TToday, Joe Biden will quietly mark his 80th birthday over brunch with his family in Washington. It’s a milestone none of his predecessors reached when he served in the White House and one that looms large as he contemplates his political future.
Yet the president enters his ninth decade at a moment of unexpected strength. Democrats defied history in the midterm elections, retaining control of the Senate and shattering Republican hopes of a “red wave” in the House.
The verdict — a performance by the best side of his party and the defeat of several election-denying candidates backed by Donald Trump — confirmed a president who saw the election as a test of American democracy.
In the aftermath of the election, Democrats have piled on a lot of praise — a major turnaround for Biden, who spent much of the second year of his presidency racking up the blame for what many expected to be a crushing rebuke from voters. to be. But instead of rejection, he found justification.
“You did it, Joe!” exclaimed Vice President Kamala Harris at a post-election event with supporters. “This win belongs to Joe Biden,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, his one-time rival for the Democratic nomination, said last week. And when asked how the Democrats overcame huge headwinds and the weight of history, Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison told the president, “I have Joe Biden to thank.”
With the midterm elections behind us and a potential re-election campaign ahead of him, Biden’s allies are hopeful that voters will see the first half of his term as they did: a hard-won success story.
Biden entered the White House at a time of great turmoil for the nation: in the shadow of the January 6 riot and the depths of the coronavirus pandemic. While pledging to address the country’s most pressing crises and strengthen America’s position abroad, Biden pursued an ambitious agenda.
“He’s a president who understands the moment,” said Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. “And when we look back on this period, we will see him as ‘steady Joe,’ someone who was able to stabilize the country and move us forward.”
In less than two years, Biden has achieved a slew of consistent policy goals, some with the bipartisan support he promised. Taken together, the legislation he signed into law during the first half of his term has transformed the US social safety net and delivered the largest investment in US history in the fight against climate change.
With a slim Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, he helped push through a Covid relief package so large it cut America’s child poverty in half. The new administration, meanwhile, has expanded and accelerated a mass vaccination campaign that has vaccinated nearly 7 in 10 American adults, though a post-pandemic return to normal has proved elusive.
Going beyond Covid, he has won more legislative victories: a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure, the first gun control measure in decades, funding to boost domestic semiconductor chip production, an expansion of veterans’ benefits and , finally, then months of uncertainty, the centerpiece of his economic agenda, a climate and health milestone. Soon he may also sign a bill protecting same-sex and interracial marriages.
With his nominations, Biden has quickly reshaped federal courts, including the Supreme Court, where Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson now sits as the first black female judge in U.S. history.
“It’s as transformative a list as we’ve seen in at least a generation, if not more,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “The number and scope and importance of things Biden has endured is remarkable, period, but mostly by a slim majority.”
But his successes aren’t limited to Capitol Hill, says Biden’s team, which recently compiled a list on Twitter small species to highlight the scope of the president’s achievements.
With his executive office, Biden complied with progressive demands by pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession and canceling millions of federal student loan debts mired in legal challenges. He also signed two executive orders protecting access to abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in June.
He ended the war in Afghanistan, though the chaotic withdrawal of US troops upset Americans and allies alike. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden rallied NATO and led the global response — a role he vowed to reinstate after Trump’s isolationist withdrawal.
And many Democrats now say Biden and Harris deserve credit for bringing to the fore the threats to democracy and reproductive choice during the midterm elections. Despite warnings from party strategists that these were not front-of-mind issues, Democrats now believe they have helped counter Republican attacks targeting inflation and crime and won crucial victories in battlefield states.
“It was critical in framing this election,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster. “If you took ‘democracy’ out and ‘choice’ out of that election word cloud, it would have been a bloody massacre.”
In his last major pre-election speech, Biden warned that choosing candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election and would not commit to accepting the results in 2022 was a “path to chaos.” The most prominent of such candidates lost, while abortion helped propel Democrats in states where the right was threatened.
“For us to stall this midterm and actually win a Senate seat is historic,” Belcher said.
Not everyone agrees that the election was a resounding victory for the president. Some have argued that the election was a rejection of Republican extremism, not a reflection of Biden’s political strength.
To win, the Democrats had to outperform Biden, whose approval ratings hovered around 40, dragged down by pessimism about the state of the economy. At this point in his term, Biden’s numbers are lower than those of any president since Harry Truman, according to the poll tracking aggregator of 538.
“Ironically, he probably would have gotten more credit if he had done fewer things,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Biden.
Before the Democrats could sell an initiative to the public, they were already engaged in their next legislative battle, Lake said. But she said the White House would have another chance to pitch its agenda as implementation of many of its plans begins in the coming months.
At an event with business and union leaders on Friday, Biden assured Americans that they would soon feel the impact of legislation he signed earlier this year that limits health care costs and energy prices.
“We passed them this year, but now they are really going to take effect,” he said. “It will accelerate in the coming months.”
Republicans have found much offense at Biden’s wealthy record, blaming his spending policies for worsening inflation. They have also threatened to use their new majority in the House to investigate the withdrawal from Afghanistan, aspects of his Covid response and his administration’s handling of the US-Mexico border.
Nor are Democrats unanimously satisfied. Progressives are still aghast at Biden’s bipartisan bias, claiming he still has a lot to do to deliver on the bold promises he made as a candidate. While Biden’s student debt forgiveness plan and some of his immigration policies have divided his party.
The Democratic legislative run will almost certainly give way next year to a new era of stalemate in a divided Washington. But with a Democratic majority in the Senate, he can continue to fill judicial vacancies — and will again face pressure to exercise his executive power to act on issues such as climate and immigration.
Biden has said his decision to run for president in 2020 was rooted in his alarm over the Trump presidency, particularly his predecessor’s refusal to condemn white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. He saw his mission not only to defeat Trump, but to defeat the forces of Trumpism.
After the midterm elections, Biden declared that those anti-democratic forces were withdrawing.
Days later, the 76-year-old Trump announced that he would run for president again. Biden, already the oldest president in US history, who would have been 82 years old at his inauguration in 2025, must now decide if he is ready for a rigorous campaign, possibly against an old foe, and, should he win, four more years at the White House.
Two-thirds of midterm voters, including many Democrats, said they do not want Biden to run for re-election, according to exit polls. In polls, voters rank the age of the president as one of the top concerns. Biden has said it is a “legitimate thing” for voters to consider, insisting he has the mental and physical stamina for the job.
Top advisers are already laying the groundwork for a 2024 campaign. Biden has said his “intention” is to re-enter, but he would discuss it with his family over the holidays before announcing a decision, likely early next year.
History provides several examples of presidents who “saw a mission and chose to serve only one term,” Engel said.
But, he continued, “there is no historical precedent for a president who so predominates the issue of age while feeling that the survival of the country may depend on his re-emergence.”
In an “unstable world” where Russia is issuing nuclear threats, Trump is trying to stage a comeback and American democracy continues to be under attack, Lake said voters would likely turn back to the candidate who offers stable, tested leadership.
In 2020, Americans chose “stability over instability and democracy over authoritarianism and violence,” she said, “and that contrast still exists, probably even stronger.”