8 min read

The Biden-Powell split screen

As President Biden warns voters about democracy, Fed chair Jerome Powell says a recession may be looming. Voters seem to care more about the latter.
The Biden-Powell split screen

Good morning! It’s Thursday, November 3, 2022. The midterm elections are 5 days away. The 2024 elections are 733 days away.

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Biden, Powell offer separate warnings. Which one will voters care about?

For the second time in three months, President Biden stepped in front of television cameras Wednesday night and delivered a stark warning to American voters.

“We must, in this moment, dig deep within ourselves and recognize that we can’t take democracy for granted any longer,” he declared.

Biden pinned the threats facing democracy squarely on “the extreme MAGA element of the Republican Party” — a minority in the GOP, he said, but its “driving force” — who are “trying to succeed where they failed in 2020, to suppress the right of voters and subvert the electoral system itself.”

“Instead of waiting until an election is over, they’re staring well before it,” he added, citing instances of political violence like the recent attack on Paul Pelosi and rhetoric from the nearly 300 Republicans seeking office who have denied or questioned the 2020 election results.

“In our bones, we know democracy is at risk,” Biden concluded.

Hours earlier, another powerful Washington figure delivered a speech across town that probably drew fewer eyeballs — but which carried a message that could be ultimately more influential in next week’s midterm outcome.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell announced the central bank’s fourth consecutive 0.75-percentage-points hike to interest rates, bringing the federal funds rate — the rate at which banks lend to each other, which influences interest rates throughout the economy — to its highest level in 15 years.

Powell said that the Fed might soon begin raising interest rates in less dramatic increments, but that more rate hikes will still be needed in order to have their desired effect of bringing down economic demand and thus inflation.

“It’s very premature, in my view, to think we are talking about pausing our rate hikes,” Powell added, pushing back on the congressional Democrats who have called on him to do so. “We have a ways to go.”

Powell also acknowledged the growing risk that the Fed might bring demand so much that it sparks a recession. He said the odds of sticking a “soft landing” — where inflation is tamed but a recession is avoided — have “narrowed,” adding: “No one knows if there’s going to be a recession or not, and if so how bad it would be.”

Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell and President Biden. (Photos by Cameron Smith / White House)

Polls show voters share Biden’s concerns about democracy and Powell’s concerns about inflation and a possible recession — but it’s the latter that appears to be driving their vote more.

Take this new poll from CNN: 51% of likely voters say the economy will be the key issue determining their vote for Congress this year. Abortion was the second-highest-rated issue, selected by 15% of likely voters; Biden’s topic of choice on Wednesday — voting rights and election integrity — clocked in at 9% of likely voters, third place.

55% of Americans added that they are dissatisfied with their personal finances and 75% of Americans view the economy as being in a state of recession. Crucially, that majority of likely voters who rank the economy as their top issue are also heavily breaking in favor of Republicans, by a 71%-26% margin.

In the abstract, polls also show that voters in both parties — for the reasons Biden gave, and for opposite ones — fear for democracy. But put in contention with how much they care about the economy, pocketbook issues tend to win out. Voters may be worried about the state of democracy in the long term, but the cost of living right now tends to be more pressing on their minds.

That’s why some Democrats wish Biden would have spent his time on Wednesday responding to Powell — speaking to fears about a recession and offering a plan to combat inflation — rather than rehashing his warning about democracy.

“The truth is, Democrats have done a poor job of communicating our approach to the economy,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) recently told the New York Times. “I have no idea if I’m going to win my election — it’s going to be a nail biter. But if you can’t speak directly to people’s pocketbook and talk about our vision for the economy, you’re just having half a conversation.”

Similar grumblings are emerging from across the Democratic Party spectrum, from moderates like Slotkin as well as progressives. “I think he’s missing the opportunity to talk about the real threat to democracy, which is people’s deteriorating standard of living,” Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the Bernie Sanders-linked group Our Revolution, told Semafor after Biden’s speech.

“At the end of the day, the No. 1 thing that people are concerned about is whether they can put food on the table, whether they can keep a roof over their heads.”

Republicans dinged Biden for his speech’s focus as well:

Biden did briefly mention other issues, but only in the context of urging Americans to focus on democracy instead.

