Biden’s achievements may not be of great importance this year

A few months ago, the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda looked stagnant and its political fortunes dire. Then Congress enacted several major new laws — most notably a budget adjustment bill that combines climate change mitigation with health-care affordability measures — and President Joe Biden announced an unprecedented partial forgiveness of federal student debt. Now both Biden and his party are enjoying such a surge in popularity that some critics are openly skeptical of the long-supposed Republican Party’s crushing collapse in November.

It is tempting to draw a simple relationship between the recent rush in Democrats’ policymaking and the simultaneous rise in the polls. But voters don’t necessarily think this way — and there’s no guarantee that this rebound will continue until Election Day.

Voters often claim to be frustrated with a Washington that “does nothing,” so they are supposed to be happy when their leaders do something. And the Democratic-aligned giant PAC recently unveiled a battlefield advertising campaign touting the party’s recent achievements, suggesting that some party strategists are hoping the legislative call for credit will be a compelling election message. Finally, there is a strong inherent allure in the belief that incumbents will be rewarded by voters who are satisfied with the commitments they made during their campaigns.

In other words: it is natural to treat the enactment of a new policy as, by definition, a governing success.

History shows otherwise. Some of the most historically productive Congressional sessions were followed by major electoral losses for the president’s party: In 2010, after enactment of the Affordable Care Act, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Dodd Frank Financial Regulation Bill, Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats. Republicans lost 27 seats in the House of Representatives in 1982 after the first round of tax cuts and military buildups by Ronald Reagan. Even after the popular creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the ruling Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate midterm the following year.

In some cases, such as the Anti-Corruption Act, the legislation was controversial enough to provoke a violent national reaction. In other cases, Americans simply had other things on their mind by the time of the next election, such as the economic recession of 1982 and the urban riots of 1966.

Even as voters applaud the policy change, their memories often fade and attention quickly turns to other concerns. Opinion polls showed that the bipartisan infrastructure bill won broad approval when Biden signed it last November. But a survey conducted last June found that only about a quarter of respondents stated that the bill had become law.

So even if the recent rebound in the Democratic Party’s popularity reflects a discretionary response to policy-making volatility — rather than the persistent drop in gasoline prices since midsummer or the fading of Covid-related turmoil — it is an open question whether it will continue.

Discontent tends to be a more active and persistent emotion in politics than gratitude. Ruling parties are vulnerable to significant seat losses in congressional elections because opposition members are usually eager to register their disapproval at the polls, while swing voters know they can curtail the president’s power without handing over full control of government to the other party.

For a chance to avoid that fate, Democrats may need to harness some of the anger on their behalf. This strategy is usually doomed to failure in the midterm elections. The backlash policy rarely benefits the responsible people. But the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade is a rare instance of federal policy on a major issue that is moving sharply in the opposite direction to the president’s party, and already appears to be producing an increase in electoral participation among Democratic voters.

The continued public prominence of Donald Trump and the success of Trump-aligned candidates in the Republican primaries, particularly in the Senate, also raises the possibility that the 2022 midterm elections may be lower than usual in a referendum on the incumbent president. Trump is no more popular than Biden, and an election framed as a choice between the two may be more of a divided decision than a Republican landslide victory.

Some Democrats may find cold relief that the price of bright electoral prospects is Dobbs’ rule and Trump’s continued existence. The American political system offers leaders incentives to achieve their core goals, but these incentives are rarely enforced by midterm voters. Since it’s the party members themselves who work hard to pressure politicians to keep their promises, any reward usually comes when it’s time for re-nomination.

Biden’s policies on health care, climate change and student debt may not help his party win seats this year. But don’t be surprised if he uses them to make an argument to fellow Democrats that he deserves a chance for a second term in 2024.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Why are Biden’s poll numbers improving?: Jonathan Bernstein

• Biden is unpopular, but Democrats are not: Juliana Goldman

• Biden’s Debt Relief Plan Will Make US Politics Worse: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and author of Fighting Red in Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.

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