American politics has changed dramatically since the beginning of the summer. Two months ago, U.S. President Joe Biden faced the widespread public sentiment that his presidency was in trouble—flagging, maybe already failed. His approval rating was below 40 percent. His legislative agenda was stalled in Congress. Polling showed that most Democratic voters didn’t want him to seek re-election in 2024. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its transformative decision to end a nationwide right to an abortion in America—overturning Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In one sense, the decision was a victory for the Republican Party. Yet in another, it risked the party’s standing among American voters, most of whom oppose the Dobbs ruling and don’t favor massive restrictions on abortion rights. You could see this in the heavily Republican state of Kansas earlier this month, when an overwhelming majority of voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment to end their statewide right to abortion. All of a sudden, with midterm elections coming this fall, the Republicans look to be on the defensive on a central issue in America’s culture wars. Until recently, they led the Democrats in “generic ballot” polling about which party should control Congress next year, but now the two are tied. The president meanwhile remains unpopular, yet things are looking up for him in some ways: He’s benefiting from good economic news and a number of legislative victories over the past few weeks—including the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act he signed into law on Tuesday to addresses climate change, healthcare, and tax policy. How are all these developments affecting U.S. politics?
Julia Azari is an associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. To Azari, the shifting political winds in America favoring the Democratic Party this summer are likely driven by the Dobbs decision more than anything else—though they also likely have to do with the increasing extremism and decreasing political experience of Republican candidates across the country. The Democrats have managed some substantial legislative accomplishments, Azari says—especially considering their small majorities in Congress and the difficult forces of political polarization—but it’s too soon to know what role these accomplishments will play in swaying voters this year. Beyond the fall’s midterm elections, and looking ahead to the next presidential election in 2024, Azari sees both the major U.S. political parties as grappling with fundamental questions about their identities—about not only who should lead them but what should they stand for.
Graham Vyse: How do you see the significance of this big piece of legislation that the Democrats just passed in Congress, the Inflation Reduction Act?
Julia Azari: It arguably represents the biggest legislative effort to address climate change in U.S. history. Socially, its passage is a comeback story for the Democrats, as it’s a scaled-down, revised, and renamed version of Build Back Better—which was a much broader social-spending agenda that Biden put forward last year. Politically, the process that led to the passage of the act was a reminder that any party trying to get things done is going to have internal disagreements, and that’s okay. It’s not necessarily dysfunctional to have lots of different kinds of people with different kinds of needs within a party. And it’s not necessarily dysfunctional that presidents can’t conduct them all perfectly; presidents are always constrained by events or otherwise limited in their ability to lead their parties internally. So, this moment is just a demonstration that getting a big bill done takes a lot of time and effort.
Part of the challenge for the Democrats has been that they’re in a bind: They control the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives by small margins, yet they promised big change. More importantly, their party is divided between people who want to maintain the status quo and people who want radical change. Still, factions in the party were able to find common priorities.
Vyse: The Inflation Reduction Act joins a list of accomplishments that includes $1.9 trillion in pandemic-relief spending; $1 trillion in bipartisan infrastructure spending; a modest, bipartisan gun-control law; and the appointment of 75 federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. How do you see Biden’s track record comparing to that of previous presidents a year and a half into their first terms?
Azari: George W. Bush had a number of legislative accomplishments early in his presidency, and some of them were bipartisan: tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, which reformed the education system. Barack Obama also signed a number of major bills into law in his first couple of years in office: an economic-stimulus package, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which regulated the U.S. financial system, the Affordable Care Act, which reformed the American healthcare system.
It’s important to remember, though, that Bush and Obama benefited during their early years from their parties having big majorities in Congress. The standards for presidential accomplishments have dropped in America—but even so, given the Democrats’ small margins in Congress, and the current level of political polarization in America as a whole, this has been quite a productive legislative session. There’s been a slow and steady movement toward shared national priorities, even if the bills that have enacted these priorities have had to be stripped down.
