people were separating their views of the president and their views of these extreme candidates,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s other pollster. The resulting mantra, as a handful of Democrats put it to me and as White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CNN, is that Biden successfully made the midterm a choice, not a referendum.

Embedded in this view is an admission that a referendum would not have served him well — but also that he believes this has nothing to do with what comes next.

“Even when I was buying into the conventional wisdom that Tuesday would probably go the way the other 90 percent of midterms would go, I was also telling people that it was in no way a predictor of 2024,” said Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia-area congressman close to the White House. Biden, after all, remembers the experience of 2012 well — that’s when Barack Obama won reelection somewhat easily just two years after his 2010 midterm “shellacking” — but also Bill Clinton’s “1994 drubbing to 1996 romp” turnaround.

Still, the flip side of those lessons is that the 2024 landscape is far from set. Even as Biden insists he intends to run again, many people close to him believe that calculus would change if Trump weren’t the clear GOP nominee. And Biden himself has been delighting in recent days with the national GOP’s post-midterm convulsions that have pitted Trump against reelected Florida governor Ron DeSantis, intoning at his press conference that “it’d be fun watching them take on each other,” a statement that belied how closely his aides had already been watching.

For now, though, that circle around Biden is more focused on making sure that the political class recalibrates its understanding of what just happened after months of assuming Biden’s low approval numbers and high inflation would tank his party.

Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist and Obama-administration veteran who is close with Biden’s White House, pointed out that though few of his party’s candidates had openly embraced the president, even fewer actively ran against Biden or his signature accomplishments — a big break from the last Democratic president’s first midterms, when Obamacare was the central topic across the country. “If the agenda that he passed had been incredibly unpopular, you wouldn’t have seen the results you saw,” he said. And further, there has been little room for intraparty recriminations outside of a few dull spots of underperformance, like New York. “A lot of candidates ran in the vein of President Biden,” LaBolt continued. “This wasn’t some Bernie Sanders–endorsed progressive revolution.”

Instead, it was as much a condemnation of close Trump allies as a case for the success of Biden’s much-reviled “ultra-MAGA” argument, in his allies’ eyes. “People were okay with who Biden and the Democrats are, and were scared shitless of the wackos, the wing nuts, and the weirdos they saw behind door No. 2,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist and veteran of 2014’s midterms. He noted that as a result, “They promised a red wave and delivered a red Solo cup.”

The evidence in some Democrats’ eyes wasn’t just their party’s overperformance but the continued success of Republicans who successfully navigated away from Trump and painted themselves as moderates. “It was yet another year when Donald Trump and the extremism on the other side has frankly helped out Democrats,” said Boyle. “It’s quite clear voters made that distinction” between Trumpist candidates and Republicans like Georgia governor Brian Kemp or Ohio governor Mike DeWine — a former Senate colleague whom Biden made a point of congratulating on Election Night.

Still, the sense of vindication has its limits, and not just because Republicans may very well still take the House and so many Americans say they still believe the country to be moving in the wrong direction. Though Biden said repeatedly at his press conference that he wouldn’t change his overall approach, especially on economic matters,  his explanation revealed a shifting posture. Whereas early in his term he insisted that his administration simply had to be disciplined in selling its accomplishments to make them popular, he now conceded that “the problem is the major piece of legislation we passed — and some of it bipartisan — takes time to be recognized.” And though he refused to concede any ground on the expected coming fights over issues like the future of Social Security and Medicare and insisted he’d always sought common ground with Republicans, he repeatedly pointed out that he’d have to compromise with GOP leaders now.

The open question, if you ask some of Biden’s advisers, is how voters will respond in this latest version of a warped political environment — one in which an unpopular president’s party can gain seats amid historic inflation.

“We’re in a toss-up nation. There’s a small universe of voters who are making final decisions here,” said Anzalone, Biden’s pollster. In 2016, he said, that group broke late and in the opposite direction of what everyone in politics expected. In 2020, he continued, these voters again swerved and “did the checks-and-balances thing,” electing more Republicans than expected down-ballot in an attempt to limit Biden’s influence. “And now the extreme candidates that [Republicans] trotted out made these voters so uncomfortable that, again, they did the opposite of what is normal.” We were talking over the phone, but Anzalone’s shrug might as well have been audible. “In the Trump era, all the rules are being thrown out the window.”

The Vindication (for Now) of Joe Biden