“I know there’s a lot at stake in these midterm elections, from our economy, to the safety of our streets, to our personal freedoms, to the future of health care and Social Security, Medicare,” Biden acknowledged. “It’s all important.”

“But there’s something else at stake, democracy itself,” he continued, adding: “Democracy is on the ballot this year.”

We’ll know next week if voters were convinced.

🚨 What else you should know

➞ North Korea is continuing its barrage of missiles, firing three, including testing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), this morning. The ICBM launch, which the White House called a “flagrant violation” of international law, comes after North Korea fired 23 missiles into the sea on Wednesday, the most it ever has in a single day.

AP: “Ethiopian government and Tigray agree to end fighting after 2 years”

NYT: “Justice Dept. Offers Immunity to Trump Aide for Testimony in Documents Case”

Politico: “Trump lawyers saw Justice Thomas as ‘only chance’ to stop 2020 election certification”

Justice Clarence Thomas. (Photo by Preston Keres / USDA)

🤔 Ask Gabe: Initiatives, referenda, oh my!

Marlene from Palo Alto writes: “As a California voter, filling out my ballot has become more and more like completing a take-home exam. Perhaps it would help to know the legal difference between types of ballot measures. Can you help?”

This is a great question! There are two main kinds of ballot measures (also known as “propositions”) that you might see on your ballot:

  • An initiative allows citizens to vote on instituting a new law or constitutional amendment in their state. This might be done through “direct initiatives,” which are placed on the ballot after receiving a certain number of petition signatures, or “indirect initiatives,” which must be approved for the ballot by state legislators and reach the petition threshold.
  • A referendum asks voters whether they want to repeal a law put into place by the state legislature. These are always placed on the ballot by citizen petition.

Per the Initiative & Referendum Institute (a helpful resource on this topic, as you would imagine!), 18 states allow initiatives (direct or indirect) for constitutional amendments, 21 states allow initiatives for statutes, and 24 states allow referenda.

By the way: When I wrote about ballot measures last week, I meant to include a list of the ballot measures up for consideration in each state next year, in case you want to research yours ahead of time. Here’s the full list, via Ballotpedia:

2022 ballot measures
Ballotpedia: The Encyclopedia of American Politics

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at the White House (9 am), deliver remarks on student debt relief in Albuquerque (3:45 pm), hold a rally for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) in Albuquerque (5:45 pm), and hold a campaign event for Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) in San Diego (6:30 pm).

Vice President Harris will deliver remarks at a campaign event with Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) at Barnard College in New York City (5:50 pm). Hochul’s rival, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), has been gaining on her in the polls in recent days.

Second Gentleman Emhoff will participate in a White House meeting with rural community leaders (3 pm).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to Albuquerque.

Legislative Branch

The Senate (10:30 am) and House (12 pm) will both convene for brief pro forma sessions. No legislative business will be conducted; such sessions are only held as formalities to fulfill Congress’ constitutional obligation of meeting every three days. Generally, only one or a few members attend.

Neither chamber is scheduled to meet in full again until November 14.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court has nothing on its docket today.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s something fun. Back in July, you may have seen the viral design by a 14-year-old that drew nationwide attention to a New York county’s online contest to remake its “I Voted” sticker. Here’s what I’m talking about, just in case you didn’t see it:

As you can see, the 14-year-old’s design won in a landslide. And in case you thought the adults would end up picking one of the more, um, conventional choices — the Ulster County Board of Elections began handing out stickers with Hudson Rowan’s design on them to early voters this week. (An elections board can’t exactly be ignoring the democratically chosen winner of an election, after all!)

And that’s not all. Rowan was also recently awarded the “Pride of Ulster County Award” for drawing so much attention (200,000+ votes!) to the election board’s contest — and he’s even opened up an online shop to sell clothes with the design on them ($40 for a hoodie, $38 for a bucket hat).

An Ulster County election official also made the design into a Halloween costume this week:

“The world is a crazy place, with everything going on, and the sticker has that same feel,” Rowan said, explaining why he felt the design resonated with so many people. (In interviews, he’s explained that he made it under protest after his mom made him enter the contest). You’re not wrong, Hudson.

That’s all for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

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Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe