5 Big Questions for the Political Year Ahead

5 Big Questions for the Political Year Ahead 1

Inflation and the pandemic are hurting President Biden’s popularity, but the midterms are still months away.

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to political news. We’re your hosts, Leah and Blake.

We know it feels early, but it really isn’t, politically speaking. It’s 2022, and the midterm elections have started, whether we’re emotionally prepared or not. With control of Congress and key states at stake, we’re watching about a dozen competitive Senate races, 30 or so governor’s races and a few dozen competitive House races, along with a host of primaries and lower-tier contests.

Here are five questions that could shape the outcome.

The reasons behind the surge in inflation are complex. But for months, Republicans have banged home a simple attack: It’s President Biden’s fault. And that’s been devastatingly effective.

The Consumer Price Index had risen 6.8 percent last year through November — the fastest in four decades. Most troubling for the White House: Gasoline and groceries have led the way. Research shows that public approval ratings of presidents track closely with gas prices.

Taming inflation by November won’t be easy, economists say.

“There’s little that can be done to affect the overall inflation rate over the next six to nine months,” Larry Summers, a former Treasury secretary, told us.

Summers is urging the Biden administration to show a “united front” against inflation through rhetoric and key Federal Reserve Board appointments, and to resist populist calls to attack corporations for raising prices. “I think they flirt with the idea that it’s greedy meatpackers causing inflation,” he said, “which is modestly counterproductive.”

Inflation isn’t the only reason Biden is one of the most unpopular presidents in 70 years, with an average approval rating of just under 43 percent. He is also struggling on crime, government spending, immigration and taxes in recent polls.

Although Biden isn’t on the ballot in 2022, he’s the leader of the Democratic Party. In midterm elections, presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent have seen their parties lose an average of 37 House seats.

The only president who rebounded significantly in his second year? Donald J. Trump.

Biden got elected in part by promising to “beat the virus.” More than 62 percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated, according to C.D.C data. There are no more follies in the White House briefing room. New medicines are coming.

But two years on, the coronavirus is still with us. More than 1,000 Americans on average are dying of Covid-19 each day. Public health officials keep issuing confusing messages. The new Omicron variant is exposing flaws in the U.S. testing regimen. Life is not back to normal.

The murky results make us wonder whether Biden can reap a political windfall if and when conditions improve.

“We just have to continue to keep our heads down, focus on solving the problems, focus on what we can do to deal with Covid, continuing to try to get vaccination rates up, continuing to try to work through this challenge,” said Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat running for re-election.

And though many Republicans have resisted vaccines, masks and other measures to combat the pandemic, there are no signs that voters intend to punish them for it.

“If you’re Biden, I don’t think you want to go into the midterms having the discussion we’re having with Covid,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “That discussion has gotten very stale with people.”

About 30 states have finalized new congressional maps based on 2020 census data. For some incumbents, new maps mean facing primaries against other sitting members of Congress. For others, new maps might offer a convenient excuse to retire rather than taking on a colleague in a primary or testing their political strength in newly competitive seats.

So far, it’s safe to say the House battleground has shrunk. A handful of districts that were competitive in 2018 and 2020 won’t be in 2022. In Texas, for example, Democrats and Republicans will be fighting for control of just a few districts, down from about 10 in 2020.

But even after every state passes its final lines, courts can intervene. Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, called the maps passed in North Carolina and Ohio the “worst-case scenario for Democrats,” but expects those to change as a result of lawsuits.

“I think there will be a sufficient number of competitive seats for Democrats to hold the House in 2022 even in a tough cycle,” Burton said. “I feel cautiously optimistic.”

Even if things could have gone worse for Democrats in the redistricting process, they’re still at a disadvantage in the race for the House. Democrats oversee redistricting in about half as many House districts as Republicans, and history is working against the president’s party, which has lost House seats in all but two midterm elections since the 1940s.

Senator Joe Manchin III seemed to answer that question with a knife-twisting “no” in a Fox News interview before the holidays, announcing he could not support the Democrats’ $1.75 trillion social policy bill, the Build Back Better Act.

But there’s too much at stake for Democrats to just give up. So Senate leaders are quietly trying to revive Build Back Better, along with federal voting rights legislation that would need to somehow overcome a Republican filibuster. Even Oprah is getting involved.

Some Democrats argue for breaking Build Back Better into chunks: “For example, if we can move on prescription drug pricing, if we can move forward on child care, things that literally end up being part of that kitchen table conversation,” Kildee, the Michigan Democrat, told us.

It could be months before those efforts succeed, if ever, and, in the meantime, Democrats in vulnerable seats are venting their frustration over the impasse. The longer the bickering in Washington drags on, the longer they’ll be stuck in limbo.

“If B.B.B. actually collapsed, it’d be very bad for elected Democrats,” said the Democratic pollster Brian Stryker. He added: “It would also further the narrative that Democrats would rather fight each other than govern.”

This is perhaps the most important question of all. We just observed the one-year anniversary of a deeply traumatic national event — the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. The congressional panel investigating the events of Jan. 6 has released memos and texts suggesting a plot that was both more serious and more absurd than we knew at the time. And we haven’t even gotten to the public hearings or final report yet.

At the center of all this is Trump, who has spent the last year urging Republicans to embrace his falsehoods as he attempts to reshape the election machinery of states he lost in 2020. Only a third of Republican voters now say elections are fair, and “election integrity” is one of the top issues motivating the grass roots of their party. Dozens of G.O.P.-led legislatures are moving to restrict voting access.

Biden has planned a speech Tuesday in Atlanta on his struggling federal voting rights push, but some Democrats are running low on patience.

On Thursday, a coalition of groups in Georgia issued a blistering statement declaring they would “reject any visit by President Biden that does not include an announcement of a finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law; anything less is insufficient and unwelcome.”

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Doug Mills/The New York Times

We’ll regularly feature work by Doug Mills, The Times’s longtime White House photographer and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Here’s what Doug had to say about capturing this shot above:

We had just come back from the holidays, and Biden was about to give some remarks on reducing prices in the meat-processing industry. I saw the president peeking through this door to the stage in the South Court Auditorium inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the White House built a TV studio set last year that’s meant to resemble a room inside the West Wing. I was struck by the fact that the president was wearing a mask, because the pandemic had just come back at hyper speed, and everyone had suddenly returned to wearing masks at their desks.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

— Blake & Leah

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