Like most Democrats, my worst nightmare is Kevin McCarthy becoming Speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell becoming majority leader of the Senate.
But, if history is a guide, that’s likely to be the case after this fall’s midterm election. The best hope for Democrats is for President President Biden to reverse his declining approval ratings.
He can start by reining in his party’s progressive wing.
Joe Biden is president today because he ran as a moderate. But in the last six months, he has ceded definition of his party to the progressives. That’s cost him dearly, particularly with the swing voters who determine which party controls the House and the Senate.
Americans are in a sour mood. Three quarters believe the country is on the wrong track. That’s not likely to change until the president refocuses his agenda to deal with issues that have arisen in the last six months.
During the first half of last year, Biden’s policies on COVID and the economy seemed right on target — and by summer his approval ratings reflected that.
Then new issues emerged: two successive disruptive waves of the virus; Inflation; crime and violence; threats to democracy in some states.
The president will give his State of the Union Address to Congress next month. Here’s how he could both retool his agenda to meet those new challenges and stay true to the core values of his Administration.
First, adopt a simplified strategy for living with COVID.
COVID is not going away any time soon, but it is rapidly becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Fully vaccinated Americans need to be able to live their lives as normally as possible. Schools and businesses need to stay open.
Guidelines need to be simplified. I’d suggest just three: (1) get vaccinated; (2) when cases are on the rise, wear a mask in large indoor gatherings; and, (3) when you’re sick or have symptoms, stay home and get tested.
To encourage people to get vaccinated, the president should launch an anti-smoking like campaign that floods the airways and social media with daily reminders of the perils of remaining unvaccinated.
Second, pull his Build Back Better bill to show he’s serious about fighting inflation.
He should replace it with his highest priority in the bill — I’d suggest the extending his children’s tax credit or universal pre-K. Either would be a signature Biden initiative. He doesn’t need to give up on the other BBB initiatives. He can ask Congress to pass them individually, so each could be considered on its own merits.
In reality he has little to lose. The whole of BBB is less than the sum of its parts. If its components are as popular as their proponents claim, their chances for passage should go up when they can be argued on their own merits. As long as they’re in one bill, the high price tag, not the ideas, will be the issue at a time voters equate big spending with inflation. Pulling it would be an unmistakable signal the president understands that.
Third, launch a new anti-crime initiative.
As he said in New York last week, the president has long been an advocate of both police reform and community policing. He should move to revive the police reform bill and add a new initiative to increase the number and training of police officers in high crime neighborhoods.
President Biden opposes defunding the police, and there’s no better way to show that than by funding 100,000 new community police officers. As New York Mayor Eric Adams says, we can have safety and justice at the same time.
Fourth, push a new initiative to safeguard democratic elections.
Voting reform may not be a top concern of most voters. But, as recent revelations about President Trump’s post election behavior have underscored, the efforts of Republican controlled state legislatures to assume the power to overturn election results they don’t like is a clear and present danger to our democracy. They must be stopped.
With broader voting reform blocked by a Republican filibuster, the president should ask Congress to pass targeted legislation to prevent undermining of future elections by (1) protecting elections officials against partisan removal, (2) limiting purging of voter rolls, and (3) preventing derailing of election certifications. This is not about gaining partisan advantage. It’s about safeguarding the sanctity of democratic elections.
The 2021 elections were bleak for Democrats — and polls tell us that’s not likely to change this year. But with the proposals I have outlined the president would reassert control of his party, improve his approval ratings, and give Democrats a fighting chance in November.
Al From is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of The New Democrats and the Return to Power, which is the basis for the documentary film, Crashing the Party. He is currently an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He does a weekly commentary with Craig Fuller on the Spy.