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What the midterms mean for Biden's policies, his White House and 2024

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The 2022 midterm elections were neither a mandate for Republicans nor a rejection of President Biden. Still, the GOP is poised to take control of the House, and that means a divided government is likely coming back to Washington. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports on what the midterms mean for Biden.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The president has made it clear that regardless of the final tally in these elections, he's going to try to work across the aisle.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.

KHALID: Biden suggested this could be easier to do than when he was vice president in 2010. In those midterms, the GOP captured 63 seats in the House. This time, the likely Republican victory in the House will be smaller, although which party controls the Senate is still up in the air. Biden sees these close margins as an opportunity for leverage.

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BIDEN: There's always enough people in the - on the other team, whether it's Democrat or Republican, that the opposite party can make an appeal to and maybe pick them off to get the help.

KHALID: But with a Congress that is so polarized, there may be little room for compromise. Maria Urbina is with the progressive organization Indivisible.

MARIA URBINA: Of course, they should always talk about things that would tangibly improve people's lives and secure their rights, but it's really hard to see where that's real.

KHALID: There may be room for moments of bipartisanship, for example, on military aid to Ukraine. But experts say most of Biden's agenda will likely come to a standstill. They say even the most basic things like funding the government or raising the debt ceiling could become a grind. Though Faiz Shakir, an adviser on the left, sees a messaging upside for Democrats in this potential stalemate.

FAIZ SHAKIR: You get an easier contrast because the president can be on his front foot suggesting things that he knows that Republicans might oppose. But he's going to say this is where we stand and that's where they stand.

KHALID: That conversation has been difficult the past two years when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate but fought amongst themselves. Shakir says Biden also has other paths to accomplish some change.

SHAKIR: The president's going to probably lean harder into foreign policy. That's often what happens when you have split control over government.

KHALID: Biden leaves for a trip tonight where he'll meet China's president, Xi Jinping. It's a high-stakes meeting for issues like trade and defense. Divided government also means the White House can now focus on administering all the money that Congress has already agreed to for infrastructure, climate and manufacturing. But House Republicans intend to investigate Biden on everything, from the Afghanistan withdrawal to the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden. And although investigations might put the White House on the defensive, they could ultimately backfire on Republicans. Brendan Buck is a former top aide to GOP House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. He says there are dangers in overreaching.

BRENDAN BUCK: When a Congress gets kicked out, it's because people just didn't like what the other party was doing. It's not necessarily a validation of the new party. If Republicans find themselves thinking that it was all about them, they're at risk of seeing some backlash themselves. And that's what we saw in 2010 into 2012.

KHALID: That was a lesson learned when Republicans convincingly won the House in 2010, only to see Barack Obama win the presidency again two years later. Yesterday Biden said it is his intention to run for reelection. Polls show many Democrats are half-hearted about a second Biden run. Bill Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, says the midterm results could quell some debate.

BILL GALSTON: This is going to diminish whatever pressure they might have been from within the Democratic Party for President Biden to stand out in favor of a fresh face.

KHALID: But the president's approval ratings remain underwater. Biden says he hopes to make a firm decision on another run by early next year. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.