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Assessing the midterm vote and President Biden’s prospects

Digital format, 09/11/2022, Aspen Transatlantic Dialogue

The American institutional system has weathered both the impact of the “preventive” voting disputes stirred up by some of the more radical Republican candidates and an extremely polarized political climate. It is now essential that the country heal from the collective trauma and ideological battle over the 2020 November vote and the events of January 2021 so as to be able to tackle the many economic and security challenges the country is facing.

Although legislative gridlock seems practically inevitable for the next two years, it is possible that the classic political cycles of the American party system will undergo structural change. This time around, the expected “red wave” did not materialize, but neither did the “blue wave” predicted two years ago when the Democrats lost seats in Congress even as they won the White House.

According to some, Donald Trump is being seriously reassessed by his own party, in that the more extremist candidates he directly endorsed have made a poor showing, while objections to his uncontested leadership – possibly even of his return candidacy – are emerging within the GOP establishment.

Two additional factors salient to the electoral outcome were high voter turnout and widespread concern over the abortion issue following the conservative-led Supreme Court’s ruling. Both these factors worked in favor of the Democrats and, although partly foreseen, were perhaps underestimated in post-summer polls.

For now, the American economy is exceeding expectations – especially regarding employment – and this too could have influenced the election results, despite apprehensions for the future on the part of both public opinion and Wall Street. The slowdown has been less serious than predicted however and recession does not appear to be on the horizon for the moment, even though deep underlying problems remain. Inflation took center stage, with Republicans severely yet rather generically criticizing the Inflation Reduction Act of the past summer but stopping short of advancing any practical alternative. Democrats were thus able to point out that the Fed was already dealing with inflation at the level of interest rates.

The real threat is that the battle against inflation ends up slowing growth (and over-bolstering the dollar) at an uncertain stage for key sectors such as digital technology and energy.

Considerable continuity in foreign policy is foreseeable. Strategies vis à vis China at the level of both security and trade remain substantially bipartisan. The principal unresolved problem is largely an external one: i.e., negotiations with European allies on strategic issues such as semiconductors and digital technologies. The risk here is that transatlantic competition and fragmentation could prevail in the context of many pivotal common interests.

This question did not seem to carry any real weight in how people voted, in the end, and – despite some hesitation regarding the extent and duration of military and economic aid to Kyiv – no significant change in direction either on the Republican or the Democratic front seems probable. The level of support will likely remain unchanged, as will useful coordination with European and other allies; if anything, fears persist with regard to European cohesion.

Overall relations with Europe will nevertheless be conditioned by underlying US pressure – not always acute and thus far managed amicably by the Biden administration – on allies in the Old World to make a more consolidated defense effort. On all fundamental issues, the main concern is the firmness and resilience of public opinion – American above all, which remains considerably polarized – with regard to challenges that call for patient and consistent action in various sectors on the part of governments as well as mutual trust between governors and citizens.