WASHINGTON – The hazard lights are blinking for President Joe Biden after Democratic setbacks in this week's elections, but the president professes to see no reason for panic.
Just one year after he rode to the White House with a record 81 million votes, Biden saw Democratic stalwart Terry McAuliffe fall to first-time Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin in the governor's race in Virginia, a state that Biden had won by 10 percentage points. In New Jersey, incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy barely won in a state that Biden had won by 16 percentage points.
But with some on the left warning that Democrats face a five-alarm fire, Biden is making the case that the electorate's mood — and Democratic fortunes — will improve when he gets Congress to pass his domestic agenda.
“People need a little breathing room. They’re overwhelmed. And what happened was I think we have to just produce results for them to change their standard of living and give them a little more breathing room,” Biden said Wednesday.
The president parsed the election results after delivering remarks at the White House to showcase federal approval of COVID-19 shots for young children, pronouncing it “a day of relief and celebration” for families.
But even as he argued that his administration was making progress in moving past the coronavirus pandemic and that his domestic spending plan is the balm to soothe an angry electorate, the president rejected the idea that the Democrats' poor showing at the polls was linked to intraparty delays in advancing a stalled $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a 10-year, $1.75 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives.
Instead, Biden said, even if the bills had passed ahead of Tuesday's election, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much for McAuliffe, who drew more votes than any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the commonwealth’s history.
“I’m not sure that I would be able to have changed the number of very conservative folks who turned out in the red districts who were Trump voters,” Biden said. "But maybe. Maybe.”
Voter surveys tell a different story. Three-quarters of voters said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Biden’s governing agenda were an important factor in their vote. Those voters were more likely to back Youngkin, according to preliminary results from AP VoteCast, a survey of Virginia voters.
The president now sees his support diminished, with 47% of Virginia’s voters approving of his job performance and 53% disapproving — a split similar to U.S. adults nationwide in recent AP-NORC polling.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said the results in Virginia, where GOP candidates also won statewide races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, should be a wake-up call for Democrats — and Biden — ahead of 2022 midterm elections in which they are looking to protect razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.
“I think the president’s tanking approval rating really made it very difficult for the ticket to rise above that,” Connolly said,
But in making the case that things aren't as bad as they seem, White House officials pointed to established historic patterns in the two states that suggested the races would be uphill climbs for Democrats no matter what.
Even as Virginia has trended Democratic in recent years the sitting president’s party has lost the governor’s race in 11 of 12 elections there. In New Jersey, Murphy's slim victory marked the first time an incumbent Democratic governor was reelected in 44 years.
Biden looked at the results and suggested no reset was necessary for his White House.
He spoke with certitude of the many factors grinding on Americans — the lingering pandemic, rising costs at the gas pump, uncertainty about the economy — as problems that would go away if he could just get his agenda passed.
“If I’m able to pass, sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of those things ameliorated quickly and swiftly,” the president said.
While not exactly congruous, the moment harks back to 2010 when Democrats took what President Barack Obama called a “shellacking” in the midterm election. The party lost 63 seats in the House, while Republicans also netted six gubernatorial seats and flipped control of 20 state legislative chambers.
At the time, the economy was improving after the Great Recession. But for many Americans, it was not fast enough even though the Obama administration had pushed through more than $800 billion in stimulus. Obama had also managed to get his signature health care legislation passed into law.
Still, for much of America the rebound wasn't enough. And Republicans seized on the linchpin of the legislation — the requirement that every American be insured or pay a fine — as government overreach.
Similarly, the pandemic-jarred economy continues to make progress after hitting bottom in the early days of the pandemic, and a relative sense of normalcy has returned even as the delta variant continues to claim hundreds of lives each day.
White House officials insist they are optimistic that the problems for Biden and Democrats will be short-lived, that political pain will recede as COVID-19 cases decline and kids get shots, and Democrats move closer to passing the infrastructure bill and the president's domestic agenda.
But if past is prologue, the burdens of the moment on the electorate could prove too heavy a lift even if Biden gets what he wants.
"Historically speaking, passing big legislation does not lead to electoral success," said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Voters just often won’t reward those things and sometimes they punish aggressive legislating.”
EDITOR'S NOTE — Aamer Madhani has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2019. Colleen Long has covered criminal justice and government for The Associated Press since 2006.
Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.