Democrats had four long years under Trump to think about the cost of being in disarray as a party. They’ve realized that they rise or fall together, and that realization is more important than anything Biden has done.
The gun-control legislation that Congress passed is worth dwelling on. On the one hand, there wasn’t a lot in it about guns; there was a lot in it about mental health, but addressing mental-health issues is clearly a bipartisan priority—and that’s not a bad thing. I actually think that, if Obama or Trump had signed a bipartisan law addressing gun violence, the American news media would have acted as though he was the best president ever. The press is biased toward presidents who are entertaining, and Biden isn’t very entertaining. He’s never going to wow people with his speeches.
Vyse: How do you understand his and the Democrats’ legislative victories?
Azari: Part of the story is that Democrats had four long years under Trump to think about the cost of being in disarray as a party. They’ve realized that they rise or fall together, and that realization is more important than anything Biden has done.
Biden is a different kind of president than America has gotten used to in the years since Ronald Reagan. I’ve been thinking a lot about how, when George H.W. Bush died, everyone talked about what a statesman he was. During his presidency, though, he was portrayed as small. He wasn’t a great communicator. I suspect some people will reflect on Biden as they’ve reflected on George H.W. Bush. Another comparison I’m inclined to draw is to Harry Truman, a quiet man of his party who was dealt a horrible hand and inherited crises. His reputation was rehabilitated after he left office.
Vyse: As recently as early summer, there was a widespread perception that Biden’s presidency was shaping up to be unsuccessful—or at least deeply flawed. Do you see that perception changing on account of his new legislative victories?
Azari: The perception may change. Along with the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden recently signed the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act, which aims to increase semiconductor-chip manufacturing in the U.S., and the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act for veterans’ healthcare.
There are several ways to think about this presidency: Biden’s approval ratings are clearly low. Some of that is explained by partisanship, but he’s also lost support in his own party. There’s a lot of frustration among Democrats about Biden’s presidency not being forceful enough after the Trump era. There’s frustration across his broader coalition of support too, including among independent voters, about Covid, inflation, and things generally having been awful for two years. The country’s in a bad mood, fundamentally—and in America, the president is going to pay the price for that.
It’s possible U.S. media narratives about Biden will change. The media here loves to see bills passing. The media loves a comeback story. But again, as I say, there’s a bias in the media toward presidents who are entertaining. Particularly for younger journalists, there’s an expectation that every president will be like Barack Obama or Donald Trump, who’re both tremendously entertaining to watch, regardless of what you think of them.
It’s possible U.S. media narratives about Biden will change. The media here loves to see bills passing. The media loves a comeback story.
The politics of this year’s U.S. midterm elections are interesting. If current trends hold, the Democrats will outperform expectations from earlier in the year. They may still lose one house or both houses of Congress, but if their Republican opposition underperforms—even with Biden so unpopular—that will create a political narrative that holds in American media. Biden’s approval rating has crept up a little, and the Dobbs decision was a game changer. It was really out of step with public opinion in America, and it’s having consequences many weren’t expecting—in a country where even 39 percent of Republicans support some abortion rights. There’s a theory about midterm elections in America that voters want to balance the president’s party, but—as I recently heard someone say—voters may now want to balance the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in contrast to the Affordable Care Act at the time it was passed, a lot of the legislation Biden and Democrats are getting passed seems to be pretty popular. Democrats haven’t completely lost the messaging war over their legislative accomplishments. Republicans are making some typical criticisms, but I don’t think this new legislation is going to be the focal point of negative midterm campaigning. The legislation may end up mattering, along with the state of the economy and the trajectory of inflation, but it’s too soon to tell.
Vyse: How do you understand Americans’ perceptions of the Republicans right now?
