The American 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 conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. In Ornstein’s view, Democrats can’t fully control some of the factors that will determine the outcome of the midterms, such as the pandemic or the economy. But if these factors improve in the next few months, then voters could shift back to favoring Democrats, and 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, such as universal pre-K, 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, he 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.

We’re at a bad point with the pandemic. We’re not out of the woods and won’t be for a very long time, but if Covid is no longer dominating daily life in the U.S., we’re going to be in a different place. And if that happens before the summertime, the mood of the country may be a little different by the midterms.

At the same time, we have historic rates of inflation. The main cause of this global phenomenon is that demand picked up as Covid began to recede, but the disruptions in the supply chain have created a classic mismatch. One-third of the 7 percent inflation this past year is from car prices, which is a supply-chain problem with semiconductor chips. There has also been some disruption in the supply chain for food.

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But if the supply-chain disruptions ease, we could be back in a different place. Forecasters such as Goldman Sachs think inflation this year will be back down around 3 or 4 percent. You could look at this as a glass maybe not half full, but with prospects for getting fuller.

Biden’s big challenge is that he has a 50/50 Senate and a four-vote majority in the House of Representatives. But it’s entirely possible that we’ll see some of the core elements of Build Back Better and some executive action done before the midterms. Elements of voting reform could make it through the Senate, though I can’t say that I’d wager a lot of money on that.

But if you can’t frame the debate and the issues in the way you want, and if your accomplishments don’t resonate with voters, then you’re going to be in big trouble.

Let me step back for a moment. If I’d said to you a year ago that—despite a 50/50 Senate and a margin of three votes in the House of Representatives—in Biden’s first year we’re going to see $3 trillion in Covid relief, support for working families, broad-based infrastructure, and the most judges confirmed in any president’s first year in 40 years, you’d have said to me, Come on, that’s impossible!

If you can’t frame the debate and the issues in the way you want, and if your accomplishments don’t resonate with voters, then you’re going to be in big trouble.

Does it get him anything in public support? No. There’s a distemper and a feeling of frustration, and Democrats are going to have a huge problem with motivation among their core voters.

But if inflation and Covid are still a big deal, and if the White House can’t effectively change the way issues are framed in U.S. public debate, it’s not going to be a good election in November.

Bluhm: As you say, the Democrats want to see the pandemic recede before the midterms. What can they do now to control the pandemic, and how much can they affect its course?

Ornstein: Things that have a big impact are getting vaccines and masks out globally, because if any part of the world doesn’t get vaccinated and doesn’t handle this, it can mean more variants spreading and more havoc.

There are limits. Another cancer on American politics, and on our society, is the idea that you would tribalize a global public-health issue. We’re likely to have 30 percent or more of U.S. adults who won’t get vaccinated because of ideological beliefs. That’s going to mean a prolonged pandemic; it’s going to mean a lot more disruption; and it’s going to mean extended effects on the economy.

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The administration can make sure it has coherent messaging for the American public about where we are, what we need to do, and how we need to do it. They can make sure the right systems are in place and work: If they tell people, You can get four tests, then people can go to the website and get those tests. If there’s a need for another booster, the administration can work to make sure it’s out there right away. They’ve had a real problem with the Centers for Disease Control; the messages have been inconsistent. But there’s only so much the administration can do when there’s a media machine like Fox News undermining any attempts to deal with public health.

Bluhm: How much will the pandemic influence the way Americans vote in November?

Ornstein: Not necessarily directly. We’re not likely to hear people say, Joe Biden conquered Covid, therefore we will vote for Democrats. The pandemic affects people’s optimism or pessimism; if affects broader attitudes about where American society is going and whether we’re making things work.

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