What the 2022 midterms mean for the Biden presidency: NPR


President Biden walks off stage after speaking at a rally to thank Democrats after the midterm elections.

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President Biden walks off stage after speaking at a rally to thank Democrats after the midterm elections.

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President Biden is entering a new — and perhaps more challenging — phase of his presidency: divided government.

The results are not settled, especially for the Senate. But Republicans seem likely to control the House. And that means Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda will essentially be stalled.

Even the most basic acts of governance — like passing a budget or raising the debt ceiling to prevent a U.S. bankruptcy — could become a legislative task in the new Congress, experts say. And if the GOP takes control of the Senate, judicial confirmations could stop.

Regardless of the final outcome, Biden said he was willing to try to find consensus along the aisle.

“I’m ready to work with my fellow Republicans,” he told reporters the day after the election. “I think the American people have made it clear that they expect Republicans to be willing to work with me as well.”

Biden said he sees close margins as an opportunity for leverage.

“There’s always enough people on the other team — whether they’re Democrats or Republicans — that the opposing side can appeal to and maybe bring them out to get the help,” he said.

But there is skepticism about the prospects for a White House compromise in an increasingly polarized Congress.

“Of course, they should always talk about things that will tangibly improve people’s lives and guarantee their rights, but it’s really hard to see where that’s real,” said Marie Urbina, managing director of the progressive organization Indivisible.

President Biden answers a question from a reporter during a press conference the day after the midterm elections.

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President Biden answers a question from a reporter during a press conference the day after the midterm elections.

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It’s unclear where Biden is willing to compromise

Biden said he plans to invite leaders from both parties to the White House later this year to discuss how they can work together.

But he did not clarify what those potential areas of consensus might be. The president has previously talked about opioids, cancer, mental health and veterans’ issues as an “agenda of unity” where Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.

Biden also recently expressed hopes for a continued bipartisan approach to Russia’s war in Ukraine, although in recent months some Republicans have begun to express concern about the large sums of money given to the Ukrainian government.

Congressman Tom Emmer claps as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy arrives to speak at a post-midterm election viewing party.

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Congressman Tom Emmer claps as House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy arrives to speak at a post-midterm election viewing party.

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He may have the chance to brandish the veto pen

Biden was more clear about the areas in which he would not compromise. He said he would veto any attempts to create a federal ban on abortion or to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, the signature climate and health care bill passed by Democrats this summer. He also said he would not accept major cuts or changes to Social Security or Medicare, a proposal made by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Some Democrats see a flip side to the messaging in this potential legislative impasse.

With the government divided, “his conversation with the American public becomes much easier in some ways, politically,” said Faiz Shakir, a longtime adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt. “You can say, ‘This is what I want to do. This is the agenda I want to pass. And I have Republicans here in the House standing in my way.”

In other words, the contrast becomes easier than in the past two years, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate but fought each other on policy.

Biden will focus on foreign policy and try to use more executive action

With legislation at a standstill, the president is more likely to try to push his domestic policies through executive action, much like his predecessors who dealt with divided government.

It’s also more likely that Biden will turn his attention to foreign policy, where presidents have more executive power to begin with.

Late Thursday, Biden left for a series of summits abroad, including a face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 in Bali. Overcoming competition with China and managing the war in Ukraine are two key diplomatic priorities for this White House that will continue to be pressing issues beyond the midterms.

Republicans may be at risk of overreaching

Republican plans to repeal the DEA are largely symbolic, given Biden’s veto power. But they could try to pressure the president into their priorities by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless he agrees to some of their initiatives.

But there is a risk of overdoing it, said Brendan Buck, who worked for House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

“It’s very easy for any new majority that comes in to think that the election is about them – when most of the time when the Congress gets kicked out, it’s because people just don’t like what the other party is doing. It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the new party,” Buck said.

Going too far risks a backlash from voters at the next general election. “That’s what we saw in 2010 to 2012,” Buck explained. During the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans won a whopping 63 seats in the House, only to see then-President Barack Obama win re-election two years later.

President Biden walks with his son Hunter Biden after attending Mass in Johns Island, South Carolina on August 13, 2022.

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President Biden walks with his son Hunter Biden after attending Mass in Johns Island, South Carolina on August 13, 2022.

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The investigations could put the White House on the defensive

Even with a slim majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans could become a constant thorn in the side of the Biden administration using their oversight powers. As NPR’s Susan Davis outlined, the GOP is planning investigations into topics ranging from the withdrawal from Afghanistan to the origins of COVID-19. Some Republicans were also eager to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

“It’s payback,” said Bill Galston, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They are very angry about the investigations they feel they have been subjected to.”

Biden has dismissed threats of investigations, including threats of impeachment. “I think the American people will look at all of this for what it is. It’s just almost a comedy,” he said this week.

“I can’t control what they’re going to do. All I can do is keep trying to make life better for the American people.”

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 7.

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President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden walk toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 7.

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Do midterm results make Biden more likely to run for second term?

Biden has faced questions about whether he should run for a second term because of his age and low approval ratings. Polls show many Democrats are half-hearted about Biden’s re-election bid.

Stronger-than-expected Democratic midterm results could quell domestic debate for now.

“This will reduce any pressure from the Democratic Party for President Biden to step down in favor of a new face,” Galston said.

“If there really had been a debacle, I think there would have been a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure that could have erupted into the public domain sooner rather than later. I don’t think that’s going to happen now,” he said.

Biden said this week that he hopes to make a firm decision by early next year.

“My intention is to run again. But I am a big respecter of fate,” he said. “And it’s ultimately a family decision.”

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