WASHINGTON — As President Biden stepped out of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, and walked across the White House’s South Lawn toward an entrance to the West Wing, a reporter asked about his mood.
It was Monday, just hours before polling sites opened across the nation, potentially unleashing what some pundits had projected would be a “red wave” that would hand both chambers of Congress to Republicans and empower election deniers in key state-level races across the country.
Biden, however, did not seem especially perturbed. “Well, I’m feeling — I’m optimistic,” he said before retiring for the evening. “But I’m always optimistic.”
His optimism appears to have been warranted.
"We had an election yesterday. And it was a good day, I think, for democracy. And I think it was a good day for America," Biden said Wednesday at a White House press conference held to discuss the results.
"While we don't know all the results yet ... here's what we do know: While the press and the pundits are predicting a giant red wave, it didn't happen," he said.
Although the Democrats are likely to narrowly lose control of the House of Representatives, victories in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and elsewhere will allow them to keep the Senate if they win a runoff race in Georgia. In Arizona, an entire slate of election deniers was voted down.
Candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump — who is soon expected to announce a 2024 presidential campaign — lost in closely watched races across the country.
“The president made the election a choice between extreme Republicans and the progress of the last 18 months — and voters chose the president's agenda,” a Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the election, told Yahoo News.
Many of the candidates with whom Biden campaigned in the closing days of the electoral season prevailed, including Tina Kotek, the incoming Oregon governor; Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York, who has been elected to her first full term; John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, who will be the state’s junior U.S. senator; and threatened incumbents from swing states and districts, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger in Virginia and Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado.
The Biden adviser described the mood in the White House as “validated” and “energized.” On Wednesday morning, the White House said the president would conduct a press conference that afternoon, in a sign that he was personally eager to discuss the results.
“It was an affirmation of his style of leadership — affirming democracy, uniting not dividing, and helping anyone in a crisis not just the people who voted for you,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who is close to Biden, told Yahoo News in an email.
Biden watched the returns from his residence in the White House, the adviser said. He then visited with staffers watching from the Roosevelt Room before proceeding to a dining room off the Oval Office, where he made several rounds of congratulatory calls, which lasted well into the night.
To be sure, the Democrats have almost certainly lost the House, which will severely curtail the president's ability to enact more of his policy agenda and put him on the defensive when Republicans try to cut his social spending — possibly using as leverage the threat of defaulting on the national debt and triggering a global economic meltdown. Republicans in the lower chamber are sure to launch investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, which could cause innumerable political headaches for the president. However, if they overreach, for example with highly partisan impeachment proceedings, this could alienate moderate voters, as was the case after the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998.
Biden’s low-key approach to the midterms, avoiding placing himself front and center in the campaign in the way Trump would have, was called “unusual” but potentially effective by political scientists and operatives. Although it is difficult to say how much he influenced any one race, the White House felt that here, too, he was once again underestimated by the media establishment.
“We were always more optimistic than you all were!” the adviser said in a text message, referencing the cavalcade of media reports about certain Republican dominance on Tuesday.
The mood in the West Wing was also exemplified by White House digital director Rob Flaherty, who shared a meme with a clip from Biden’s interview with the New York Times during the presidential campaign.
“I’m not dead,” the president says in the brief segment of the interview Flaherty posted to Twitter, “And I’m not gonna die.”
Biden remains a persistently unpopular president, with his approval rating at just 41%, according to FiveThirtyEight. Every misstatement the 79-year-old president makes is parsed, whether fairly or not, as evidence of vanishing mental acuity — a narrative that the White House and Biden himself have furiously disputed. Still, concerns about whether he should run again in 2024 have only increased in volume in recent days. Even his close ally House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina — whose endorsement proved crucial to Biden during the 2020 Democratic primary — expressed hesitation about whether the president should seek reelection.
Those concerns have been attenuated, at least for now. "The nomination is Biden’s, period, and any efforts to question or undermine that, much less before he’s even made a decision, [are] only helping Trump and his allies," Jon Cowan, president of the centrist think tank Third Way told Yahoo News in an email. "He’s more than proven his ability, strength and savvy and deserves to be our 2024 nominee."
While the president has not said explicitly that he intends to run, Tuesday's generally encouraging results will likely be seen by Biden and close advisers, such as chief of staff Ron Klain, as a favorable sign.
"The candidates Democrats nominated were Biden Democrats," the Biden adviser said. "And the Biden coalition showed up for them."