Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, on the Monday before the midterms, President Biden's approval rating was just 39%. Eek. That unpopularity had Democrats bracing for a red wave, but it's a red wave that never washed ashore.
In fact, Democrats had the best midterm performance by a president's party in decades. Now, as he looks ahead, President Biden said he expects cooperation, not just in the lame-duck session, but also in the 118th Congress.
President Joe Biden: I'm prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does the better-than-expected performance by Democrats mean for President Biden and his agenda?
Julian Zelizer: My name is Julian Zelizer. I'm a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. I think, overall, they were very successful for the President and the Democrats. The red wave doesn't happen. The Democrats retain control of the Senate and they went into the midterms with such a narrow margin, really an evenly divided Senate, that that is an impressive feat.
Given the conditions for those midterms, meaning low approval ratings for the President, troubled economy, and just the historic pattern, I think Democrats can be pleased. Also, at the state level, they did incredibly well in places like Michigan, where the Democrats just swept the table. That said, they lost control of the House. Even if Republicans only have a narrow margin in the House, that is good news for the Republicans and it could certainly cause a lot of problems in the next two years for the administration.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Facing two years of what could be a lot of problems, what can a president, who's facing reelection either for himself or for his party, do with just over a month in a lame-duck Congress?
Julian Zelizer: He can do a lot. Lame-duck Congresses still legislate and they take other sorts of actions from they censured Senator McCarthy in 1954 to after the 2006 midterms. I think they passed 100-plus, 115 laws within a few weeks. The President, if the President chooses, can keep moving forward with his agenda, understanding time is limited, and try to send bills that are going to be appealing to all of the Democrats. There's no time for Manchin negotiations at this point. He needs to find that sweet spot in the party where there's items that everyone can agree on and they can get it in before this session comes to an end.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to dig in a little bit more on some of this history. Tell me some of the lame-duck Congresses that have actually managed to do something that we might today remember. You name-checked one. Tell me some others.
Julian Zelizer: Probably, the most famous was after the 1998 midterms when Republicans didn't do so well. Even though they retain control of the House and Senate, they moved to impeach President Clinton. That was a real turning point for the party. It was not the response many people thought the Republicans would have to the outcome of the midterm where many voters thought they had moved in extreme directions, but that's exactly what they did.
In some ways, they made a decision that set up what President Clinton would focus on in his final two years as his approval ratings skyrocketed. Then the example I gave of the Congress in November and December of 2006, nothing quite as dramatic, but just a lot of regular legislation continued. I think in 1994, those are historic midterms. Republicans retake control of Congress for the first time since 1954 and Democrats get in trade negotiations in that lame-duck session. There's all sorts of things that can happen in these two months.
Melissa Harris-Perry: While we have this lame-duck Congress, one of the big questions undoubtedly on President Biden's mind and certainly on the minds of everyone in the party and beyond is whether or not he will run for reelection. The two big pieces that moved into place here is a Republican-controlled 118th House and former President Trump declaring his intention to seek the nomination of the Republican Party. How do those two pieces potentially affect President Biden's decision-making?
Julian Zelizer: It's really an interesting moment. If we were just looking at this on paper, there's no way people would be saying that there's a chance that the President shouldn't run again. If you think about it, he defeated an incumbent in 2020. He pushed through Congress, a historic record of legislation, even with that 50/50 Senate. Now, he avoided the traditional, terrible news that comes in midterms, especially when your approval ratings and the economy are in this state.
Yet, few days out, everyone's talking about whether he'll run again in large part because of his age. I don't know what he's thinking. My guess is he will want to run again and there's ways in which a Republican Congress could actually work to his favor. If the Republicans do what everyone thinks they will do, investigate, obstruct, he can set up an argument for 2024, especially with the former president looming in the background, that the Republicans are an extreme party, that they are dangerous to the democracy, that they're dangerous to rational public policy.
He can do what Clinton did, even though he wasn't running again in 2000, use the Republican control of Congress and, in this case, the House against them. He saw Obama do it after 2010 when Republicans took control. That was a central argument in those two years and Obama was reelected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering about this mismatch in certain ways within the party in that he's either going to run himself or he's got to pass the baton. Someone has got to run from a Biden administration in 2024. There's a whole crew of folks, not a lot, but enough within the US House who are Democrats who didn't win, who won't be running again in 2024. Does that create any tension even if it's a tension of opportunity?
Julian Zelizer: Sure. It's not clear that if he made the decision and did a dramatic, "I'm not running for reelection like President Lyndon Johnson did in 1968," that it would be so smooth. The expectation would be that it would be the vice president as occurred in 1968 who would get that baton and who would run for reelection, but I think there's a lot of Democrats who did lose their seats or who are struggling, who are not so enthusiastic about the administration.
They blame the administration for their problems rather than other factors. There's a lot of Democrats from the last race who are still eager to run and new voices like the governor of Michigan who are going to feel pretty emboldened by what happened in the state. It could be, if he made that decision, incredibly messy and divisive. I don't think it would be as clear cut in terms of who gets that nomination, which might not be the best thing for the Democratic Party going into 2024.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a sense of the thing that the Biden administration, the Biden White House, or maybe just Joe Biden himself is thinking, "That's my North Star. That is the thing I came here to do that I haven't had a chance to do yet"?
Julian Zelizer: That's a good question. I think there are issues that he does care about that he wanted to be the president to deliver more on the climate, for example, which is not where he started, but it's become a big issue for him. I don't think what he got in the anti-inflation bill is everything he was hoping for. Simultaneously, I do think he wants to get the economy in better shape and continue on that front, but I don't think that's, in the end, what motivates him.
I take at face value, the speech he made about the state of democracy. I do think he cares about where the country is heading. He started his whole campaign on restoring normalcy to American government. Now, there are still many threats along the way. I'm sure he'd like the election reform legislation, all of the packages to get through. I think if he could leave our system of politics in a more stable place and that will mean to him defeating Donald Trump, I think that is in some ways what he has his eye on right now, then he'll feel good about what he did during his four or eight years in office.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Julian Zelizer of Princeton University. Thanks so much for taking the time with us.
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