For months, Joe Biden’s presidency has been suffering from weak approval ratings, doubts about his viability for a second term in office and criticism over his incomplete legislative record.
But a streak of victories on Capitol Hill in recent weeks — including the likely enactment of his flagship $700bn economic legislation after it was approved by the Senate on Sunday — have bolstered the White House incumbent’s claims to a successful first 18 months in office, and set the stage for a possible political rebound.
The bill that Democratic lawmakers passed to cheers in the upper chamber — and which now moves to the House of Representatives — was a crucial win for Biden, fulfilling key pledges from his 2020 campaign, even if they were watered down over months of intraparty negotiations.
“I ran for president promising to make government work for working families again, and that is what this bill does — period,” Biden said on Sunday.
Included in the legislation are provisions that appeal to core Democratic constituencies, such as steps to fight climate change with billions of dollars of incentives for clean energy production; measures allowing the government to bring down the cost of certain prescription drugs for seniors; and higher taxes on large corporations to help pay for the extra spending and bring down the deficit.
The bill tops a series of recent successes on Capitol Hill for Biden, whose five decades of experience in Washington appear to have helped in navigating a highly polarised political environment. In the past few weeks, Congress has also passed bipartisan legislation to boost US semiconductor manufacturing and to begin tightening America’s gun laws.
Yet the concern for Biden and many within his party is that these achievements may still be insufficient or have come too late to alter the prevailing political dynamic ahead of November’s midterm elections. Republicans are currently favoured to recapture control of the House and possibly the Senate, as voters remain disenchanted with the president’s handling of the economy and high inflation.
Moreover, victories in Washington do not necessarily translate into success at the polls: Barack Obama suffered big defeats in his first midterm election after passing sweeping healthcare and financial reform packages.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said on Sunday he thought the tax and climate bill would be a political loser for the Democrats. “The working Americans they have failed will be writing Democrats’ report cards in three months’ time,” he said.
But Democrats feel they are now on more solid ground — both with their own base and the broader electorate — to limit any damage and possibly even score some upsets in their midterm campaigns. Meanwhile they argue that Biden, who is 79, will be on surer footing as he weighs whether to launch a re-election bid in 2024.
“I was one of the folks who was first in supporting now President Biden when he was candidate Biden and I think he’s done good things for our country. I think he’s got a strong record of accomplishments to run on,” Christopher Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware, said on ABC on Sunday.
Biden’s recent successes in Congress have so far failed to significantly improve his polling. According to the Realclearpolitics.com average, there is a huge 17-point gap between the 56.5 per cent of Americans who disapprove of his performance as president, and the 39.5 per cent of Americans who support it.
However Congressional polling has shown some clearer movement in the Democrats’ direction. While in June Americans favoured Republican candidates for Congress by a margin of 3 percentage points, that advantage has now been erased. Most political observers attribute the shift to the backlash against the Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, and the draconian restrictions on ending pregnancies in many Republican-run states.
Some of the most politically sensitive economic indicators have been helpful to Democrats and the White House in recent weeks, with petrol prices dropping gradually and jobs growth accelerating, easing fears of a recession in the near term.
But Democratic strategists and pollsters say the White House still has a long way to go before it can be confident that the tide has turned.
“Nobody on the Biden team, I believe, is sitting back there thinking we’re on the cusp of a surging comeback,” said Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who worked for Barack Obama.
“While these successes will be nice accomplishments, there’s a marathon, if not an ultra-marathon, to run between now and the next [presidential] campaign,” he added. “And that is going to take a sustained effort to pass additional legislation and enact additional policies . . . that have tangible and readily accessible benefits for working and middle-class Americans to see and hear about and say, ‘Hey, this guy has been fighting for me and the other guys haven’t.’”