Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden has been consistently underestimated. Democrats performed exceptionally well by historical standards on Tuesday and Biden walks away having fared better than any other President in his first midterm since George W. Bush in 2002. “It was a good day for democracy,” the president declared on Wednesday.
Democrats did extremely well in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. Many of the election deniers running for secretary of state or governor lost. Even in states where Democrats were walloped, such as in New York, there were bright spots, including Gov. Kathy Hochul’s victory over the Trump-endorsed Republican Lee Zeldin.
The outcome was a surprise to both parties. Since World War II, the party of the president has typically performed poorly in the first midterm of an administration, with an average loss of 26 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. Under former President Donald Trump, Republicans lost 40 seats in the House in 2018. Democrats lost 63 in the House in 2010 under Barack Obama, and 52 in 1994 under Bill Clinton.
When presidential approval ratings fall to where President Biden’s numbers have been – between the high-30s and mid-40s this year – that normally spells massive defeat. See, for examples, Donald Trump (38%) in 2018, Obama (46%) in 2010, Bill Clinton (41%) in 1994. Besides Biden’s low approval rates, high inflation, turbulent financial markets, and other issues that have favored Republicans – such as concerns about crime – loomed large in most polls.
Yet the red wave so many anticipated didn’t happen. Votes are still being counted in key states and districts, but even if Republicans end up with control of one or both chambers, their majority will be extremely narrow. It’s safe to say Democrats will not face the “shellacking” they experienced in 2010.
The midterms mark the culmination of two difficult years, during which Biden has repeatedly defied expectations. At each stage of his tenure, Biden has achieved what many fellow party members thought impossible.
After defeating a huge slate of younger and more exciting candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries, Biden went on to defeat the incumbent president, Donald Trump. This was not a trivial accomplishment. Since World War II, most presidents have successfully won reelection. Despite Trump having increased his total votes and expanded his base, he was unable to stave off Biden, who campaigned on a combination of protecting American values, relying on science in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and promising to returning government to normalcy –issues that worked like a charm after the chaos of the Trump administration.
But things didn’t get easier for Biden once he entered the White House. Covid continued to wreak havoc on the country and the economy. Despite a 50-50 split in the Senate and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema pitting themselves against the administration at various points, Biden was still able to move a formidable legislative agenda through Congress, overcoming fierce Republican opposition and even winning a few GOP votes along the way. The American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act stand up as a historic trifecta – a legislative track record arguably more significant than any that we have seen since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Besides the three major pieces of legislation, Biden also appointed more federal judges by August than any president at that point in the term since John F. Kennedy, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden has also used his executive power to make progress on issues like fighting climate change, bolstering the US’ economic competitiveness, and forgiving student debt.
Then came the 2022 midterms. Although Republicans will likely gain control of at least one chamber of Congress, if not both by narrow margins, the GOP will be frustrated. By inserting himself into the race and endorsing a slate of candidates, Trump managed to make the midterms partly a mandate about him rather than the sitting president. Many of his hand-selected candidates, moreover, lost, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.
But Biden also deserves credit. As Nate Cohn explained on the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” Democratic success came in regions of the country where concerns over the health of the democracy and reproductive rights helped drive turnout. In the closing days, Biden worked hard to emphasize these specific issues, closing the campaign with a high-profile speech about the need to protect democracy even as pollsters were saying that inflation would be the dominant concern.
Moreover, defending reproductive rights and democracy were a not-so-subtle reminder to voters about the threat that a radicalized Republican Party posed to the nation. Biden, by focusing on these issues, found a way to make the midterms about something other than himself. Meanwhile, Trump did what he liked to do — draw attention to himself in a move that largely backfired.
Not only will Democrats be in better shape on Capitol Hill than most expected, but the midterms delivered a sharp blow to Trump, who had been planning to announce his run for 2024 this month. The damage that Trump and his candidates inflicted on the GOP will create significant concern about his being at the top of the ticket once again. If there is one thing that bothers Republican power brokers, it’s losing. And given Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s success in Florida, more Republicans will be thinking hard about who to rally behind in the next presidential election. In other words, the midterms delivered a sharp blow to the former president.
To be sure, Democrats should check their enthusiasm. Even with narrow majorities, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives can cause immense problems for Biden. They can obstruct his legislation, perpetually investigate him and his family and steer the agenda in a way that is damaging to Democrats. If Republicans also gain control of the Senate, they too can double down on the obstruction, including with Biden’s judicial picks.
Nor is Trump anywhere close to done. We’ve seen how effective he can be when he unleashes his fire and fury in service of his own candidacy. He still commands intense support within the party and retains a keen sense of operating in the modern media environment. Meanwhile, DeSantis comes out of this week looking a bit like George W. Bush in 1998, when he won his gubernatorial reelection bid in a landslide two years before securing the presidency in 2000. Given his ability to appeal to the core of the Republican Party and potentially expand into new constituencies such as Latinos, he could pose a serious threat to Democrats in his ability to pull off a more polished version of Trumpism.
Nonetheless, the midterms make clear that Biden is a much stronger president than he is often given credit for. He has been underestimated and criticized despite having a formidable first two years. The midterms should make Republicans nervous as they think about 2024. After two years of speculation about whether Biden should run for a second term, the outcome should also give Democrats reason to believe that a two-term, transformative presidency is already underway.