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2022 is already here for Biden

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Early Returns

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It’s a good sign that President-elect Joe Biden and his team already appear to be concerned about the 2022 midterm elections. Presidents should care about electoral politics and their party allies, and awareness of the political clock is as much a part of good presidenting as is skill in negotiating trade deals or convincing executive-branch agencies to cooperate with the president’s agenda.

That said, the president’s ability to affect midterm election outcomes is limited. The best thing Biden can do about the midterms is pretty simple: He can find a way to be popular. That’s easier said than done. A good economy can help quite a bit. Avoiding scandal can help. I’m not confident that pursuing popular policies will make much difference, but they’d probably work better than unpopular policies. I’m similarly dubious about the idea that delivering clearly identifiable policy outcomes such as direct-relief checks makes much of a difference for presidential approval levels, but again, that can’t hurt.

Those are the things that the Biden administration should seek to do. Good choices about building the Democratic Party, raising money and electioneering will help around the margins, but good governing and plenty of luck with the economy are what will matter most.

Biden does have one big head start in avoiding a shellacking for congressional Democrats in 2022: his party’s lackluster results in 2020. Democrats will have far less exposure in 2022 than in the 1994 and 2012 midterms — two years into the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presidencies — because they have less to lose. Still, and especially in the House of Representatives, where reapportionment and redistricting are likely to cost Democrats several seats this time, losing ground is normal for the president’s party in midterms. Exceptions sometimes happen, as in 1998 and 2002 when Clinton and George W. Bush were unusually popular, but it will be a surprise if Democrats manage to retain their tenuous control of the House and Senate in 2023.

Which is where it gets more complicated, because the political clock isn’t just about focusing on winning seats in midterm elections. A lot of groups within the Democratic Party will have policy demands on Biden and on the slim Democratic majorities in Congress, and those groups will assume that they’re on the clock as well. After all, if Democrats do lose unified government after 2022, it could be years before they get another chance to enact every group’s priority legislation. Even those things that can be done without Congress present clock problems, because the administration might not do them in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential contest.

Sometimes, enacting the party’s agenda will coincide with (or at least will be perceived as coinciding with) making Biden a popular president (see my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith’s thoughts on this). But sometimes it won’t, and Biden and congressional leaders will have to make tough choices between governing for 2022 — and 2024 — and governing to achieve policy goals. In other words? Governing is always hard, and the White House is no place for amateurs. 

1. Anna Daily at A House Divided on Trump, mental health and the 25th Amendment.

2.  Corey Brettschneider and Jeffrey K. Tulis at the Monkey Cage on the question whether Trump can pardon himself.

3. Sean Illing talks with Daniel Ziblatt about the biggest problem for U.S. democracy.

4. Valerie Insinna on the space force after Trump.

5. And Spencer Ackerman on what not to do after Jan. 6.

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe. Also subscribe to Bloomberg All Access and get much, much more. You’ll receive our unmatched global news coverage and two in-depth daily newsletters, the Bloomberg Open and the Bloomberg Close.

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