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Analysis: Biden’s Ukraine leadership may not help Democrats at ballot box

Polls on the battle for Congress show a close race among registered voters, but a Republican advantage among those most enthusiastic about the election. A Wall Street Journal survey last week showed Democrats losing ground on important issues such as education, the coronavirus pandemic and protecting the middle class.

The President’s job approval rating — the most important indicator of November prospects — has been stuck in the low 40s for months. If it remains there on Election Day, Republicans stand a very strong chance of regaining control of Congress and roadblocking Biden’s agenda.

This partly reflects history’s metronomic rhythms. As Democratic predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both discovered, presidents become the focus of public discontent after taking office. In their first midterm elections, they nearly always lose ground in Congress and often see their parties tossed from control.

The peculiar circumstances of 2022 could exaggerate those rhythms. A robust economic recovery — something presidents always crave — has generated the nasty side effect of higher inflation as supply struggles to match demand following the pandemic shutdowns of 2020.
Last year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which fueled that recovery, also fueled inflation-producing consumer demand. Rising prices have replaced jobs as the top economic concern among voters.
The White House began the year with hope for better fortunes. Light at the end of the pandemic tunnel held the promise of a brighter mood. It also underpinned economists’ forecasts of diminishing inflation as the election approached.
Now fresh challenges have emerged. A war initiated by a leading oil producer, and the sanctions response Biden has led, has kept the price of gas rising past $4 per gallon.

That’s no record. Adjusted for inflation and auto fuel-efficiency gains, Democratic economist Larry Summers told CNN last week, the burden of gas prices on consumers remains lower than 10 years ago.

But any sharp increase makes motorists unhappy. The fallout could get worse. If the price for a barrel of oil — which hit $130 a week ago — were to reach and remain at $150 through mid-2021, economic recovery could turn into recession, projects Moody’s economist Mark Zandi.
Some Biden advisers, though not all of them, still see solid opportunities for political recovery this fall. The transition from disruptive pandemic to manageable endemic has arrived.
Biden’s State of the Union coupled notes of bipartisan unity around Ukraine with appeals to core Democratic constituencies he needs to energize. The White House expects his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson — who Republicans concede is headed for confirmation — to galvanize Black support this fall.

More important is the dramatic shift in public attention to the war.

Instead of wheedling Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who sank Biden’s Build Back Better bill in December, the President is confronting Russia’s murderous tyrant. Praise for his leadership from voices in both parties helps offset accusations of weakness and incompetence that stuck to Biden after last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Biden’s muscular reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to NATO was crucial not just for Europe but for the world,” conservative columnist Mona Charen, a former White House aide to Ronald Reagan, wrote last week in The Bulwark. “If Ronald Reagan were still alive, he’d find little to criticize in the administration’s approach.”
The crisis also affects intra-Republican politics. Former Vice President Mike Pence’s statement that the GOP can’t accommodate “apologists for Putin” squarely targeted former President Donald Trump, whose cozy relations with Russia suddenly offer Democrats a much larger target.

“There’s a lot of potential for the focus on foreign policy to scramble things up,” observed Democratic data analyst David Shor. If Biden’s job approval could reach even 45% by this fall, Shor estimated, his party will have a chance to keep control of Congress.

CNN’s average of major polls last week showed Biden at 43% approval. That’s 2 points below Shor’s minimum target, but 2 points higher than the previous average in February.

But the duration of any uptick remains unproven. So is the prospect that it will continue.

There appears to be no possibility of a dramatic surge in support of the kind that both Presidents Bush received after the first Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks. That’s due partly to increased partisan polarization, and partly to the ugly contours of a Russian invasion that the US and NATO remain determined not to engage with their own military forces.

Biden’s “stroke has gotten stronger (but) he’s still swimming against the tide,” concluded Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. There are times when presidential leadership has to be its own reward.

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