Presidential ‘fast starts’ come with electoral risk

2010 and 2018 offers some lessons, but other factors could be at play

Joe Biden is off to a “fast start” to his presidency similar to that of his predecessor Barack Obama, but his party may not meet the same fate in next year’s midterms as it did in 2010, Rothenberg writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Joe Biden is off to a “fast start” to his presidency similar to that of his predecessor Barack Obama, but his party may not meet the same fate in next year’s midterms as it did in 2010, Rothenberg writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 13, 2021 at 6:00am

OPINION — “President Donald Trump is off to a fast start,” I wrote in a Jan. 30, 2017, column for Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, before warning that the same “aggressiveness could produce the same sort of reaction that Barack Obama’s fast start did in 2009: It could lead to a midterm election in which voters apply the brakes.”

They did, sending messages of dissatisfaction to Obama and House Democrats in 2010 and to Trump and House Republicans in 2018.

Now, the question is whether President Joe Biden will follow the same path — and face the same outcome in 2022, including substantial losses for the Democrats in the House. Or do different “fast starts” produce different outcomes?

Recent fast starts

Obama’s “fast start” looks almost quaint by today’s standards. He pushed for a $787 billion economic stimulus package, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which seems like pocket change considering Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law, his $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan, and his recently released request for another $1.5 trillion in spending later this year.

Biden has repeatedly talked about the need to move quickly on COVID-19 relief, infrastructure, guns and climate change.

Obviously, as supporters of the president will point out, the situation confronting Biden now is far from identical to what Obama and Trump faced.

When Obama took office, he faced a serious financial crisis that threatened the world economy. Biden has had to deal with the coronavirus, high unemployment and millions of Americans suffering economically.

Trump, on the other hand, inherited a growing economy from Obama but appeared in the media each day to complain about how terrible things (and his critics) were, how “fake” the media was, and how he would remake America. And, as he promised, he ignored long-established norms and relied on executive orders to change the government and the country to his liking.

“So far,” Matthew Nussbaum and Henry C. Jackson wrote in Politico on Feb. 17, 2017, less than a month after Trump’s inauguration, “Trump has signed at least 23 executive actions, signed five bills into law, seen 12 members of his Cabinet confirmed, nominated one justice to the Supreme Court, sent 168 (undeleted) tweets, fired one acting attorney general and demanded one resignation: that of his own national security adviser.”

“Trump’s fast start almost guarantees that the midterm will be about him,” I wrote in my column published a mere 10 days after the new president had talked about “American carnage,” in his inauguration address.

Biden’s massive spending proposals may well be justified, and as a Democrat, he was certain to roll back many of Trump’s decisions (on the Paris Agreement on climate change, for example) and executive orders.

So the question is not really whether Biden has frightened the American public the way Obama and Trump did. It is whether other factors will affect voters differently next year than they did in 2010 and 2018, possibly giving Biden some leeway that Obama and Trump didn’t have.

The president

Obama and Trump were so dramatically different from previous presidents that it was easy for their adversaries to demonize them.

Obama, the first Black president, was regarded as an unapologetic liberal who had defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Trump was often vulgar and nasty toward his critics, and he seemed to have no regard for important institutions. 

Biden, on the other hand, ran quite explicitly as a pragmatist and an institutionalist. While he promised to address progressive issues such as voting rights, inequality, global climate change and the social welfare net, he took on his Democratic opponents on enough issues to establish that he is not a socialist, radical or tool of his party’s most progressive voices.

Given that (and assuming he maintains that positioning), voters could well give Biden the benefit of the doubt on his agenda, especially given the empathy and personal qualities that he has shown. His personal decency, experience in government, optimism and more pragmatic positioning constitute important political currency for him.

The parties

The polarization so obvious to all could turn out to be an asset for Biden in the short run.

Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes last year, with the help of strong turnout from progressives, minority voters, women and the key swing group in today’s electorate: college-educated, suburban white voters.

The trend toward polarization continues, and that could make it easier next year for Democratic House candidates to hold on to those crucial swing voters, as well as turn out base voters who normally stay at home during nonpresidential years.

Republican gains in the House from last year have also minimized the number of Democratic seats at risk in 2022, since Biden’s victory did not sweep in electorally weak Democrats with him, as is usually the case.

The Biden agenda

As many have noted, much of Biden’s American Jobs Plan has resonated with rank-and-file Republicans. If that remains the case — and it is a big “if” — House Democrats could find themselves better positioned than they did in 2010 and than Republicans did in 2018.

Of course, voters could turn against the Biden record at any time, dramatically increasing the chances of a more traditional midterm election that punishes the sitting president’s party.

The opposition

Unlike in 2010 and 2018, when the “out-party” successfully made the midterms “about” the president, Republicans have acted in a way that makes 2022 about them rather than about Biden and House Democrats.

Trump has signaled he will inject himself into the midterms — both by challenging incumbent Republican officeholders who have criticized him and by reminding voters that he is the leader of the GOP.

That could make 2022 “about” Trump and House Republicans like Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert and a handful of other current GOP officeholders and candidates instead of about Biden. That’s hardly an ideal situation for Republicans in next year’s election.

The bottom line

The combination of Biden’s “fast start” and historic midterm trends makes it difficult to see Democrats retaining the House next year. But there are enough reasons why 2022 could be different from 2010 and 2018 to keep both parties fixated on the midterms.