When President Joe Biden woke up Wednesday morning, what greeted him was, well, a waking nightmare: Russia massing troops on the border of Ukraine, sky-high inflation and the Omicron variant continuing to rage through the country.
Biden’s poll numbers, as you might expect given the series of crises he is facing, were dismal, with his approval rating hovering in the low 40s. Even his own party had begun to lose their good feelings for him. A new Pew Research Center poll showed just 76% of Democrats approving of the job he’s doing – a far cry from the 95% who approved in March 2021.
Enter Stephen Breyer. Or, more specifically, Breyer’s decision to retire at the end of this Supreme Court term, a move that hands Biden a golden opportunity to rally his increasingly divided base.
1. A Supreme Court nomination is very big news in Washington, likely driving the rest of the news – Ukraine, Covid, inflation etc. – off the front pages and leads of cable news. (The CNN homepage currently is dominated with the Breyer news.) That’s good news for Biden on two fronts: a) he gets to do the job only a president can do in picking a new justice and b) he gets to change the subject from places where the public has very much soured on his approach.
2. There is nothing quite like a Supreme Court opening to fire up the bases of both parties. Former President Donald Trump routinely used openings on the court – and even possibilities of openings on the court – to keep Republicans who had grown weary of his personal antics in line. The court opening will serve as a reminder to the Democratic base – if they needed one – that the stakes for these jobs couldn’t be higher, particularly as the court considers overturning the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the United States.
3. Biden can make a historic pick that will drive enthusiasm among Black voters. Remember that during the 2020 primary campaign, Biden pledged to nominate a Black woman to the court. If Biden makes good on that promise, he would make history, as no Black woman has served on the nation’s highest court. Doing so could also help Biden with Black voters, who not only propelled him to the Democratic nomination in 2020 but who also form a central piece of the Democratic base. That opportunity couldn’t come at a better time for Biden; just 60% of Black voters approve of how Biden is handling the job in the Pew survey.
All of that is not to say the court pick is completely absent of political peril for Biden. We’ve seen presidents botch seeming slam dunks (George W. Bush nominating Harriet Miers comes to mind).
And as the last few weeks have made clear, Senate Democrats have a very tenuous majority in the chamber. Biden will have to make sure that whoever he nominates has a very good chance of winning the votes of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin – or run the risk of seeing the nominee defeated.
That said, Breyer’s retirement is rightly understood as a life raft being floated to Biden. It gives him a chance to change the narrative – of mismanagement and decline – that had crept into his presidency over the past few months. And, as importantly, a good old court fight should enliven a Democratic base that had looked increasingly moribund of late.