President Joe Biden on Wednesday received an unwelcome wake-up call for his still-new presidency as the Democrat arrived back in Washington from a European excursion suddenly facing a transformed political landscape.
Republican Glenn Youngkin’s projected gubernatorial victory over Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, which Biden won by 10 points last year, and a too-close-to-call race in New Jersey made for dispiriting news for the President as he flew over the Atlantic.
Returning to the White House in the dark, Biden declined to answer questions about the race, which he’d incorrectly predicted Democrats would win eight hours earlier. The results had been called a half-hour before Biden touched down at Joint Base Andrews. Aboard Air Force One, people familiar with the matter said the mood was grim as a weary team returned to what has become a swirl of recrimination and second-guessing.
A subdued Biden told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that the results of the election must be accepted, and said that he was proud of the race McAuliffe ran – arguing that the former governor had received the most votes a Democratic gubernatorial nominee had ever received in the commonwealth.
But, Biden said, there’s not much that could have been done given historical trends and enthusiasm among Republican voters.
“I think it should have passed before Election Day,” Biden said of his legislative agenda, “but I’m not sure that I would have been able to change the number of very conservative folks who turned out in red districts who were (former President Donald) Trump voters. But, maybe. Maybe.”
He added, “People want us to get things done, and that’s why I’m continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better bill.”
Questions remain over how the shifting dynamic will play out in the coming days, weeks and months.
Biden has for months been locked in a repeating cycle of pressure-packed weeks for his legislative agenda as his party has failed to pass his sweeping domestic agenda, comprised of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan and a $1.75 trillion social safety net expansion bill. Those priorities remain unfinished – and a potential government shutdown and default on the nation’s debt looms in early December.
It all adds up to a potential turning point in Biden’s presidency before he has reached a full year in the job. The White House already feels a new sense of urgency to both pass the agenda and provide direction for a party in panic, and an official tells CNN it is possible Biden will directly address the American people on Wednesday.
“Hopefully lights a fire under our team on the bill to act,” a senior administration official told CNN, but added, “I think it’s a mistake to overreact here.”
The official also said, “But clearly voters are frustrated by the pace of action and we need to pick up that pace.”
Lack of progress on Biden’s agenda in the spotlight
After months of infighting over Biden’s multitrillion-dollar legislative agenda, which laid bare the divisions in the Democratic Party, it has not taken long for finger-pointing and panic to set in among Biden’s allies. A source close to the White House argued the results showed that voters are frustrated with the lack of action in Washington.
“Voters were clear that they were unhappy with inaction and nitpicking,” the source said. “And Democrats widely agree that there is greater impetus to go ahead, faster, with bills that will be economic game-changers for middle-class families and ensure the economy delivers for hardworking people in their daily lives, not just those at the top.”
“If voters are frustrated with inaction, the obvious response is to be more decisive and pass bills based on an agenda for the middle class that received a record-breaking 81 million votes last year,” the source added. “And there’s a strong consensus about that across the party. Doing less is plainly the opposite of what people want.”
On Wednesday morning, a source close to House progressives pushed back on criticism from moderate Democrats that McAuliffe lost because they held up Biden’s agenda.
“That doesn’t even begin to pass the sniff test. Voters did not base their choice between McAuliffe and Youngkin off of infrastructure negotiations in DC. A state did not just swing by more than 10 points in a single year because of some bill moving through Congress,” the source said.
Still, over the final weeks of the campaign, McAuliffe and his allies repeatedly raised warnings that Biden’s inability to pass a sweeping social safety net expansion was hindering his race.
Some of Biden’s advisers have chafed at the notion the President’s stalled domestic agenda was to blame, pointing instead to a lingering pandemic and its economic aftereffects. Some Democrats close to Biden have also privately lamented at McAuliffe’s stumbles, including sparking outrage with a comment on education that came to define the closing weeks of the race.