Azari: It’s an interesting and tricky question. People who are less attentive to politics may not fully understand some of the ways the Republican Party has changed in recent years. The generic-ballot poll, which asks voters whether they’re planning on voting for the Democrat or the Republican in their House race, shows Democrats and Republicans basically tied—and Republicans had been slightly ahead for most of this year. Democrats got closer to Republicans right around the Dobbs decision. The conventional wisdom among pollsters is that many races are closer than they ought to be, because the Republican candidate in those races is extreme, inexperienced, or both.
Vyse: To the extent that we’re seeing American voters shift toward Democrats ahead of this year’s elections—at a time when Republicans are expected to do well—what historical precedents would you see for that kind of shift?
Azari: Well, 1998 and 2002 were both years when the American president’s party defied the odds and gained seats in the House of Representatives. In both cases, the president was really popular, which won’t be the case this year. In 1998, Democrats gained while Republicans were focused on the impeachment of Bill Clinton and didn’t seem to be addressing voters’ concerns. In 2002, Republicans gained with Democrats having no response to their opponent’s control of the political narrative after 9/11. You have some Republican candidates this year whose politics are extreme, even by the party’s recent standards, or who lack any real political experience. When you add the Dobbs decision to that, the Republican Party starts to look like it’s lost the thread.
You have some Republican candidates this year whose politics are extreme, even by the party’s recent standards, or who lack any real political experience. When you add the Dobbs decision to that, the Republican Party starts to look like it’s lost the thread.
Vyse: How do you see the parties grappling with the question of who they should nominate for president in 2024?
Azari: Biden was a pretty good candidate to bring the Democratic coalition together, but he’ll be 80 years old in November. Nobody in the Democratic Party wants to articulate this dilemma in public. The future will depend on Biden’s popularity, the state of his presidency—that kind of thing. It’s very hard to win a presidential nomination in either party without a lot of name recognition, and among the Republicans, it’s very hard to beat Trump on that front. Then again, he’s created all these ambitious Trumpists. Many political scientists say that Trump would clear the field if he entered the race. I think it’s an open question whether the Republican Party still operates like that. The Democratic Party has also operated like that in the past, with an Al Gore or a Hillary Clinton clearing the field. Given the rules and informal culture of their party, Republicans could be poised for quite a chaotic nomination season. It should be less so for the Democrats, but it could be turbulent for them too. Anyone who says they know for sure what 2024 is going to look like isn’t seeing the whole picture.
Vyse: How do you interpret the anxieties we’re already seeing about 2024, as with the many Democrats worried that Vice President Kamala Harris wouldn’t be an effective leader for their party?
Azari: Democrats have been really bad at building a leadership bench—and that’s a longtime problem. Today they have something of a bench, but there’s a pervasive sense that Harris has electoral liabilities. There are lingering concerns about her 2020 campaign, one of which is that it didn’t appear to be well run. The second is that Harris was clearly adept at navigating the kind of dynamics you need to rise through California politics—and that’s not nothing—but it’s different than winning a presidential nomination or a general election for the White House. Pete Buttigieg is the other obvious person who could run for president, though the office of Secretary of Transportation isn’t a typical feeder for presidential candidates. All candidates are going to have liabilities.
I’ve a hard time seeing a Republican candidate appease both the pro-Trump faction in the party and the small faction that’s critical of Trump, which includes prominent figures like Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. I don’t know how important those kinds of people will be. I see a lot of fractiousness on the Republican side and a lot of guesswork about who’s a viable nominee on the Democratic side.
Vyse: What would you say are the biggest challenges and opportunities in front of the Democrats and Republicans, respectively?
Azari: One big question for Democrats is the choice between maintaining the status quo and pursuing radical change. That’s the main division in the Democratic Party, and it’s largely a division based on age. The party has been a multiracial coalition since before the 1960s, and that’s always been complicated to manage. There have been fluctuations in its Latino support and, to a lesser extent, its African-American support. Asian-Americans are more Democratic than you might expect based on their incomes and other factors. Republicans are figuring out how to navigate being a Trumpist party while Trumpism, despite inspiring strong loyalty, has never really been a majoritarian project.