President Joe Biden returned from Europe Wednesday with a wake-up call for feuding Democrats holding up his sweeping domestic reforms in Congress — after a humiliating state election defeat that many blamed on inertia and infighting among the party’s lawmakers.
“I do know that people want us to get things done,” he told reporters asking for his takeaway on longtime favorite Terry McAuliffe’s loss to a Republican newcomer in Tuesday’s Virginia governor’s election.
“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.”
Amid nosediving approval ratings and frustration over his stalled economic agenda, Biden came home to a Republican red wave that swept over the eastern United States Tuesday, from Virginia Beach to Long Island and beyond.
Republicans pulled off a decisive upset in the gubernatorial election in otherwise blue-trending Virginia, with untested multimillionaire Glenn Youngkin beating McAuliffe, while the Democratic governor of New Jersey won re-election but only barely.
There were also Republican gains across New York City and a conservative backlash to a liberal proposal in Minneapolis — the city where George Floyd was murdered by police — to dismantle the local force.
Hours before the polls closed, Biden had voiced confidence about the votes in Virginia and New Jersey, rejecting suggestions in any case that they were a verdict on his presidency.
Asked several times on Wednesday if he took responsibility for the bloodletting in local elections, he avoided giving a direct answer.
But he told reporters at the White House: “People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things — from Covid to school, to jobs to a whole range of things and the cost of a gallon of gasoline.
“And so if I’m able to sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of those things ameliorated quickly and swiftly. So that has to be done.”
Biden, who campaigned as a centrist but has governed to the left, is facing a thorny path to the November 2022 midterm elections as he plays peacemaker between the increasingly polarized Democratic factions he has failed to bring together.
The president offered bold action on the climate in Glasgow at the weekend, but the lack of tangible progress in Washington on his environmental goals reverberated through the COP26 summit, underscoring the damage being inflicted on his agenda by months of infighting.
Amid record-shattering turnout, Youngkin squashed McAuliffe’s comeback by leveraging parents’ fears over a public school curriculum they consider too liberal and growing frustration with Biden, who swept the state by 10 points only a year ago.
Democrats have privately been warning for weeks that a McAuliffe loss could spook moderates already skittish about the expansive scale of Biden’s two-pronged, $3 trillion plan to transform infrastructure and enlarge the social safety net.
While Biden’s news conference may spur rank-and-file lawmakers to deal more urgently with considering his priorities, it is far from clear they are united on the lessons they should be taking from Tuesday’s setbacks.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist holdout on much of Biden’s agenda, led calls Wednesday for a handbrake on spending negotiations so that lawmakers can “take time and do it right.”
But progressives reached the opposite conclusion, arguing that Virginia had been lost by middle-of-the-road Democrats blocking provisions for child care, prescription drug reform and paid family leave from Biden’s Build Back Better social welfare package.
“Terry McAuliffe has been saying for weeks that his fate was tied to the progress of negotiations here on Capitol Hill,” Senate majority whip Dick Durbin told reporters, echoing Biden.
“And there ought to be a clear message to my party and all those who support it to get the job done.”
In reality, Congress had nothing to do with perhaps the most damaging gaffe of McAuliffe’s campaign, when he said at a September 29 debate with Youngkin: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The remark became a rallying cry for conservatives bitter over mask mandates in schools and misled by the false Republican notion that “critical race theory” was being taught to their children.
Peter Loge, a public affairs professor at George Washington University, offered a crumb of consolation to those fearing the death of the party, pointing out that the Virginia governor’s election almost always serves as voters’ first opportunity to cudgel the party of the new president.
“What I do think the White House has to do now is go to Democrats in Congress and other Democrats around the country and say, look, here are the details of the votes,” Loge said.
“Here’s what voters were telling us… Let’s focus on what matters — and that’s families, that’s schools, that’s jobs, that’s inflation.”
© Agence France-Presse