President Biden trod a well-worn presidential path by going abroad on official functions just after the midterms. But the news from home kept getting better for Democrats.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have “>10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Give this articleGive this articleGive this article
President Biden arriving Friday in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, where he briefly attended a climate summit before going on to Cambodia to meet with Southeast Asian leaders and then to Bali, Indonesia, for the G20 summit.
BALI, Indonesia — President Biden’s current trip abroad has historical precedent: Soon after a midterm election, a president tends to go overseas to reassert American power — and often, to escape bad news for his party at home.
In November 1994, days after Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in decades, President Bill Clinton slipped away to the Philippines. In 2010, after Democrats lost 63 House seats, President Barack Obama took a swing through India, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan and Portugal. When Republicans lost control of the House in 2018, President Donald J. Trump jetted to France for an Armistice Day celebration.
A few days ago, Mr. Biden seemed to be preparing for a trip to Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia under a similar cloud, amid a low approval rating, many polls trending Republican and the fact that the president’s party nearly always loses seats in midterm elections.
Then the tide started turning.
Before Mr. Biden left Washington on Thursday evening, it had become clear that a Republican rout had not materialized, with many races too close to call and control of both houses of Congress still in the balance. He made a congratulatory call to Tina Kotek, the governor-elect of Oregon, while aboard Marine One en route to Egypt, and has not stopped working the phones since.
As of Saturday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he had arrived for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, he was able to return to his hotel from a gala dinner to speak with victorious Democrats back home, including Representatives David Trone of Maryland and Pat Ryan of New York.
By early Sunday, when the news came that Democrats had retained a Senate majority with a narrow victory by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mr. Biden’s trip began to look more like a victory lap.
“I’m incredibly pleased by the turnout,” Mr. Biden said. “And I think it’s a reflection of the quality of our candidates. And the — they’re all running on the same program.”
Mr. Biden’s comments, which came in unscheduled remarks to reporters at his hotel, seemed to reference a remark by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, who had complained of Republican “candidate quality” in Senate races around the country.
Mr. Biden reiterated an argument he had made throughout the campaign season: that Republicans lacked a real platform and were more focused on cultural controversies than kitchen-table issues.
He also said that the election results would bolster his standing going into a highly anticipated meeting with President Xi Jinping of China ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Bali on Monday: “I know I’m coming in stronger, but I don’t need that,” Mr. Biden said.
House Republicans did put forth a platform for governing during the campaign, but it was relatively vague, with most Republican candidates concentrating on criticizing Mr. Biden and Democrats rather than talking about inflation, crime, immigration and other hot-button issues. Republicans also had to contend with Mr. Trump dividing the party and publicly toying with his plans to announce a run for the presidency in 2024.
For Democrats, identifying issues had never been as much of a problem as how to prioritize them: In the days leading up to the election, Mr. Biden and fellow Democrats had struggled with whether to address voter concerns over inflation and the economy, or to stress the threats to abortion rights and even to democracy itself.
The Senate result was the culmination of an intense, final-days campaign push that sought to recast the election on more favorable terms to Democrats — yielding an outcome that has already surpassed many Democrats’ best expectations.
For much of the campaign season, Mr. Biden struggled with low approval ratings and facing a Republican Party whose leaders wanted to make the midterms a referendum on his leadership. He fielded few requests to stump for Democratic incumbents and candidates in purple states. He never campaigned with Ms. Cortez Mastro, for example, nor with Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, who also won a narrow race.
His aides outlined a strategy that centered on showcasing his accomplishments with previous presidents at this stage of their presidencies and contrasting Democratic legislative achievements with Republicans, according to an internal strategy document reviewed by The New York Times. Despite the dearth of campaign requests, they wanted to show that Mr. Biden believes he is a campaigner at heart.
So the president spent time in safer territories, including Oregon, a state that last elected a Republican governor in 1982, to boost Ms. Kotek, the embattled Democratic nominee for governor. Mr. Biden’s schedule picked up in the final weeks, including a cross-country sprint in the last days of the race that took him to New Mexico, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.
He also sharpened a contrast message with an economic focus, seeking to cast the election as a choice between Democrats who were working to lower the cost of electricity, prescription drugs and other staples and Republicans, who Mr. Biden said would worsen inflation and possibly cut Social Security and Medicare.
In meetings in Phnom Penh, the president focused on countering China, containing North Korea and promoting human rights. Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters on Sunday that the midterm elections helped the president enforce “what this election said about American democracy” abroad.
“He also feels that it does establish a strong position for him on the international stage and we saw that I think play out in living color today,” Mr. Sullivan added.
But Mr. Biden also spent the second leg of his trip switching back and forth from campaign mode. After Mr. Biden’s conversation with Senator Cortez Mastro on Sunday, his next call was to Chuck Schumer of New York, the current and future Senate majority leader.
“And we’re focusing now on Georgia,” Mr. Biden told reporters. There, Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, will face Herschel Walker, the Republican challenger, in the third runoff election in the state in three years. “It’s always better with 51,” Mr. Biden said, referring to the possibility of a bigger Senate majority.
As results continue to trickle in, Mr. Biden and his aides are watching the remaining elections closely with a mixture of vindication and relief, according to several people familiar with the internal reaction.
“We’ve seen the affirmation of the president’s agenda, vindication of his message, and rejection of so many election deniers,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden. “So yes, you could say the White House is in a pretty good mood.”