White House hopes August successes will translate to fall momentum

Democrats think President Biden had a great August and they’re hoping it will translate into momentum for the fall — both legislatively and electorally.

Congress returns next week after a monthlong recess and Labor Day is considered the unofficial kick-off of the general election campaign season. 

Biden in August signed into law a bipartisan semiconductor bill and a sweeping, Democrat-only package to fight climate change and address health care costs. He announced a drone strike that killed the leader of al Qaeda. The White House cheered positive headlines of gasoline prices declining. And Biden’s poll numbers are starting to inch back up. 

“Democrats right now, including Biden, just feel confident. It just feels like a wind-at-your-back environment which was not what was anticipated several months ago,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

The president’s approval rating jumped 9 points in a month to 40 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, and a Gallup survey conducted in August found 44 percent of respondents approve of his job as president — the highest figure in a year — after his approval rating hit a record low of 38 percent in July.  

A Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday found Democrats with a 3-point edge over Republicans when voters were asked which party they’d back in their congressional district if the midterms were held today.

Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former official with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), said the current momentum on Biden’s agenda is “great timing” ahead of the midterms in November. Democrats’ chances of holding onto the Senate have grown over the summer as Democrats tick up in the polls while Republican candidates struggle to gain traction in some key states.

“History’s against Democrats in this election, poll numbers don’t look great, but momentum is everything in politics. So having some momentum going into the elections, I think it’s certainly within the direction you’re looking to go into,” Zapien said. “Whether or not that’s enough, we’ll find out.”

Republicans are still widely expected to win back control of the House, however. And Republicans point out that the president’s numbers — an often-used barometer to predict midterm election results — may be improving but remain low. 

“It’s a perception of being on a hot streak,” said David Urban, a GOP strategist who served as former President Trump’s 2016 senior adviser in Pennsylvania. “His numbers are still in the low 40s.”

Biden has also endured some criticism from Republicans and moderate Democrats for his decision last month to erase some student loan debt for millions of borrowers, an issue the GOP believes it can use against Biden in the midterms.  

The student loan policy, Urban said, “couldn’t have been more divisive.”

Biden’s decline in the polls had in part been blamed on months of Democratic infighting around a sweeping domestic policy bill. The measure seemed dead before the announcement of a surprise deal between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a pared down climate, health and tax package. 

Democrats believe the passage of that bill — formally known as the Inflation Reduction Act — will help convince voters the party is working to address kitchen table concerns.  

“These midterm elections are oftentimes challenging for the party in power, but I have a lot of optimism because we are making tangible progress on issues that really matter,” said Tom Perez, former DNC chairman who is co-chair of the Democratic group American Bridge. 

But communicating that progress to voters is the next pressing challenge facing the White House and its surrogates, said John LaBombard, a former senior aide to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). 

“My view is that my party is traditionally not that great at communicating to the American people in a clear and sustained way what we achieved for them so I would like to see us buck that historic trend to not be distracted by intraparty squabbling or critics who want to focus on what we didn’t get done,” said LaBombard, senior vice president at public affairs agency Rokk.

There is still a long time until the midterm election, he said, and three months in politics can feel like a lifetime.

“I’m hopeful that the momentum is real and it can continue for the next eight or nine weeks, but that’s dependent on Democrats ranging from the progressive left to the moderate middle touting those legislative achievements in a concise and also a sustained way,” LaBombard said.

Nadeam Elshami, former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said voters historically start to pay attention to midterm elections in the fall. But the Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion protections and the passage of the health care and climate policy bill got people interested over the summer.

“All of a sudden August was kind of a month of action. In September, you’re making the case to voters, vote for me because of x or y. You’re not doing that anymore, you’re simply going into September building on what’s already done,” said Elshami, a policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

The recent survey that put Democrats at a 3-point edge over Republicans also found that abortion was a top issue for voters, ahead of the economy and inflation. 

Democrats also point to signs that the conservative high court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is energizing the Democratic base ahead the midterms and attracting some independents and Republicans, especially in states where strict laws to restrict abortions are now in place.

“I still think one of the biggest factors in this election is the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “It is a game changer.”

Lake described a recent focus group in which female voters described the abortion ruling as a “deal breaker” and accused Republicans of not caring about women. Democrats have outperformed expectations in every special election held since the ruling, including winning two seats in the House.

But there are several potential pitfalls this fall that could distract from Democratic victories this summer, including debates on the continuing resolution, funding for Ukraine amid its war with Russia and discussions on how much funding should go toward efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Failing to pass a continuing resolution would lead to a government shutdown, which doesn’t bode well for either party in an election year. Meanwhile, the president has been successful in getting funding for Ukraine from Congress but has struggled to get more COVID-19 funding.

LaBombard also noted there is an opportunity for “more surprises” out of Congress in September, such as codifying marriage equality or movement on electoral reform. He said those would “be really important cherries on top” of an already substantive Congress. 

“I think there’s an outside chance that the Electoral Count Act gets done before the midterms. But I think you’re going to see some spending bills and more nuts and bolts over the next month and I expect the president to have a pretty busy travel schedule because he is no longer box office poison,” Kessler said.

Biden has been picking up his travel and turning his focus to the 2022 midterm election. As of Monday, he’ll have traveled three times in one week to Pennsylvania — a pivotal state for his 2020 victory that’s home to key midterm races.

He delivered a prime-time address from Philadelphia on Thursday characterizing former President Trump and Republicans aligned with him as threats to democracy, making clear his message to voters this fall will not solely turn on policy wins. 

“You think that voters in August are not paying attention — that’s always been the political history — but that’s not the case,” Elshami said. “They have been paying attention, and I think that’s why you’re seeing the momentum within the Democratic voters throughout, heading into September.”

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