WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats defied gravity this week as voters set aside their concerns about President Joe Biden to deny Republicans the sweeping victory they expected, emboldening a Biden team whose political instincts have been routinely questioned or outright dismissed by opponents and even allies.
It was a remarkable display of resiliency in the face of both history and gloomy polls that suggested voters were fed up with inflation and crime and looking to punish the party in power. As key races continued to be tallied on Wednesday, it was clear that Democrats had limited Republican gains in the House and maintained a potential path to holding control of the Senate.
Biden spent the campaign’s closing stretch on defense, steering clear of battleground states where his own unpopularity could have dragged down Democrats. But on election night, he was up past midnight congratulating candidates who were supposed to have been swept from office.
“While the press and the pundits were predicting a giant red wave, it didn’t happen,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House in his first public remarks since voting ended. He said Democrats had a “strong night.”
He acknowledged that many Americans remain discouraged by the country’s direction — “the voters were also clear that they’re still frustrated, I get it” — and said he was willing to compromise with Republicans as he faces the likelihood of divided government in Washington.
But he pledged to stay the course on his agenda, predicting the results will vindicate his choices.
He questioned whether Americans really want the major changes some Republicans are calling for — such as debate and votes on whether to continue Social Security or Medicare.
“I’m not going to change anything in any fundamental way,” he said.
“Never underestimate how much Team Biden is underestimated,” tweeted Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. Biden was expected to speak from the White House and take questions from reporters later Wednesday.
For all the upbeat talk, however, none of the Democrats’ success will be able to prevent what’s likely to be a chaotic and bruising phase of Biden’s presidency. Republicans are hoping to take control of the House, which would open the door for extreme members of the party to investigate Biden and his family. Any of Biden’s legislative priorities could be off the table, and merely funding the government could prove challenging.
The future of the Senate remained a tossup as votes were counted; potential Democratic losses there could limit or even cut off Biden’s ability to confirm new judges and other administration officials.
It’s also unclear if the midterm results will be enough to enable Biden to dismiss his doubters as he prepares to run for a second term. An expansive survey by AP VoteCast revealed deep worries about his performance and ability to continue serving.
With Biden approaching his 80th birthday, 58% of voters said he does not have the mental capability to serve effectively as president. Only 44% described him as honest, and just 34% said he’s a “strong leader.”
There were other warning signs for his political standing as well.
When Biden was elected two years ago, 54% of voters described him as someone who “cares about people like you.” Among this year’s midterm voters, that slipped to 46%.
Overall, 57% of voters said they had an unfavorable view of Biden. His approval ratings on the economy, energy policy and border security were underwater. Even his handling of Russia, widely seen as a success for Biden as he maintains an international coalition to oppose the invasion of Ukraine, is viewed negatively.
His lukewarm ratings were driven by overwhelmingly negative attitudes among Republicans, but even Democratic voters were not resounding in their support.
About 2 in 10 voters for Democrats said they disapprove of Biden’s job performance overall, a noticeable softness in today’s hyper-partisan political environment.
The survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide was conducted for nine days, concluding as polls closed, for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.
A clear advantage for Biden, who campaigned for office on simply being better than the alternative, is the disdain that his supporters have for his predecessor.
While 50% of voters for Democratic candidates said their votes were meant to show support for the president, an even greater percentage — 65% — said they voted to express opposition to Donald Trump.
“Democrats were arguing from the beginning that they needed to make this election a choice rather than a referendum,” said Amy Walter, an analyst who leads the Cook Political Report. “And essentially, they did.”
Walter said Democrats were able to maintain support in the midterms from voters who believe that “Biden is not living up to their expectations, or they are feeling disappointed or they are feeling disappointed of his stewardship.”
The outcome takes the heat off the White House, at least for now.
“The pressure goes from ‘How is Biden going to explain himself post election?’ to ‘How is Trump going to explain himself?'” she said. “The more intriguing conversations are happening on the Republican side.”
Some members of Biden’s team began circulating a clip of his meeting with the New York Times editorial board during the Democratic primary.
Asked about whether his lead in the polls was fleeting, Biden dismissed the question by saying pundits were always too quick to “declare me dead.”
“And guess what?” he said. “I ain’t dead. And I’m not going to die.”
Al Gore, who served as vice president when Democrats suffered deep losses during the first midterm election of Bill Clinton’s presidency, said this week’s results defied expectations even though Republicans could gain control over at least one chamber of Congress.
“It’s hard to call it a victory,” Gore said of Democrats in an interview, “but actually in the context of history, it kind of was.”