The inside conversation in D.C. these days, as you might expect, is all about scrutinizing the midterm polling data, Nate Silver-izing the margins of error, and guessing where the chips will fall on Tuesday night. Inside the White House, Bidenworld is cautiously preparing for a red tide in the House, with Republicans potentially picking up more than 20 seats. The outcome of the Senate may be unknown on election night, and it could even drag on until December 6 if neither Senator Raphael Warnock nor Herschel Walker pass the 50 percent threshold, triggering a runoff in Georgia. Much has been made of how election cycles have turned into endless, multi-year events. Elections, themselves, are now multi-weeklong affairs.
Meanwhile, the spin machine inside the White House is in overdrive, as the messaging gurus prepare to position the reality, no matter the historical precedent, that Americans came out, at least in part, to repudiate their administration. I’m told that the Obama alumni in Biden’s inner circle, such as Anita Dunn, are still experiencing mild trauma-quakes from Obama’s admission that the 2010 midterms offered a “shellacking”—a phrase that echoed loudly on behalf of the recognition that his agenda, centered around the Affordable Care Act, had become part of the Tea Party’s immaculate conception. (Obama, of course, wasn’t the only president to fall into the trap of stating the obvious—George W. Bush remarked in 2006 that the G.O.P. endured a “thumping” in his second midterm.)
Of course, the A.C.A. has since become the left’s generational touchstone, and becomes more popular every year. But while Obama looked vulnerable in 2010, there was no question that he was the leader of the party. Biden’s position, on the contrary, is far more precarious given the open speculation by some Democrats that he might not be the right candidate for 2024, making it more critical that they not frame the midterm outcome as a referendum on his first two years.
Even though Biden is unlikely to suffer his own 63-seat shellacking, the midterm results certainly reflect frustration around a plethora of issues, from inflation and gas prices to the gridlock of his first year, which have largely outweighed (at least in the cultural memory) his recent legislative victories and overall success in handling the pandemic. So the question is how to spin the defeat with grace and optimism, perhaps gesturing at a silver lining, and so forth.
What to Say?
People close to the White House say they are loath to issue a mea culpa, and the messaging gurus want to steer the gaffe-happy, speak-from-the-heart president toward a message that transcends himself. “Everything that happens in that first 24 hours after the elections impacts the lame duck session, the next two years of his presidency, and ultimately the 2024 election,” said a source close to the White House. “They don’t have a vested interest in saying they were wrong.”
It’s a sticky wicket. Biden needs to: 1) show strength despite losing the House (and maybe more); 2) make sure no one doubts the veracity of the elections; 3) listen deeply to groans from the party poobahs without accepting responsibility; and 4) pull all this off in a non-tone-deaf manner without any off-script moments. “I just don’t see them taking responsibility,” said a Democratic strategist. “I think it’s going to be hard to accept that they lost the midterms because of them.”
I’m told the White House is leaning toward delicately arguing (positioning, as they say here) that the results would have been different if Congress had been able to pass his very popular legislation earlier into his term, so that voters could have felt the effects before going to the polls. Of course, this is also a dig at camera-mugging, foot-dragging moderates, like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who just wouldn’t support his F.D.R.-ish $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, rather than an admission that the president’s agenda was his own version of Obamacare—perhaps too ambitious and mismanaged by Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who wasted far too much time negotiating with progressives, like Pramila Jayapal. I’ve also heard that Bidenworld wants to position the inflationary pressures as exogenous and beyond anyone’s control, especially after Covid.
In his first remarks after the midterms, Biden does have the opportunity to use the power of the presidency to lay down the marker and pick the first fight with Republicans—to put them on defense heading into the next Congress, perhaps preemptively taking Medicare or Social Security benefits off the negotiating table, or gently flex his office’s might before the inevitable slew of subpoenas arrive for his family and cabinet secretaries. A tweet yesterday from White House spokesperson Andrew Bates, red-flagging Republican plans to potentially curtail various social programs, is indicative of the presumptive strategy. Fighting for entitlements like Social Security and Medicare could also engender the support of Bernie Sanders and Manchin, creating the impression that the party, while diminished, is at least unified.
Bidenworld doesn’t want to show weakness in his remarks. They don’t want to show it in their ranks, either. And a huge post-midterm shakeup could imply that the Biden administration has been on the wrong track.
The result may be fewer personnel moves than were previously expected as Biden enters the second half of his term. I’m told from multiple sources close to the White House that Biden wants to keep Klain as his chief of staff, even if Klain, after putting in his two years of service, is ready to head for the door. With Republicans about to investigate Biden’s family members, and possibly even attempt to impeach his cabinet secretaries, Biden’s bunker mentality is likely to take hold, which could put Klain in a situation like his communications director Kate Bedingfield, who was talked out of leaving in the spring for a more lucrative corporate sinecure. After all, if there’s one thing that Biden likes, it’s old familiar faces and reliable loyalists. This also explains the cadre of middle-aged white men, like Ricchetti and Mike Donilon, at the top of his pyramid. And it explains why Dunn keeps flying back into the White House through the revolving door.
The lack of turnover in Bidenworld has already flummoxed some powerful Democrats, who thirsted for fresh ideas and new actors (and, of course, people more loyal or favorable to them…). “There are so many operatives and donors who are going to be pissed if heads don’t roll, people need to be fired when this is over,” said one Democratic strategist who advises donors. “People are going to want blood because they don’t want to roll into 2024 with the same battered team.”
But these party operatives also know, as do the president’s inner circle, that he will likely handle his midterm response just as he handles his kitchen cabinet, and just as he will likely handle his re-election: he’ll listen to everyone, mull it over endlessly, talk to Jill Biden, operate on his own time frame, and then follow his gut.