For Biden, Beating the Odds but Facing a New Challenge

President Biden appeared to have the best midterms of any president in 20 years, avoiding the “shellacking” his predecessors endured. But even a narrow Republican majority could transform his presidency.

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For Biden, Beating the Odds but Facing a New Challenge |

President Biden speaking at a rally for Pennsylvania Democrats in Philadelphia last week. By any measure, Mr. Biden scored the best midterm result of any president in 20 years.

WASHINGTON — As election returns rolled in, President Biden popped into the Roosevelt Room of the White House where pizza-fortified aides were cheering a better-than-expected evening, then headed back up to the family quarters to place congratulatory calls. For a president told to expect a devastating midterm defeat, the results came as a huge relief.

But as Mr. Biden woke up on Wednesday, he still faced the sobering prospect of a Republican-controlled House for the next two years even if Democrats hold the Senate. While the president appeared to have beaten the historical odds by minimizing his party’s losses, Republicans were poised to take one if not both houses, jeopardizing his ambitious legislative agenda and presaging a new era of grinding conflict with subpoena-powered opponents.

The mixed results from the midterm elections will take days or weeks to unfold as counting continues in key states and a possible Senate runoff looms in Georgia. It may take even longer to determine definitively what those results will mean for the rest of the Biden presidency. By any measure, Mr. Biden scored the best midterm result of any president in 20 years, avoiding the “red wave” many strategists in both parties predicted, even as it leaves him with a more hostile Congress and uncertain prospects for advancing his priorities for the remainder of his term.

The elections were not a clear mandate for Mr. Biden but neither were they the repudiation that many of his predecessors endured during midterms. An aging president sometimes seen as frail or confused and hobbled by the highest inflation in four decades, an overseas war roiling energy markets and anemic poll numbers somehow overcame expectations anyway — another chapter in Mr. Biden’s lifelong narrative of stubborn resilience in the face of adversity.

The results may encourage the president to seek re-election and could for now quiet dissenting voices within his party that have been agitating for another standard-bearer in 2024 as he approaches his 80th birthday later this month.

“The political graveyards are full of those who underestimated him,” said Paul Begala, who was a top adviser to President Bill Clinton. “How many times in 2020 did they count him out?” Or, he added, dismiss his chances of pushing through legislation that he eventually passed? “Politics is an uncertain business. But one constant remains: Joe Biden will be underestimated.”

Moreover, the elections may undercut his once- and would-be future opponent, former President Donald J. Trump, who watched with frustration as key allies went down to defeat and his own strongest rival for the next Republican nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis, scored an impressive landslide victory in Florida. Even as Mr. Trump hints that he will jump into the 2024 race next week to reclaim his old office, exit polls showed that even a not-popular Mr. Biden retains significantly more public support than his predecessor.

Who Will Control Congress? Here’s When We’ll Know.

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Much remains uncertain. For the second Election Day in a row, election night ended without a clear winner. Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, takes a look at the state of the races for the House and Senate, and when we might know the outcome:

The House. The Needle suggests the House is leaning towards Republicans, but the G.O.P. is nowhere close to being called the winner in several key races, where late mail ballots have the potential to help Democrats. It will take days to count these ballots.

The Senate. The fight for the Senate will come down to four states: Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona. Outstanding ballots in Nevada and Arizona could take days to count, but control of the chamber may ultimately hinge on Georgia, which is headed for a Dec. 6 runoff.

How we got here. The political conditions seemed ripe for Republicans to make big midterm pickups, but voters had other ideas. While we wait for more results, read our five takeaways and analysis of why this “red wave” didn’t materialize for the G.O.P.

Mr. Biden is scheduled to hold a news conference at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to discuss the elections before leaving town on Thursday for an overseas trip that will allow him to emphasize his role as a world leader floating above domestic troubles. He will head to a series of meetings with international leaders in Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia with more wind at his back than anticipated, allowing him to avoid the perception of a president in trouble back home.

But he may return to a reality that is less heady than the Democratic exuberance now electrifying the party. If Republicans pick up the handful of seats needed to secure the House, as currently projected, not only would they be able to block Mr. Biden’s top legislative initiatives, but they would also be empowered to try to force the president to make concessions in some policy areas through the power of the purse.

While Mr. Biden remains armed with a veto pen, the road to keeping government doors open and avoiding default on the national debt could run through Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader aiming to become speaker. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the hard-charging firebrand Trump ally set to take over the House Judiciary Committee, would have subpoena power to investigate the Biden administration.

