President Joe Biden on Wednesday received an unwelcome wake up call for his still-new presidency as the Democrat arrived back in Washington from a European excursion suddenly facing a transformed political landscape.
Republican Glenn Youngkin’s projected victory over Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, which Biden won by 10 points, and a too-close-to-call race in New Jersey made for dispiriting news for the Democratic President as he flew over the Atlantic.
Returning to the White House in the dark, Biden declined to answer questions about the race, which he’d incorrectly predicted Democrats would win eight hours earlier. The results had been called a half-hour before Biden touched down at Joint Base Andrews. Aboard Air Force One, people familiar with the matter said the mood was grim as a weary team returned to what undoubtedly will become a swirl of recrimination and second-guessing.
After months of in-fighting over Biden’s multi-trillion dollar legislative agenda, which laid bare the divisions in the Democratic party, it has not taken long for finger-pointing and panic to set in among Biden’s allies. On Wednesday morning, a source close to House progressives pushed back on criticism from moderate Democrats that McAuliffe lost because they held up Biden’s agenda.
“That doesn’t even begin to pass the sniff test. Voters did not base their choice between McAuliffe and Youngkin off of infrastructure negotiations in DC. A state did not just swing by more than 10 points in a single year because of some bill moving through Congress,” the source said.
Still, over the final weeks of the campaign, McAuliffe and his allies repeatedly raised warnings that Biden’s inability to pass a sweeping social safety net expansion was hindering his race.
Some of Biden’s advisers have chafed at the notion the President’s stalled domestic agenda was to blame, pointing instead to a lingering pandemic and its economic aftereffects. Some Democrats close to Biden have also privately lamented at McAuliffe’s stumbles, including sparking outrage with a comment on education that came to define the closing weeks of the race.
Questions remain over how the shifting dynamic will play out in the coming days, weeks and months.
Biden has for months been locked in a repeating cycle of pressure-packed weeks for his legislative agenda as his party has failed to pass his sweeping domestic agenda, comprised of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan and a $1.75 trillion social safety net expansion bill. Those priorities remain unfinished — and a potential government shutdown and default on the nation’s debt looms in early December.
It all adds up to a potential turning point in Biden’s presidency before he has reached a full year in the job. The White House already feels a new sense of urgency to both pass the agenda and provide direction for a party in panic, and an official tells CNN it is possible Biden will directly address the American people on Wednesday.
“Hopefully lights a fire under our team on the bill to act,” a senior administration official told CNN, but added, “I think it’s a mistake to overreact here.”
The official also said, “But clearly voters are frustrated by the pace of action and we need to pick up that pace.”
The Virginia governor’s race in particular was seen as a referendum on the first year of Biden’s presidency, and Tuesday’s loss could lead to a lot of second-guessing on the Democrats’ strategy on Biden’s economic agenda. More moderate Democrats could join Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in raising concerns about Biden’s massive economic and climate spending bill, which would further draw out the process and complicate the path forward.
Biden, who campaigned for McAuliffe in Virginia, expressed confidence on Tuesday that McAuliffe would win.
“We’re gonna win. I think we’re gonna win in Virginia,” Biden said during a press conference in Glasgow, while also acknowledging it would be a tight race.
However, the President said the race wouldn’t be a reflection on his agenda.
“I don’t believe, and I’ve not seen any evidence, that whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not, is gonna have any real impact on winning or losing,” Biden said during the news conference. “Even if we had passed my agenda, I wouldn’t claim we won because Biden’s agenda passed.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told his members in a letter overnight: “Virginia voters sent an undeniable message that extends beyond the Commonwealth to every corner of the country. In times of anxiety, Americans are focused on the success and stability of their families and communities. Americans want a change in leadership, and Virginia is just the first step.”
Discontent over the coronavirus pandemic and the economic problems associated with it are currently Democrats’ biggest issues. If the state of the pandemic improves it would lead to economic growth, more jobs and inflation getting under control. That could brighten the overall mood among Democrats, restore Biden’s poll numbers a bit and give the party a little space to sell what they’ve passed and go on offense against Republicans.
Moderate Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey said on CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday: “People want action. They want results, they deserve results… This is a wake-up call for all of us.”
Gottheimer called on his party to “take action” and pass the bipartisan package and economic agenda.
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