The first 18 months of President Joe Biden’s tenure have not gone well. Inflation is at its highest point since 1981. Russia has invaded Ukraine. COVID-19 lingers. The national mood is downcast and leaves many pundits with the expectation that the Democrats will be trounced in this year’s midterm elections.
Regardless of the national mood, “one of the most ironclad rules in American politics is that the president’s party loses ground in midterm elections,” Geoffrey Skelley and Nathaniel Rakich wrote for FiveThirtyEight. “Almost no president is immune. President George W. Bush’s Republicans took a ‘thumping’ in 2006. President Barack Obama’s Democrats received a ‘shellacking’ in 2010. President Donald Trump’s Republicans were buried under a blue wave in 2018. And the results out of Virginia and New Jersey last November suggest that a red wave might hit President Biden’s Democrats in 2022.”
Currently, “Democrats wrestle with what message to take into the midterms,” according to a Washington Post headline. Another topic of contention, assuming the red wave does in fact crest and Democrats get “shellacked” in the midterms, will be what message to take away from the midterms. Namely, how will Biden react?
A natural inclination for a president whose party is defeated in the midterms is to tack toward the center. Bill Clinton did it in 1994, after his Democrats lost big. “Clinton is free to be the rightward-tilting New Democrat he said he was during the 1992 campaign,” David Dahl wrote in the Tampa Bay Times after Clinton’s midterm defeat. “He is liberated from the old-guard Democrats who ran Congress. And he can work more closely with moderates in his own party and with Republicans.”
Clinton followed Dahl’s advice. “Stung by Defeats in ‘94, Clinton Regrouped and Co-opted G.O.P. Strategies,” a New York Times headline blared in 1996. Clinton even acknowledged as much. Ben Wattenberg, author of Values Matter Most, revealed that in a 1995 phone call with Clinton, the then-president admitted letting Democrats down with his first-term leftward drift – but that he was moving to the center as penance. Clinton “thought that Democrats in Congress had done more moving to the center in 1993-94 than is generally acknowledged, citing, for example, the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus supported the crime bill. He noted that the percentage of federal employees in the work force today is the lowest since 1933,” Wattenberg wrote for The Baltimore Sun. Clinton “thinks the recent Senate vote on welfare, with three-quarters of the Democrats voting in favor of a very tough bill, demonstrates that the Democratic move to the center is intensifying now.”
Biden Would Struggle to Follow Clinton’s Example
So, would Biden behave similarly to Clinton? Would Biden tack center after a 2022 midterm defeat?
Well, that seems unlikely; Biden is already a bona fide centrist. As Branko Marcetic wrote in Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, the current president has shown a lifelong commitment to centrist politics. “We are now seeing unfold precisely what Marcetic predicted,” Nathan J. Robinson wrote for Current Affairs, “Biden is living up to the promise he made to rich donors that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ if he was elected.”
Substantively speaking, Biden has not been progressive. Under his tenure, not one facet of the progressive agenda has been implemented – no minimum wage hike, no universal pre-K, no Medicare expansion, no student loan forgiveness. Ironically, by not promoting a progressive agenda, Biden has failed to materially improve the lives of working-class Americans. Voters are sick of “more of the same.” Voters want change, and they want economic relief. The resulting anger from Washington’s persistent neglect – which Biden now personifies – fuels the right-wing populism that is likely to dismantle the Democrats’ congressional majority this November. So the idea that Biden would regain popularity by maintaining a centrist tack on substantive issues is misguided.
Biden does have room to move to the center concerning social-justice rhetoric. And he would benefit from doing so. Left-wing social issues, which have gained mainstream traction within the Democratic Party over the last few years, remain widely unpopular among the population at large. I’m talking about defunding the police, Lia Thomas, DEI initiatives, Robin DeAngelo, etc. Most Americans do not agree with the left-wing social agenda. Were Biden to take a more centrist approach on these upstart social issues, it would detract from the right-wing argument that the left has become socially radicalized. Regardless, the social stuff is not the substance. With respect to substance, Biden is already a centrist, with nowhere to go but leftward – a course he has resisted for fifty years.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.
Note: The headline of this piece has been updated.