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How 2022 has gone for President Biden

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For much of this year, the second of four years in office for President Joe Biden, his approval ratings have been in the basement. And yet, when asked what he'll do differently for the next two years...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Nothing because they're just finding out what we're doing. The more they know about what we're doing, the more support there is.

SUMMERS: Let's now take stock of the president's ups and downs as we are halfway through his term. I'm joined now by Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent. Hey there.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So, Mara, the president's year is ending on a bit of a high note. How much of that has to do with how Democrats performed in this year's midterms?

LIASSON: A lot. There was no red wave, as was widely expected. And even though the president presided over historic inflation rates, that didn't sink the Democrats as many people had expected. They won despite the economy, or at least they kept their losses down despite the economy, not because of it. And now gas prices are coming down. Inflation seems to be subsiding a bit. And here's what Biden said just this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Make no mistake, prices are still too high. We have a lot more work to do, but things are getting better, headed in the right direction.

LIASSON: And then you look at what Democrats were able to pass in the first two years of his presidency. And it's a pretty good record. It's not everything they wanted. But in the end, as White House advisers are willing to admit privately, they got lucky. They were blessed by their opponents. Republicans nominated just too many people who voters thought were out of the mainstream. And Democrats ended up with a historic result for a first term midterm for the president's party.

SUMMERS: OK. And you mentioned Democrats' records, so I want to talk about that a little bit about what they were actually able to get done. There was a huge aid package for COVID, spending on climate, infrastructure.

LIASSON: Yeah. And what's even more surprising, a lot of those big wins were bipartisan. The infrastructure bill was bipartisan. The CHIPS Act, which is more spending for semiconductor plants so that the United States can be more competitive with China, that was bipartisan. The first gun safety legislation passed in 30 years was bipartisan. And just this week, President Biden signed the bipartisan respect for marriage bill into law; big celebration on the South Lawn for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Today's a good day.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: A day America takes a vital step toward equality, toward liberty and justice, not just for some but for everyone.

LIASSON: And Biden thanked Republicans who supported that bill. Of course, the bill couldn't have passed without 10 Republican votes in the Senate. This is the idea that he ran on. He ran on being the guy who could work across the aisle and get things done with the other party. He ran on a return to normalcy. And even though Democrats have been fixated on legislation that was bigger and more ambitious than they had the votes for, giving the impression that sometimes they were flailing, if not failing, the president came out with a pretty respectable list of accomplishments.

SUMMERS: Despite that list of accomplishments you just ticked through, the president's approval rating is still languishing. It's at about 43%, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which is out today. So how big of a deal is it that Democrats were able to do better than expected in the midterms?

LIASSON: Well, it's a very big deal. And I guess historical rules only work till they stop working. And what we all thought was a historical rule was then when a president's approval rating was as low as Biden's was, it meant that his party would really do terribly in the midterms. But we know from exit polls that a lot of people who disapproved of Biden's handling of the economy - one poll showed 7 out of 10 voters disapproved of it - a lot of those voters, about a third of them, turned around and voted for Democratic candidates anyway. There used to be a very strong correlation between the economy and elections, and we've seen that correlation broken. Remember, President Donald Trump had a very strong economy, but his party lost the midterms. Biden had historic inflation and wasn't hurt that badly in the midterms. So a lot of assumptions, preconceived ideas about how politics work have really been challenged this year. And now we have another two years to figure out what the voters were really trying to tell us.

SUMMERS: And, you know, the president has said that he does intend to run again. He'll be talking to his family over the holidays to make that decision. But in the new year, Republicans will control the House, so a new era of divided government. What does that mean for President Biden?

LIASSON: Divided government usually means the end of a president's legislative agenda. That's why the Democrats and the president pushed so hard to get so much done during the first two years. So I think we can look forward to less legislation and more investigations. In the House, you're going to hear a lot more about the president's son, Hunter Biden, and his laptop. You're going to hear about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Republicans are also talking about investigating the January 6 Commission. Divided government is also an opportunity for presidents because responsibility is shared, although it's not clear how much Republicans are going to be willing to cross the aisle to work with Biden. We're in a different era now. But in the past, Democratic presidents have been able to use Republican Congresses as a foil. President Clinton and Obama did this. They both lost Congress in the midterms, but they went on to be reelected.

And I think Biden's message is going to be, look, the Congress can investigate anything it wants. I'm going to stay focused on things that Americans really care about, like opening new manufacturing plants. And also, don't forget, there's a dynamic in the House. We have a new group of moderate Republicans who won blue districts, especially in New York state, and they're going to want to bring something home to their constituents other than a bunch of subpoenas.

SUMMERS: All right. If we can, Mara, I want to circle back to the decision that President Biden says he's going to be making over the holidays. Let's take a listen to how he's described it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: My judgment of running when I announce, if I - my intention is that I run again. But I'm a great respecter of fate. And this is ultimately a family decision. I think everybody wants me to run, but we're going to have discussions about it.

SUMMERS: So, Mara, how are things lining up politically as the president is considering whether to seek office again?

LIASSON: Well, this is really interesting because even though Biden's performance in the midterm appears to have quieted the ambitions of potential Democratic challengers, the appetite among Democratic voters for an alternative to Biden hasn't changed. They think he's just too old. And despite what he passed, despite inflation coming down, despite his record in the midterms, despite Republicans like Newt Gingrich warning people not to underestimate Biden, he is 80 years old, the oldest person to ever run for reelection, and that's a liability. And his age is going to be one of the biggest lines of attack for Republicans.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.