“Virginia is just the first step,” GOP leader says
The Virginia governor’s race in particular was seen as a referendum on the first year of Biden’s presidency, even though the President said he didn’t view it that way, and Tuesday’s loss could lead to second-guessing on the Democrats’ strategy on Biden’s economic agenda. More moderate Democrats could join Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in raising concerns about Biden’s massive economic and climate spending bill, which would further draw out the process and complicate the path forward.
Biden, who campaigned for McAuliffe in Virginia, had expressed confidence on Tuesday that McAuliffe would win.
“We’re gonna win. I think we’re gonna win in Virginia,” Biden said during a news conference in Glasgow, while also acknowledging it would be a tight race.
However, the President said had the race wouldn’t be a reflection on his agenda.
“I don’t believe, and I’ve not seen any evidence, that whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not, is gonna have any real impact on winning or losing,” Biden said during the news conference. “Even if we had passed my agenda, I wouldn’t claim we won because Biden’s agenda passed.”
A Biden adviser acknowledged to CNN that McAuliffe’s loss is a warning sign for Democrats’ chances in the midterms next year but warned against drawing sweeping conclusions from a single election. The loss makes clear that Democrats can’t simply run against Trump to win elections, the adviser said.
“It’s incumbent on Democrats to be loud and clear about what we’re for and not just running against Donald Trump,” the adviser said. “It’s also clear that voters are unhappy about inaction and this drives home the point that Democrats in Congress should move quickly on our agenda.”
Discontent over the coronavirus pandemic and the economic problems associated with it are currently Democrats’ biggest issues. If the state of the pandemic improves it would lead to economic growth, more jobs and inflation getting under control. That could brighten the overall mood among Democrats, restore Biden’s poll numbers a bit and give the party a little space to sell what they’ve passed and go on offense against Republicans.
“People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things from Covid to school to jobs to a whole range of things,” Biden said on Wednesday, arguing that the passage of his agenda items would “see a lot of those things ameliorated.”
“I think we should produce for the American people,” the President said. “People need a little breathing room. They’re overwhelmed and what happened was, I think we just have to produce results for them to change their standard of living and give them a little more breathing room.”
He asserted that elements of his agenda “are overwhelmingly popular,” but “we have to speak to (voters) and explain them.”
“I think that people are at a point, and it’s understandable, where there’s a whole lot of confusion,” Biden added.
For now, GOP leaders are reveling in the results and forecasting them to be a signal of what to expect in 2022 – and beyond.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told his members in a letter overnight: “Virginia voters sent an undeniable message that extends beyond the Commonwealth to every corner of the country. In times of anxiety, Americans are focused on the success and stability of their families and communities. Americans want a change in leadership, and Virginia is just the first step.”
Hill Democrats call for action
Biden’s allies in Congress are now hoping that the grim election night will spur quicker action on the President’s agenda as he appears in deep need of a win.
Moderate Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey said on CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday: “People want action. They want results, they deserve results… This is a wake-up call for all of us.”
Gottheimer called on his party to “take action” and pass the bipartisan package and economic agenda.
Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico echoed his colleagues’ frustrations with their party’s messaging, saying they need to “inspire” the American public.
“It’s not enough to tell the American people why they should vote against someone else. You need to show them why they should vote for you and inspire them and encourage them to come out to vote,” he told CNN. “And I think that we need to do better across America.”
Luján emphasized that action on key Democratic agenda items could sway voters and that passing Biden’s economic agenda and voting rights legislation would “show the American people what we stand for and who we are.”
“These are the very commitments that we made to voters back … when they entrusted us with the majority in the House, ultimately the presidency and majority in the US Senate, and we have to deliver upon them,” he said.
But Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii defended Democrats’ efforts, and attacked Republicans for their inaction.
“I don’t know what Terry should have done different, but my goal has always been to communicate to the American public who is actually screwing them over and it’s not the Democrats,” Hirono told CNN.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Daniella Diaz, Arlette Saenz, Manu Raju, Maegan Vazquez and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.