Uncle Joe believes: Behind the scenes, Democrats clearly now think they can win

A puzzling White House event this week sent a clear signal under the surface: Democratic confidence is soaring

By Brian Karem


Published September 15, 2022 9:03AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden (Julie Bennett/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden (Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

The gathering on the South Lawn of the White House Tuesday was billed as a celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act — a bill President Biden signed a month ago.

On the very day of the event, ironically enough, the latest economic numbers make clear that inflation is still with us. Never mind: Biden plunged into the event with gusto. Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Harris spoke before Levette Jacobs, an IBEW apprentice from Boston, took the stage and introduced the president.

It was a mixed-bag event with a variety of messages. Perhaps because of the news that morning, the warm-up acts celebrated organized labor, the president's accomplishments on infrastructure and his purported bipartisan appeal, and also addressed continuing problems with climate change and the continuing domestic threats against democracy.

At times I had to remind myself why we were there. Certainly watching James Taylor perform "Fire and Rain" was a draw. He was the opening act. Schumer was dull, Pelosi was amusing — even reminding the crowd when to applaud —  Harris gave a predictable stump speech and Jacobs was impressive.

Then a very energetic Joe Biden took the stage. He spoke for nearly 30 minutes in the heat, after taking off his jacket, and then spent another 30 minutes shaking hands and meeting with supporters in the typically hot and humid D.C. weather. While his detractors say he's lost a step, the only step he actually lost on stage was when he stepped on his own suit jacket and apologized for that — noting that it was a good thing his mother wasn't around to give him grief for it. None of this will be acknowledged by Biden's political opponents, of course, who continue to purposely cast his lifelong problem with stuttering as evidence of dementia. Nor will they acknowledge that he can handle himself for an hour with a throng of people on a sticky day, with a dexterity and humor that should make most of them jealous.

I have some real problems with this administration. Those boil down to questions of access and better explanations of what the president is doing. No administration I've covered in my career has been as standoffish as Biden's. The communication department is understaffed. Some members of the administration are arrogant, while others are elitist and ignorant.

That being said, it was obvious throughout the nearly two-hour event on the South Lawn that the president's people understood that it was a problem to be talking about inflation reduction on a day when the headlines made it obvious that there hasn't been much reduction. Appearances can certainly be deceiving, but the White House reacted to the news by downplaying the official reason we had been assembled while also cheerleading the rest of the president's domestic agenda. Republicans, not to be outdone, wanted to pile on with the bad inflation numbers. Instead, we saw the ever wooden-eared Sen. Lindsey Graham announce a bill that would generate a near-total national ban on abortion.

It is hard to understand a political party that cheers against American success, but that, in a nutshell, is today's Republican Party. "God, we need Trump back," I heard from a Trump minion Tuesday. I hear that every day, of course, from the handful of Trumplicans who still exist outside mental institutions and the Deep South.

We don't need Trump anywhere — except behind bars. And there is a world of difference between Biden and Trump on the stump. Biden is a politician with a wealth of experience in serving the country. He is adept at public speaking and knows how to reach people empathically.  When Biden says, as he did on Tuesday, that he really believes the best is yet to come for the United States — stressing each word as he says it — it's easy to see why his supporters are so optimistic. You believe he means it.

When Trump speaks, on the other hand, his anger and vitriol toward those he despises (which would be anyone who doesn't emphatically agree with him) is wrapped up in a speech that displays no empathy — only bitterness and hatred. It's easy to see why his supporters are so pessimistic. You believe he means it when he says he wants to tear it all down. He wants to be a tyrant.

At the end of the day Tuesday, we witnessed a cheerleading event for the Democrats that contained a fair share of facts, along with standard stump speeches from all the politicians. They thanked staffers and members of Congress. Quite a few Democratic social media influencers had also been invited and were also thanked. The press? We stood in the back, sweated a lot and listened in the heat.

