Asset or liability? Biden's momentum hasn't led to new invitations on midterm campaign trail

  • Biden has trips to three Senate battlegrounds – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio – this week.
  • The president's approval ratings have increased. But it hasn't led to invites on the campaign trail.
  • Biden's travel blitz comes after he warned "MAGA forces" threaten democracy in a speech last week.

WASHINGTON — During a trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. last week, President Joe Biden lavished praise on Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, calling him "a hell of a guy" and "a powerful voice for working people."

"He's going to make a great United States senator," Biden said. 

But Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor, was not in attendance. The campaign said a pre-scheduled fundraiser forced Fetterman to miss the White House event on public safety. 

Biden is a full-contact campaigner, known for hugging supporters, telling stories about life in Scranton, Pa., and giving fiery speeches about the little guy. But even as his once-floundering approval ratings improve, it's unclear how often the president will be asked to join Democratic candidates in key states and congressional districts.

"If this were a couple of months ago, I think most Democratic candidates in a lot of these swing states would have been loath to be seen with him," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "Now, he's not necessarily a huge asset for a lot of these campaigns, but he's also not a drag on the ticket."

Less than 70 days before the midterms, Biden is hitting the road with his first traveling blitz of the campaign season. This week, his schedule will collide with the itineraries of three Democratic Senate candidates in crucial races, testing whether they view him as a liability or strength to their campaigns. 

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President Joe Biden speaks on his Safer America Plan at the Marts Center on August 30, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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Visits to WI, PA on tap for Labor Day

On Monday, Biden will visit Pittsburgh and Milwaukee for Labor Day events, crossing paths with Fetterman and perhaps Wisconsin Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes, the state's lieutenant governor. Biden will travel Friday to Licking County, Ohio. for the groundbreaking of an Intel semiconductor manufacturing plant. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio's Democratic Senate nominee, confirmed he will also be there as well.

How warmly they welcome the president remains to be seen. 

The Barnes campaign did not say whether Barnes – also traveling to Racine and Madison, Wisc., the same day – will campaign alongside the president. While Fetterman plans to meet with Biden in Pittsburgh, the campaign raised a disagreement with the president in advance of his visit, saying he looks forward to talk to Biden "about the need to finally decriminalize marijuana."

"I don't think any of these candidates are going to be seen really openly embracing Biden, but I think they will absolutely be at some of these joint events," Cohen said. He added that doesn't mean they will invite the president back to hit the campaign trail.

Democratic Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) is welcomed on stage during a rally at the Bayfront Convention Center on August 12, 2022 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The president's travels come after Biden delivered a prime-time speech Thursday warning that former President Donald Trump and "MAGA forces" threaten U.S. democracy and urging Americans to "vote, vote vote."

Fetterman and Barnes are ahead in their races against Mehmet Oz and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., respectively, according to most polling. And even Ryan – who faces an uphill race in increasingly red Ohio – is running neck-and-neck against Republican J.D. Vance. Some polls have Ryan ahead as Democrats look to defy what were initially gloomy prospects about their Senate prospects.

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Ryan, who has campaigned as a centrist Democrat and opposes Biden's recent move to cancel student loan debt, did not attend White House events this year in Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Intel groundbreaking isn't considered a political event, and there are no Biden-Ryan rallies in the works.

"He does not have any plans to invite the president to campaign here," Ryan campaign spokeswoman Izzy Levy said. 

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to supporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete) ORG XMIT: OHJL116

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden "loves to go out there and meet with the American people" when asked how often the president expects to campaign for midterm candidates. "He wants to be out there and travel as much as possible."

She did not address Ryan's decision not to invite the president to Ohio.

Biden rising approval ratings lessens harm to Democratic candidates

Biden is experiencing a bounce in approval ratings, reversing numbers that once dipped below 40% after a series of legislative wins in Congress and declining gas prices, A Gallup poll found 44% of Americans approve of Biden's job performance, marking his highest mark in one year. A new CBS News poll has Biden's approval rating at 45%. And a Quinnipiac University poll found Biden's approval rating jumped 9 points from last month to 40%.

More:Biden's student debt forgiveness is a potential midterm boon for Democrats — and a major gamble

Still, Biden's job performance is viewed negatively by a majority of Americans, according to the same polls.

"Right now, the reality is his job disapproval is higher than his approval," said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston. Still, he called Biden's speech last week about democracy a "possible springboard" for his visits to Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, noting that the Republican Senate candidates in each are aligned strongly with Trump.

In his remarks delivered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Biden warned that "equality and democracy are under assault," singling out Trump by name and his supporters who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election and refuse to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

"It's kind of a reinforcement of the theme that he laid out," Paleologos said of the president's upcoming visits to the trio of Rust Belt states.

Mandela Barnes speaks to supporters  at The Cooperage after the Democratic Senate primary in Milwaukee, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022. (Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP) ORG XMIT: WIMIL273

Recent victories embolden Democrats

Democrats, who once seemed poised for a potentially disastrous midterm election, have found new reason for optimism following multiple special-election congressional victories.

There's evidence that Democrats are energized by the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. And Biden and Democrats passed major legislation in recent weeks, culminating with the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes historic funding for climate and granting Medicare the authority to negotiate prescription drug prices.

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"Biden and his accomplishments are assets, and I think part of what Dems are going to run on is what he's been able to achieve," said Cedric Richmond, a senior advisor for the Democratic National Committee and former Biden aide in the White House. "If the president or the vice president came to my area, I would stand with them, because you're standing with their accomplishments."

Still, Richmond said candidates have to carry out the campaign activities required in their states and districts. 

"If those things conflict with a visit on the national level, then that's going to happen sometimes."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison.