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With better-than-expected midterms, Biden once again defies the odds

President Biden gestures to the crowd as he leaves after speaking at a political event at the Howard Theatre in Washington on Thursday.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden leaned back in his chair and declared with typical bravado, “I ain’t dead. And I’m not going to die.”

He was talking politically not clinically as he met with The New York Times editorial board in late 2019, not long before he was walloped in the first two Democratic presidential nominating contests. Once again in his long career, Biden was being counted out, just as he was heading into Tuesday’s midterm elections when Democrats were expected to get swamped by a Republican red wave that swelled with his low approval ratings and the rocky economy his foes blamed him for.

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The video clip from his primary endorsement interview with the Times — they didn’t back him, of course — was shared on social media Wednesday by the White House digital strategy director and circulated among Biden supporters after Democrats defied history.

The red wave never reached the shore. Democrats held control of the Senate but still could narrowly lose the House majority. Even so, when all the votes are counted, Biden still will have had the best first-term midterm performance in 20 years, and very possibly the best for a Democrat since John F. Kennedy.

“Biden’s easy to underestimate,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “He doesn’t have the legal brilliance of Barack Obama. He doesn’t have the folksy pragmatism of Bill Clinton. But he’s always in the mix, and only a fool would count him out.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Biden was dismissed after a disastrously short 2008 presidential campaign, only to emerge as an unusually influential vice president under Obama. He lost his frontrunner status in the 2020 Democratic primaries when his campaign stumbled badly in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he recovered to sweep to the nomination and then win the presidency. And after his Build Back Better legislative agenda seemed to have crashed and burned, Biden managed to rescue key parts of it on climate and health care in the cobbled-together and rebranded Inflation Reduction Act that squeaked through Congress this summer.

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Still, conventional wisdom said Biden would be a major drag on Democratic candidates, some of whom didn’t even want him campaigning for them. Historical trends — the president’s party almost always suffers significant midterm losses during his first term — and near four-decade high inflation pointed to a bad night for Democrats. The anticipated wipeout — Obama called his loss of 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010 a “shellacking” — was causing some Democrats to question if the 79-year-old Biden, already the oldest president ever, should run for reelection.

But Biden’s ability to navigate a narrowly divided Congress gave Democrats tangible legislative accomplishments to run on, including billions of federal dollars to fix crumbling roads and bridges in the bipartisan infrastructure law as well as money-saving measures like a cap on out-of-pocket insulin costs for Medicare recipients in the Inflation Reduction Act. And his political instincts, honed over five decades, settled on a home-stretch message zeroing in on threats from Republicans to Social Security, Medicare, and democracy itself that seemed to resonate with voters even as he made limited appearances on the campaign trail.

Biden and the Democrats also were helped by a generous amount of what he might call his Irish luck. The Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v Wade’s guarantee of federal abortion rights motivated women and young people to go to the polls and vote for Democrats. And former president Donald Trump backed several controversial Republican candidates in congressional as well as gubernatorial races — where Democrats also exceeded expectations — who ended up losing.

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“Donald Trump did not do his party any favors, but President Biden deserves huge credit for the Democrats’ strong performance in the midterms,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. “When Biden was elected, there were plenty of people telling him to go slow and go small, but he didn’t.”

Now Biden’s looking less like the anchor the Democrats had feared would drag them down and more like a candidate who could win again in 2024. He hasn’t committed to running, but said in his post-election news conference Wednesday that his “intention” is to do so.

He also couldn’t resist poking his critics.

“While the press and the pundits are predicting a giant red wave, it didn’t happen,” he said. “And I know you were somewhat miffed by my obsessant optimism, but I felt good during the whole process. I thought we were going to do fine.”

Biden had been “cautiously optimistic” heading into the midterms based on what he was hearing traveling around the country, said Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, who is close to him. Walsh felt it, too, as he campaigned for candidates like Seth Magaziner, a Democrat who won an open Rhode Island House seat that was in danger of flipping to the Republicans.

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“If you follow social media and the media ... everything was like doom and gloom is coming. But being on the ground, you didn’t feel the doom and gloom,” Walsh said. “I think the president felt that his accomplishments ... and their accomplishments in Congress were good, steady, strong accomplishments moving our country forward.”

Brinkley said Biden showed “cool-headedness” in continuing to pursue his legislative agenda and seeking common ground with reluctant Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who were holding up things in the 50-50 Senate.

“It would be a different midterm if Biden didn’t get that legislative agenda passed,” Brinkley said. “The Inflation Reduction Act was the goose that laid the golden egg in the midterms.”

Biden gets some of the credit for those legislative accomplishments, which involved working with a handful of willing Republicans and balancing the complicated politics of Democrats ranging from progressives to centrists, said Representative Jake Auchincloss, a Newton Democrat.

“We all had a number of things that we could pick and choose to go back to our districts and run campaigns authentic to ourselves and to our districts that says to voters, ‘Hey, we’re delivering for you,’” he said. “And that’s because Joe Biden has a big tent approach to policy and politics.”

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But Republican strategist John Feehery downplayed the effect of the legislative accomplishments and Biden himself on the midterm results.

“Biden played almost no role in this election, which is amazing,” Feehery said, noting his low profile on the campaign trail. “What probably shifted the election more than anything was Trump making himself the center of the conversation, which did enough to stop the Republican wave.”

Many Republicans have been lamenting Trump’s effect on what history said should have been a strong midterm performance for the party. So even if you agree with Feehery that Biden was a non-factor in the midterms, he wasn’t a negative factor. And having so much focus on Trump helped Biden, who despite his low approval ratings is still a likable political figure, Brinkley said.

“He’s an ideal foil for Trump because Biden represents sort of old-fashioned democratic values and Trump is a disruptor of civic norms,” Brinkley said. “We’re seeing a shrinking of Trump’s box office appeal, and while Biden’s appeal hasn’t gone up ... it’s like a worn-out pair of slippers, they’re comfortable enough.”

Still, if Democrats lose the House, Biden would likely be done achieving any major legislative accomplishments. He also would be certain to face multiple investigations by Republican-controlled House committees that could further damage his approval rating heading toward 2024.

But basking in the Democrats’ midterm performance, Biden didn’t seem worried on Wednesday. Asked what his message was to the two-thirds of voters who said in exit polls they didn’t want him to run for reelection, he had two words for his doubters that echoed his 2019 pronouncement about his political lifespan: “Watch me.”

Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.