Biden made a point of singling out Sen. Joe Manchin thanked him for showing up, while Pelosi and Schumer made sure they thanked residents of California and New York (their respective home states) for attending.

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Four years ago, in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, there was a sense of foreboding inside the Trump White House. The bile spewed by Trump made even his closest advisers fearful of a Democratic takeover of both the Senate and the House, though in public Trump's toadies put on a brave face about "retaining control" of Congress. 

Today, many Democrats are openly gloomy about their chances in the fall, but more sanguine behind closed doors. The Democrats, and the president's staff in particular, showed us plainly Tuesday not only that they're horrible at messaging, but that it is clearly painful for them to be optimistic. Part of that is the political climate in D.C. "The Republicans lose elections and claim they win," Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan said. "Democrats win and then have to explain why they should win again." 

Democrats are gloomy about their chances in public, but more sanguine behind closed doors. Lindsey Graham's proposed national abortion ban — a Democratic campaign ad in waiting — makes clear why.

It's almost as if the Democrats think they have to apologize for their success. They certainly have a tough time exploiting it. If Trump hadn't been so terrifyingly inept as a president, the Republicans might well have held onto both houses of Congress four years ago. The fact they are in the running today to take it all back mostly speaks to the Democrats' ineptitude at putting together a narrative of success — based almost entirely in fact — that would make a Republican victory about as likely as Trump being elected pope.

But never fear: Republicans are now taking a page out of the Democratic playbook. On Tuesday, Graham once again demonstrated why the GOP will have a hard time winning in the fall. He vowed to make a near-total ban on abortion the highest priority should the Republicans take back the House and Senate. He told us we could be "guaranteed" such a bill won't get a vote if the Democrats win.

You could run that video clip as a Democratic campaign ad, just as it is, and tack on the obligatory "Paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee." It would be wildly successful. 

Democrats on the ballot in multiple states no doubt quietly thanked Graham for once again dramatically misreading the American electorate. He may help snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for many Republicans — even if he thinks he's got the "right issue" at the "right time," as I was told by one of his staffers.

Tlaib chuckled when I asked her if she thought that were true. "We have to thank Sen. Graham for making our choices this fall so crystal clear. He underestimates us," she said.

But it is Joe Biden who perhaps best understands the tone-deaf quality of the GOP and people like Graham. Though the press has preempted his speeches, never takes them live, downplays the daily briefings and otherwise gives him short shrift on many occasions, he perseveres — often getting ahead of the press and even his own communications staff (which is not hard to do).

The hodgepodge celebration on the South Lawn jumped all over many themes, from infrastructure to climate change, threats against democracy and the economy. But it really boiled down to one message that many in the crowd, and many reporters apparently missed.

Biden did not.

As the president met with supporters at the end of the event, I looked for an opportunity to shout a question to him — one he could answer and might actually hear over the conversations and the piped-in music. My years of mentorship under Sam Donaldson gave me the confidence to believe I could be sufficiently brief and sufficiently loud.

There was really only one question to ask. Democrats in the Senate and House have danced around their chances in the midterm elections for the last few weeks, as the sweeping nationwide anger from the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade has mounted.

So I asked it: "Mr. President, are you going to hold onto the House?" Ten words. I was happy I got that out succinctly. I knew he heard me over the din of music and glad-handers because he looked up at me standing on the press riser and smiled. Then he proved he was better at being succinct than I was.

"Yes," he said to a round of applause from his remaining supporters as he strode away and entered the residence.

Whether or not he retains that swagger after the midterms will be decided by American voters.

But there is no doubt that one-word answer told us more clearly than all the speeches and the thousands of people on the South Lawn why we were there: Biden honestly believes his party will hold onto both the House and the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has quietly acknowledged that Republicans probably won't get control of the Senate.

Now the president is predicting a seismic shift that, should it come to pass, will mean the final nail in the political coffin of Donald Trump.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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2022 Midterms Commentary Democrats Donald Trump Elections Joe Biden