Joe Biden climbed aboard Air Force One on Thursday en route to Cairo for the COP27 climate conference. From there he'll be heading to Cambodia for the ASEAN summit and from there to Indonesia for the G-20 meeting. But it's a different Biden than if these three events had been held in October.
The U.S. midterm elections have a significant bearing on the trajectory of American democracy, and the Democrats' probable retaining of the Senate will have a substantial impact on legislation and the appointment of judges. But the elections also have a significant influence on foreign policy, alliance management and the view of the United States by both allies and rivals worldwide.
If the Democrats had suffered the historically predictable losses pundits expected and relinquished control of both the House and the Senate, the president wouldn’t necessarily be weakened, since foreign policy is largely in the hands of the executive.
Arguably, a president facing a confrontational Congress focuses on foreign policy almost by default and for lack of other options. But Biden’s maneuvering room on issues ranging from the Ukraine war to China policy to a nuclear-threshold Iran to alliance building would have been limited.
More pertinently, if the Democrats had been roundly defeated, if Donald Trump or his MAGA handmaids in Congress had declared victory, the world would have seen this as a prequel to 2024. From Kyiv to Tokyo, Moscow to Paris, Jerusalem to Seoul, Beijing to Brussels, the United States would have been seen as relapsing to the America First mystique.
When he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Biden declared that he was in it to fight “for the soul of America,” which he said was at an inflection point. He proposed himself as a counterweight to a narcissistic, populist, demagogic, antidemocratic, mendacious merchant of false facts and conspiracy theories, the ignorant and incendiary Trump. As Biden put it, the advent of that man and what he represents is a clear and present danger for American democracy.
Biden defeated Trump resoundingly in 2020 by over 7 million votes. But he beat Trump, not Trumpism, a grassroots movement that morphed into a cult, emboldened as Trump, from his Mar-a-Lago Eagle’s Nest and against all precedent, decorum and decency, kept himself at the center of attention.
Second, the Republican Party mutated into an eclectic band of enablers and sycophants worshipping Trump. Those who didn't were kicked out and those with the power to save the party showed that a backbone and an independent mind (plus a few other organs) aren't prerequisites to be a politician.
Biden’s bold legislative agenda, even with only partial success thanks to two rogue Democratic senators, would go a long way to fix the American republic, but the positive impact would take years.
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On Monday, Biden will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in their first meeting since Biden became president almost two years ago. Conspicuously absent from the G-20 summit will be Vladimir Putin, who has announced that he won't be attending.
A savvy observer of the Russian president and the war in Ukraine told me that Putin withdrew from Kherson only after the midterm elections, expecting a Republican wave and American reticence on continued aid to Ukraine. Putin not only lost Kherson, he lost Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
On his travels, Biden may reflect on a tweet by Yale historian Timothy Snyder: “China has peaked, Russia is retreating, and Trump is done.”
As for China, “peak” is a long process with potentially dangerous foreign policy and geopolitical repercussions from the Korean Peninsula down to the South China Sea and beyond. Biden has already begun positioning the United States for the next two to three decades by laying the foundations for new alliances in the Indo-Pacific and strengthening derelict alliances in the northeast Pacific.
As for Russia and Trump, Biden deserves substantial credit in the effort to curtail both. Both his stand against Trumpism and his resolve against Russia have been exemplary. If Xi, Putin or Benjamin Netanyahu expected to gain leverage for their arguments in Washington in the event of a divided government, they all need to revise.
There are two broad, distinct but not necessarily mutually exclusive perspectives through which Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States can be viewed.
First, what transpired can only be described as a Republican debacle of historic proportions. The GOP's taking of the House isn't insignificant, but the estimated margin is very narrow. Forget the clichés about a Red Wave causing a “political bloodbath” throughout the United States.
This narrative sounded reasonable given the historical patterns, but it was entirely unmoored from the political reality and public opinion. It was perpetuated ad nauseam by a media addicted to junk polls and partisan spin, and then swayed by more serious polls that overweighted the mythical MAGA voter.
The media complained that these voters refuse to answer pollsters, but they're sure to vote, so let’s factor them in. Similarly, the media and the punditocracy ignored signs of increased enthusiasm among Democrats, 2020 levels of animosity toward Trump and Trumpism, and the enduring effects of Roe v. Wade. John and Jane Doe from Peoria, Illinois, don’t just vote on gas prices or their monthly Costco bill.
This was a colossal failure by any measure. It defied the trend of the last 23 midterm elections – since 1932 – where the president’s party lost an average of 28 seats in the House and four in the Senate. It was also the first time since 1934 that the president’s party didn't lose a single state legislature that it held.
Second, despite elated Democrats dejected Republicans, the electoral map didn't change much compared to 2016, 2018 and 2020. It clearly shows a Blue America and a Red America polarized, resentful and barely speaking the same American. These two Americas are represented by two distinct electoral coalitions.
They have dwindling common denominators and a shrinking shared narrative. Their perceptions of what America is and where it's going is increasingly disparate. It's very plausible that Roe v. Wade was a tiebreaker in terms of higher turnout, including of Republican-leaning, young, college-educated suburban women voting for the Democrats. But that doesn't change the map that divides America.
America’s rivals and detractors around the world subscribed enthusiastically to the concept of America in decline. Although the idea preceded Trump, it was he who vindicated the worst fears among enemies and allies alike.
Over the summer, Biden reiterated the notion that American democracy needed protection. Beltway strategists all said that the Democrats were out of touch with Youngstown, Ohio. People don’t vote on democracy but on issues like gas prices, they said. People vote on inflation, not Ukraine.
Apparently, enough Americans bought into Biden’s “democracy must be defended” campaign. With them, the entire world can view America with a little more respect than had the results been very different.