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The Collision of Political Strategies

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Why does U.S. politics seem to be shifting so quickly right now? Julia Azari on Democratic achievements, Republican setbacks, and a changing landscape for this year’s midterm elections.
Ryan Stone
Ryan Stone
American politics has changed dramatically since the beginning of the summer. Two months ago, U.S. President Joe Biden faced the widespread public sentiment that his presidency was in trouble—flagging, maybe already failed. His approval rating was below 40 percent. His legislative agenda was stalled in Congress. Polling showed that most Democratic voters didn’t want him to seek re-election in 2024. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its transformative decision to end a nationwide right to an abortion in America—overturning Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In one sense, the decision was a victory for the Republican Party. Yet in another, it risked the party’s standing among American voters, most of whom oppose the Dobbs ruling and don’t favor massive restrictions on abortion rights. You could see this in the heavily Republican state of Kansas earlier this month, when an overwhelming majority of voters rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment to end their statewide right to abortion. All of a sudden, with midterm elections coming this fall, the Republicans look to be on the defensive on a central issue in America’s culture wars. Until recently, they led the Democrats in “generic ballot” polling about which party should control Congress next year, but now the two are tied. The president meanwhile remains unpopular, yet things are looking up for him in some ways: He’s benefiting from good economic news and a number of legislative victories over the past few weeks—including the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act he signed into law on Tuesday to addresses climate change, healthcare, and tax policy. How are all these developments affecting U.S. politics?
Julia Azari is an associate professor and assistant chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. To Azari, the shifting political winds in America favoring the Democratic Party this summer are likely driven by the Dobbs decision more than anything else—though they also likely have to do with the increasing extremism and decreasing political experience of Republican candidates across the country. The Democrats have managed some substantial legislative accomplishments, Azari says—especially considering their small majorities in Congress and the difficult forces of political polarization—but it’s too soon to know what role these accomplishments will play in swaying voters this year. Beyond the fall’s midterm elections, and looking ahead to the next presidential election in 2024, Azari sees both the major U.S. political parties as grappling with fundamental questions about their identities—about not only who should lead them but what should they stand for.
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Graham Vyse: How do you see the significance of this big piece of legislation that the Democrats just passed in Congress, the Inflation Reduction Act?
Julia Azari: It arguably represents the biggest legislative effort to address climate change in U.S. history. Socially, its passage is a comeback story for the Democrats, as it’s a scaled-down, revised, and renamed version of Build Back Better—which was a much broader social-spending agenda that Biden put forward last year. Politically, the process that led to the passage of the act was a reminder that any party trying to get things done is going to have internal disagreements, and that’s okay. It’s not necessarily dysfunctional to have lots of different kinds of people with different kinds of needs within a party. And it’s not necessarily dysfunctional that presidents can’t conduct them all perfectly; presidents are always constrained by events or otherwise limited in their ability to lead their parties internally. So, this moment is just a demonstration that getting a big bill done takes a lot of time and effort.
Part of the challenge for the Democrats has been that they’re in a bind: They control the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives by small margins, yet they promised big change. More importantly, their party is divided between people who want to maintain the status quo and people who want radical change. Still, factions in the party were able to find common priorities.
Vyse: The Inflation Reduction Act joins a list of accomplishments that includes $1.9 trillion in pandemic-relief spending; $1 trillion in bipartisan infrastructure spending; a modest, bipartisan gun-control law; and the appointment of 75 federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. How do you see Biden’s track record comparing to that of previous presidents a year and a half into their first terms?
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Azari: George W. Bush had a number of legislative accomplishments early in his presidency, and some of them were bipartisan: tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, which reformed the education system. Barack Obama also signed a number of major bills into law in his first couple of years in office: an economic-stimulus package, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which regulated the U.S. financial system, the Affordable Care Act, which reformed the American healthcare system.
It’s important to remember, though, that Bush and Obama benefited during their early years from their parties having big majorities in Congress. The standards for presidential accomplishments have dropped in America—but even so, given the Democrats’ small margins in Congress, and the current level of political polarization in America as a whole, this has been quite a productive legislative session. There’s been a slow and steady movement toward shared national priorities, even if the bills that have enacted these priorities have had to be stripped down.
The gun-control legislation that Congress passed is worth dwelling on. On the one hand, there wasn’t a lot in it about guns; there was a lot in it about mental health, but addressing mental-health issues is clearly a bipartisan priority—and that’s not a bad thing. I actually think that, if Obama or Trump had signed a bipartisan law addressing gun violence, the American news media would have acted as though he was the best president ever. The press is biased toward presidents who are entertaining, and Biden isn’t very entertaining. He’s never going to wow people with his speeches.
Isabella Martinez
Isabella Martinez
More from Julia Azari at The Signal:
Biden’s approval ratings are clearly low. Some of that is explained by partisanship, but he’s also lost support in his own party. There’s a lot of frustration among Democrats about Biden’s presidency not being forceful enough after the Trump era. There’s frustration across his broader coalition of support too, including among independent voters, about Covid, inflation, and things generally having been awful for two years. The country’s in a bad mood, fundamentally—and in America, the president is going to pay the price for that.”
The politics of this year’s U.S. midterm elections are interesting. If current trends hold, the Democrats will outperform expectations from earlier in the year. They may still lose one house or both houses of Congress, but if their Republican opposition underperforms—even with Biden so unpopular—that will create a political narrative that holds in American media.”
The Dobbs decision was a game changer. It was really out of step with public opinion in America, and it’s having consequences many weren’t expecting—in a country where even 39 percent of Republicans support some abortion rights. There’s a theory about midterm elections in America that voters want to balance the president’s party, but—as I recently heard someone say—voters may now want to balance the Supreme Court.”
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