WASHINGTON — President Biden looks supercharged.
On social media, his eyes glow Terminator-like in images depicting him as an all-powerful figure imposing his will on the nation. Known as “Dark Brandon,” the memes began as an ironic portrayal employing a nickname from the offensive, anti-Biden chant of “Let’s Go Brandon” embraced by former president Trump’s supporters.
But after a slew of recent legislative wins, Democrats have appropriated the imagery to celebrate a president suddenly rejuvenated heading toward the fall midterm elections after a nearly yearlong stretch in which he seemed more impotent than almighty.
“Dark Brandon is crushing it,” Andrew Bates, White House deputy press secretary, tweeted over a picture of a smiling Biden with robotic red eyes after the Senate approved one of his major initiatives, a major climate change and health care bill that received final congressional approval Friday. Other aides and Biden supporters are posting similar depictions and references, such as one from Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Murphy on Twitter that depicts Biden as a comic-book character with gleaming yellow eyes.
“He is a bit of a superhero this summer,” Murphy said during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in which the host wondered if COVID had given Biden “laser superpowers.”
The successes have fueled optimism among Democrats that the party might defy history and hold its slim congressional majorities in November as the president’s low approval rating has begun inching upward.
Biden emerged from isolation this past week after his bout with COVID to sign bipartisan bills boosting US computer chip production and expanding health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. In the coming days, he’s expected to sign the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation long sought by Democrats that tackles climate change and lowers prescription drug costs.
“Decades from now, people are going to look back at this week, with all we passed ... [and say] that we met the moment at this inflection point in history,” Biden said in signing the CHIPS and Science Act on Tuesday.
Prior to the recent flurry of signings, Biden secured confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court this spring as the first Black woman justice. In June, he signed bipartisan legislation addressing gun violence, the first federal action on the issue in decades. He also scored a major national security success this summer with the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri by a US drone strike in Afghanistan.
Some developments outside of Biden’s control also have added to the momentum. The Supreme Court’s June decision ending the constitutional right to abortion could boost Democratic turnout in November and lure independents who support abortion rights to vote for the party’s candidates. And to top it off, economic news has turned more positive, with data from July showing strong job growth and a steady decline in gas prices that slowed a soaring annual inflation rate.
“Over the last few months, it sure looks like he’s found his mojo again,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist Democratic think tank NDN.
Still, Democrats will need a lot of mojo to buck the historic trend of the president’s party losing congressional seats in the midterm elections, particularly with inflation still near a four-decade high and the party’s legislative accomplishments falling short of the sweeping changes promised during the 2020 campaign.
“Can a perception of a president being behind the curve and not getting a lot done, can you have 16-17 months of that change with the events of a couple of months?” asked Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns. “That’s a pretty tall order.”
But strong performances by losing Democratic candidates in two recent special House elections in solidly Republican districts, as well as wins by some controversial GOP Senate candidates in party primaries, suggest the midterms might be closer than expected just a couple months ago. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, recently downplayed expectations for big gains by his party in November.
“We have a 50-50 nation. And I think, when the Senate race smoke clears, we’re likely to have a very, very close Senate still, with either us up slightly or the Democrats up slightly,” he told Fox News earlier this month.
The Democrats’ recent successes have already altered Biden’s legacy in the minds of historians. Adding last year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, Biden’s list of achievements in his first 18 months mark his term as moderately successful so far, and he gets extra credit for doing so with razor-thin congressional margins in a time of bitter partisan division, said Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
That’s still a far cry from the hopes Biden had for a transformative presidency like that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who enacted the Great Society social programs. Biden referenced Roosevelt in his 2020 nomination acceptance speech and had his portrait hung over the fireplace in the Oval Office.
Historically, Perry said she’d rank Biden in the middle of the pack of past presidents. That’s about where historians placed him in the Siena College Research Institute’s latest Survey of US Presidents that was released in June: 19th out of 45 presidents — between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In the survey’s 20 categories, Biden rated highest on ability to compromise (9th) and lowest on luck (34th).
New presidents often get a middling ranking after one year, with the exception of Trump, who was ranked third from last in 2018 and held the same spot in this year’s survey, said Donald P. Levy, the institute’s director. And, Biden’s score could improve given the recent legislative accomplishments, particularly if they have a major impact over time, as the climate provisions might do, Levy said.
“This is a survey that tries to place them in their historic position, but it takes history a little while to make that decision,” he said.
Voters might need more time to see the results of the policies as well. While the new laws aspire to reshape America long term, they might not produce enough short-term benefit to help Democrats in the midterm elections after promises of much more sweeping achievements.
Presidents take office with ambitious agendas that often crash into political reality, said David Kennedy, an emeritus Stanford history professor. Biden was particularly hamstrung by the narrow Democratic majorities in Congress and intra-party squabbles.
“I think it was always kind of fatuous to believe that Biden had the kind of mandate to really undertake transformative initiatives,” Kennedy said. “I think under the circumstances ... the wonder is he’s gotten as much done as he did.”
Progressives such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pushed for bolder action, such as enacting universal child care and preschool as part of the more ambitious Build Back Better legislation. But they were stymied by opposition not only from Republicans but moderate Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Although some of her priorities had to be excluded from the climate and health care bill, Warren said she was not disappointed.
“I fought hard for universal child care and I still think it’s one of the best tools that we can use to fight inflation and high costs for families,” she said. “But I am energized by seeing our Congress start to work.”
LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which works to empower Black voters, said she’s disappointed Biden hasn’t been able to push reforms of voting rights and criminal justice through Congress. But she is hesitant to be too critical for fear of undermining Biden in the face of what she said is the threat to democracy from Trump and congressional Republicans in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
And Brown commended Biden for continuing to push Democratic priorities despite running into roadblocks.
“I think with this climate bill and with some of the recent wins he has had, I do believe that speaks to an intent to not give up, and that carries weight for me,” she said.
Biden’s approval rating began sinking last summer, spurred by the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. That was followed by the resurgence of COVID, rapidly rising inflation, and the collapse of his Build Back Better social spending and climate bill.
“The core of the Biden promise is that he was going to be a good president, that he knew what he was doing, and so when it looked like he didn’t know what he was doing and he was struggling, it was really harmful to his brand,” Rosenberg said.
Biden acknowledged in a January news conference that he had been too involved in Capitol Hill deal-making, which had been his forte as a longtime senator and then as vice president under Barack Obama.
“One of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me ... is the public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President Senator,’” he said. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”
The latest legislative accomplishments come after Biden stepped back from congressional negotiations, opting to largely let lawmakers work out the necessary compromises on their own.
“I think the president has been smart,” Warren said. “He has stepped in when that was likely to help and he stepped back if that’s what it took to get our legislation across the finish line.”
The White House said Biden and top administration officials plan to travel around the country this month to boast of successes they say will help the American people. And Rosenberg said those victories, along with an improved economic outlook, has given the Democrats some wind at their back.
“I think Joe Biden can now say, ‘I’ve been a successful president and I’ve left the country better than I found it,’ “ Rosenberg said. “I think up until very recently, our argument about that was not as strong.”