ImageThe road to keeping government doors open and avoiding default on the national debt could run through Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader aiming to become speaker.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Democrats are in better position to hold onto the Senate, but it will come down to a few outstanding races and possibly could wait until a Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia. The loss of the Senate would not only further complicate Mr. Biden’s legislative aspirations but also hinder his efforts to confirm officials to his administration and judges to the federal bench, even possibly a Supreme Court justice, should a vacancy emerge.

The historical headwinds Mr. Biden faced as he went into Tuesday night were powerful. Only three times since the first congressional elections after World War II has inflation been as high as it is today heading into a national vote — in 1974, 1978 and 1980 — and in all three cases the party of the incumbent president lost between 15 and 48 seats in the House.

2022 Midterm Elections: Live Updates

Updated Nov. 9, 2022, 2:29 p.m. ET

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Given that history and Mr. Biden’s weak approval ratings, the possibility that the Republican pickups in the House this year could be held to between 10 and 20 seats looked like a victory, especially compared with the losses of recent presidents. Mr. Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 House seats in 1994, George W. Bush’s Republicans lost 31 seats in 2006 (a “thumping,” he called it), Barack Obama’s party lost 64 seats in 2010 (a “shellacking”) and Mr. Trump’s Republicans lost 42 seats in 2018.

Exit polls on Tuesday showed that, weak as Mr. Biden’s ratings have been, they remain stronger than Mr. Trump’s. Among voters interviewed by pollsters for CNN, 44 percent expressed approval of Mr. Biden compared with 39 percent who had a favorable view of Mr. Trump.

For Mr. Biden, there could be an advantage in having Republican control on Capitol Hill, enabling him to use the opposition as a foil much as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama did after their midterm defeats. Both of those presidents employed a mix of confrontation and compromise to rebound from those losses and go on to win re-election two years later.

Aides to Mr. Biden insist there are potential areas of cooperation even with today’s Trump-dominated Republicans, focusing on issues that are at the top of both parties’ priority lists, like combating opioid abuse, imposing new regulations on major technology companies and fighting crime. And some Republicans signaled on Tuesday night that they would like to find discreet areas of common ground.

“If it’s a divided government, maybe something good can come of it,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of Mr. Trump’s closest allies, told NBC News.

How we get live election results. We report vote totals provided by The Associated Press, which collects results from states, counties and townships through a network of websites and more than 4,000 on-the-ground correspondents. To estimate how many votes remain to be counted, our team of data journalists and software engineers gathers vote tallies directly from the websites of election officials and compares these with our turnout expectations.

Here’s more on how that works.

But the historical pattern of bipartisan deal making may be less relevant in an age of extremes. Although Mr. Biden has a history of working across the aisle, the next House Republican conference will be even more dominated by allies of Mr. Trump. And if Mr. Trump campaigns for the White House, he seems likely to goad them to resist the sitting president at every turn.

“Before, one could read such a midterm as a sign that the country wanted cooperation among both parties rather than rule by one,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “That hardly seems plausible now — either in theory or in practice. The result of a divided government now is more akin to putting armed gladiators in the arena.”

ImageWatching election news coverage at a bar in Washington on Tuesday. Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

And Mr. Biden would face pushback from some in his own party if he concedes too much in their view in the interest of bipartisanship. “Voters sent a clear message that working people are hurting and demanding more action not less,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington state and head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Wednesday. “That is the big takeaway from last night, whether or not we keep the House.”

In that regard, the confrontation part of the Clinton-Obama formula may be more apt. “In terms of Biden’s hopes of getting re-elected, he knows from experience that losing a midterm election positions the president to become a counterpuncher — as Obama did in 2011-2012 and Clinton did in 1995-1996,” said Michael Nelson, a political science professor at Rhodes College and author of several books on modern presidents. “It would help if the Republicans overplayed their hand as they did in those two prior cases.”

Mr. Biden also has a lot of work to be done, without Congress, just putting into effect the legislation he passed in his first two years, including trillions of dollars in spending on infrastructure, climate change, health care, manufacturing and other areas. As aides envision it, Mr. Biden could spend much of the next two years crisscrossing the country for ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Either way, the election results may give Mr. Biden breathing room to decide what comes next for himself. Already the oldest president in American history, he turns 80 later this month, a landmark his staff was not looking forward to, and would be 86 at the end of a second term. Age is the one factor he cannot change, and he appears visibly slower and less vigorous than in his younger days.

But now Mr. Biden may have more latitude to decide and announce on his own terms, perhaps as early as Thanksgiving but possibly not until the State of the Union address, likely in February.

Anita Dunn, the president’s special adviser, said on Wednesday that the midterm election results would not be determinative. “He’s where he’s always been — he has said he intends to run,” she said. “The outcome of the midterms was never going to be a decisive factor here.”

But it was not discouraging him either.


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