Why Democrats Feel Surprisingly Good Heading Into 2023

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There are no honeymoons in American politics anymore. But President Biden is enjoying something akin to a post-wedding limo ride.

It would be a stretch to say that he is popular, exactly. But he’s better off in polling than he was six months ago, when gas prices were at their peak. Since the midterm elections, prominent Democrats who seemed to be positioning themselves against him have said they would support him if he ran in 2024. Progressive candidates who might ordinarily be expected to snipe at a centrist president ran on his agenda rather than against it; so did more conservative Democrats. And the opponent he defeated in 2020 looks about as politically weak as he has ever been.

Democrats are gawking at the lackluster start of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, which so far has earned him very few endorsements from Republican members of Congress. On Thursday, Trump lashed out at the recent run of polls showing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida outpacing him in hypothetical matchups — including in The Wall Street Journal, an influential newspaper among Republican donors.

Then, several of Trump’s most prominent supporters mocked what he had billed as a “major announcement,” which turned out to be a low-energy infomercial for digital trading cards selling for $99.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Steve Bannon, a former senior adviser to Trump, said on his podcast as his two Trumpworld guests, Steve Cortes and Sebastian Gorka, nodded in agreement. Bannon then called for the advisers responsible to be fired “today.” The New York Post ran an editorial calling Trump a “con artist.”

Trump’s fumble prompted a cheeky snap of the towel from the White House. “I had some MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENTS the last couple of weeks, too,” Biden tweeted, rattling off a number of recent accomplishments.

The average price of a gallon of gasoline has fallen to $3.18 from a height of $5.02 in June. And even though Americans are still feeling pretty sour about the overall state of the economy, the overall rate of inflation rose by 7.1 percent in November — still a lot, but less than expected. Twelve Republican senators voted for the same-sex marriage law that Biden championed, a recognition of just how far public opinion has moved on the issue over the last decade.

If all goes as planned next week, Congress also looks poised to pass an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act, a major bipartisan victory led by Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The legislation, which will be tucked into the $1.7 trillion year-end spending bill, was designed to prevent a repeat of the mess that unfolded on Jan. 6, 2021. And while outside advocates didn’t get everything they wanted, those involved in the negotiations credit the White House for deftly staying out of the way as they forged a compromise that could win over Republicans in the Senate.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and at the Republican National Committee, meanwhile, are still squabbling over who will lead them amid widespread unhappiness in the party over its showing in November.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Harmeet Dhillon, who is seeking to oust Ronna McDaniel as chair of the committee, defended Trump and attacked Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, instead.

“You have Mitch McConnell, because he hates Trump, refusing to support candidates that President Trump endorsed, which I think is really appalling,” Dhillon said. “And I blame him for the Senate losses.”

Democratic strategists are also closely watching the jockeying between DeSantis and Trump in the (very) early stages of the Republican presidential primary. Many see DeSantis as potentially formidable, but also vulnerable on three main fronts in a general election matchup.

As he seeks to outflank Trump, DeSantis is taking positions that could haunt him later. This week, he insinuated that vaccine manufacturers had misled the public and called for prosecutions of any potential wrongdoing.

That might be good politics for him in a Republican primary, but it’s potential poison among most voters. Although anti-vaccine sentiment has grown on the right, that’s not true of the public as a whole. And, as one Democratic strategist noted to me, anti-vaccine language tends to attract all sorts of fringe characters whose support could pose problems for DeSantis down the road.

Democrats think DeSantis’s record on kitchen-table issues gives them ammunition to work with, too. In a special legislative session, Florida just passed an overhaul aimed at addressing a worsening property-insurance crisis in the state. The average annual premium for home insurance in Florida has soared to $4,231, the highest in the country.

Some Republicans have noticed that Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia recently announced a plan to reduce housing costs, a potential point of contrast with DeSantis. Although Youngkin has not gone nearly as far as DeSantis in signaling interest in the presidency, his political action committee recently began buying ads on Facebook.

Then there’s personality. In focus groups for Charlie Crist’s campaign for governor of Florida — which, let’s be clear, Crist lost badly — Democrats found that even many Republicans considered DeSantis personally unlikable despite cheering on his policies.

In recent months, Biden has crawled his way back to about where he stood in the public’s esteem one year ago.

On Dec. 16, 2021, 43.5 percent of American adults approved of the job Biden was doing, according to the FiveThirtyEight average, while 49.8 percent disapproved. As of Friday, 41.3 percent approved and 51 percent disapproved. He was slightly better off among registered and likely voters.

And while that might not seem so impressive, it’s a political fact of life that modern presidents can no longer expect to be loved — only tolerated.

“No matter what happens, Republicans aren’t going to approve of Biden,” said Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor at Gallup who studies presidential approving ratings.

In the 1990s, presidents could expect to poll somewhere in the 30s among members of the opposing party. Now, that number is in single digits.

As for Biden, his 40 percent rating headed into the midterms was almost identical to that of Barack Obama and Trump. “It’s kind of where presidents are,” Jones said.

One of the most telling insights about Biden’s popularity, to me, came in a recent memo by John Anzalone and Matt Hogan of Impact Research, one of the polling companies that do work for Biden. The memo noted that in the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections, voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Obama and Trump voted against their party by more than 20 percentage points.

Not this year, the authors wrote, “with those who somewhat disapproved of President Biden favoring Democratic congressional candidates by a 25-point margin.”

So how is the president doing? Let’s walk through a few of the major nonpartisan surveys.

  • In CNN’s most recent poll, favorable views of Biden have risen to 42 percent, up from 36 percent this summer.

  • In Monmouth University’s poll, Biden’s net approval rating has risen to minus-8 from a low of minus-12 in June.

  • In the most recent Marist University poll, the president’s approval rating is basically unchanged since November. But his disapproval rating has dropped to 48 percent from 54 percent. That’s the lowest disapproval number Marist has measured for Biden since September 2021.

  • By comparison, in Quinnipiac University’s December survey, Biden fares somewhat worse among adults: 40 percent of them approved of his job performance, while 50 percent disapproved. But that represents an uptick from late November, when 36 percent approved and 54 percent disapproved of him.

Not all of the major surveys are showing a meaningful bump for the president. His approval ratings have barely budged in the Fox News poll, the Wall Street Journal poll or in Gallup’s survey.

But the overall trend is moving in his direction. If that does not exactly have Biden’s team resting easy, it puts him in a far better spot heading into 2023 than most analysts would have predicted a year ago.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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