The U.S. Democratic Party is in trouble, one year after taking control of the White House and both houses of the U.S. Congress. The party just failed to pass President Biden’s two top legislative priorities, as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia refused to support the Build Back Better package of climate and safety-net measures, and both he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona rejected plans to approve voting reforms through a simple majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, the omicron variant has caused record numbers of Covid-19 infections, and inflation surpassed 7 percent for 2021. These problems could help Republicans win back control of Congress in midterm elections this November. Biden’s approval rating is lower than any president since World War II—apart from Donald Trump—at this point in his term, and 5 percent more Americans identify as Republicans than Democrats, a 14-point swing from a year ago. Where is all this going?

Norman Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In Ornstein’s view, while Democrats can’t fully control some of the factors that will determine the outcome of the midterms, such as the pandemic or the economy, most economic indicators—aside from inflation—are heading the right way. The Democratic Party’s strategy, as Ornstein sees it, will be to try to pass individual parts of Build Back Better through a budgeting process that requires only a simple majority in the Senate. Biden can also issue executive orders to enact new policies, especially on climate, though the Supreme Court could veto them. Despite the string of recent setbacks, Ornstein says, the Democrats remain almost wholly unified behind Biden’s policy agenda. The question, Ornstein thinks, is whether and how they can adjust their political messaging ahead of this year’s elections to convince American voters that this agenda has made real improvements in their lives.

Michael Bluhm: How bad is it right now for the Democratic Party?

Norman Ornstein: There’s no doubt, this is a low point.

But let’s not forget the bigger picture. We have Covid fatigue in the U.S. that’s been building since the pandemic started. My sense of the Democrats’ defeat in the gubernatorial race in Virginia is that even though Republican Glenn Youngkin used critical race theory in his focus on education, Covid was more important, especially with swing voters. Democrats had said, It’s a pandemic, so we have to shut down—without regard for what the cost would be. They’re going to have a backlash.

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