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CNN
 — 

Joe Biden’s midterm pitch is increasingly stark and alarmist as he grapples for momentum in an election seemingly slipping away from Democrats that could land him with a Congress inflicting two years of misery on his White House.

The President was on the road Thursday – not in one of the most pivotal Senate swing states – but in New York to tout semiconductor manufacturing. The fact that he showed up in a state he won by more than 20 points two years ago shows how his low approval ratings limit his capacity to help his party climb out of a hole.

Biden simultaneously argued that the economy was in far better shape than most Americans judge it to be and that if they win power next month, Republicans will crash what he framed as a recovery and put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block.

His approach reflected the extraordinarily testing election environment facing Democrats, who are in danger of losing their control of the House of Representatives as their hopes of clinging onto the Senate appear to ebb.

Eleven days out from the election, Republicans are targeting deep blue territory that would enable them to build a wave that could translate into a significant House majority. Republicans only need a net gain of five seats to flip the chamber, and they could win enough seats in the Empire State alone to do that, CNN’s Harry Enten wrote Thursday.

And races that will decide the fate of the Senate also appear to be narrowing, like in Arizona, for instance, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly once had a clear lead. Democrats were also rattled this week by a shaky debate performance by Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman, who is still facing auditory and processing issues after a stroke. The commonwealth represents the party’s best chance to pick up a seat and could be critical to their hopes of holding control of the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a conversation overheard with Biden and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday, said he thought the Pennsylvania debate “didn’t hurt us too much,” but expressed concern about the high-profile race in Georgia, saying it’s the state “where we’re going downhill.”

The loss of either chamber could be disastrous for the President, who is bracing for a barrage of Republican investigations targeting his administration, his handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the business affairs of his son, Hunter Biden, who is under investigation by the Justice Department.

There is sufficient uncertainty in polling following recent elections that it is far too early to properly judge the state of the race. But Biden’s speech on Thursday reflected Democrats’ burden in this election and suggested that the historical pattern of first-term presidents getting a midterm election drubbing may be reasserting itself, after his party nursed hopes of bucking the trend this summer in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Biden is essentially being forced to make a case to Americans, who polls show are sour on the economy, that things are not as bad as they seem.

His speech demonstrated the political impossibility of highlighting undeniably positive aspects of the economy – including hopeful GDP growth figures released Thursday and a historically low jobless rate – when inflation is raging at near 40-year highs.

Biden’s warnings of fierce political fights with Republicans over entitlements and government spending in a possible showdown over raising the debt ceiling, meanwhile, served as a preview for what may be acrimonious years to come in Washington if political control is split between the parties.

The President warned that GOP control of Congress would set off a “ticking time bomb” under the economy.

“They’re coming after Social Security,” Biden said at his event in Syracuse.

“They’re going to shut down the government, refuse to pay America’s bills for the first time in American history to put America in default… unless we yield to their demands to cut Social Security and Medicare.”

“Nothing will create more chaos or do more damage to the American economy,” the President said, admitting that Democrats always charge Social Security is at risk in elections but also arguing that proposals by Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin this time really do threaten the retirement program.

Biden’s speech made a case that when they come to full fruition, his policies will repair decades of declines in manufacturing and American industry. He argued that his signature bills passed during a legislative hot streak, including a bipartisan infrastructure measure, a law meant to ignite US semiconductor production and another that builds a clean energy economy, would bring jobs and prosperity. He declared that his social spending measure passed over the summer would make Americans more prosperous since it would cut some long-term health care costs.

But the issue is that all of those measures – if they succeed – will not unspool in time to be felt in this election. There’s a chance they could help Biden in 2024 if he decides to run for reelection, but for now, they are aspirational.

CNN/SSRS polls this week in battleground states reflect the almost impossible political situation facing Democrats in races for Congress and governor.

Some 47% of voters in Wisconsin, 46% in Michigan and 44% in Pennsylvania said that the economy and inflation was the most important issue affecting their vote. In each state, this more than doubled the number of those most exercised about the next-highest-ranking issue – abortion. Democrats had hoped outrage over the Supreme Court decision would have neutralized their economic liabilities heading into the November 8 election.

All the available evidence 11 days out suggests that it is not happening as Republicans lean into economic and crime messaging.

The latter has even made the gubernatorial race in New York – which hasn’t elected a Republican statewide in two decades – unexpectedly competitive. Biden was with Hochul on Thursday in Syracuse, which is also home to a competitive House race.

The President rode into his day on the back of some unexpected good news – the economy bounced back in the last quarter at an annualized rate of 2.6%, according to initial estimates. Biden held up the figures as “further evidence that your economic recovery is continuing to power forward.”

The problem, however, is that the President was conjuring a vision of an economy that many Americans do not recognize. The disconnect between the two realities – of an economy that is performing strongly in many areas, according to data, and the lived experience out in the country – could well doom Democrats.

This election is turning out to be an object lesson in the pernicious political impact of inflation – a force that many adult Americans have never experienced since it last cast its dark shadow over everyday life back in the 1980s.

When a voter’s income is not keeping up with their costs, especially for the staples of everyday life like meat, bread, eggs and gasoline, they are bound to look for scapegoats. And Biden, as the president in power, gets the blame.

Biden blames outside factors for the hike in living costs, including Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which also pushed up gasoline prices – though these are now easing – and the aftermath of supply chain disruption during the pandemic. Republicans blame Biden for flushing the system with billions of dollars in cash and sending the economy into an overheating cycle.

In an interview with CNN’s Phil Mattingly on Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen counseled patience since many of the measures the administration has taken to boost the economy will take time to come on line.

But she admitted, “Inflation is very high – it’s unacceptably high and Americans feel that every day,” in the interview broadcast on “Erin Burnett OutFront.”

The President finds himself in the familiarly difficult spot of trying to claim credit for the encouraging aspects of the economy while empathizing with the pain many Americans are feeling. When he was vice president in the Obama administration, the White House faced a similar problem. The economy was slowly coming back after the Great Recession but many Americans didn’t feel it at a time of high unemployment. Barack Obama argued in the run-up to the midterm elections in 2010 that handing control of Congress to the Republicans would be like giving the keys of the car back to the people who drove it into a ditch. But voters weren’t happy and Republicans seized control of the House and made big gains in the Senate.

Now Biden must tread a similar political tightrope on the punishing cost of living.

“People are still struggling with inflation. I grew up in a community, in a place where when my dad would say, at the end of the month, if you – what you’re making didn’t cover all your expenses, you were in real trouble,” Biden said in a virtual fundraiser this week for Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne, who faces a tough reelection.

“And even though inflation is lower here than in most advanced countries, I know that’s no solace to someone sitting at the kitchen table, trying to put food on the table,” the President said.

His comment showed that Biden understands acutely the problem that appears increasingly likely to doom Democrats this election season. But there’s nothing in the short term he can do about it.


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