WASHINGTON — Call it a December surprise: Joe Biden is on a roll.
Approaching the midpoint of his presidency, Biden is racking up an unexpected string of victories at a point when most sitting presidents are long past their honeymoon phase and are confronting a voter backlash.
Biden’s poll numbers are still lackluster, hovering in the low 40s. But his policy, political and diplomatic successes appear to have exceeded even his own staff’s expectations and created a durable foundation for a 2024 re-election bid should he choose to run, some Democrats said.
The latest came Thursday morning, when Biden delivered the stunning news that WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony in a high-profile prisoner swap.
Biden had been hopeful that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be more apt to free Griner once America’s midterm elections were done, a calculation that proved correct. Just two days after the final contest of the 2022 midterm campaign season, a smiling Biden announced to reporters that Griner was out of prison and on her way home as part of an exchange that involved the release of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along,” the president said, standing alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time.”
The announcement capped months of behind-the-scenes negotiations over Griner’s fate after Russian authorities said they found cannabis-infused vape cartridges in her luggage in February. The Olympic gold medalist was tried and convicted on drug charges and had been sentenced to nine years. “I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote in a letter delivered to Biden in July.
The announcement wasn’t without criticism from Republicans — some who suggested that Biden was wrong to trade an arms dealer for a “basketball player.”
And Biden’s diplomatic coup wasn’t complete. Still detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a businessman whom the White House has also been working to free without success. In a statement released Thursday, Whelan’s brother David said that while he was happy for Griner, “our family is still devastated.”
“I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns,” David Whelan said of his brother, who is serving a 16-year sentence on spying charges that the U.S. says are unfounded. (A Biden administration official met personally with Whelan’s sister Elizabeth to discuss Griner’s release, and another official spoke directly about it to Whelan himself on Thursday.)
Uplifting images of the president hugging a grateful Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office punctuate one of the most productive periods in Biden’s term.
Most presidents who’ve reached this point in the term are sorting through the wreckage of a humbling set of midterm elections. Since Franklin Roosevelt first took office in 1933, presidents have lost an average of 28 House and four Senate seats in the midterms. Biden’s party sealed a one-seat Senate majority thanks to Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory Tuesday over Republican challenger Herschel Walker. While Democrats lost the House, they staved off the widespread defeats that past presidents endured. (A “shellacking” is how then-President Barack Obama described his party’s 63-seat loss in the House in 2010.)
Within hours of Griner’s release, the House fulfilled a Biden legislative goal, passing a bill that protects marriage for same-sex couples. In a 2012 interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he was vice president, Biden came out in favor of same-sex marriage, and he is expected to sign the measure into law.
Gas prices, meantime, have dropped to their lowest levels in a year, now averaging $3.33 a gallon for regular. A sunny jobs report covering November showed that the hiring trends are continuing while wages rose more than 5% over the previous year.
Biden isn’t expected to announce his decision on a 2024 run until early next year, though as his fortunes seem to brighten, his main rival has been in the throes of self-sabotage. Former President Donald Trump garnered the wrong sort of attention when he met for dinner at his Mar-a-Lago beach club with the white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has made antisemitic statements.
“What a week for the Biden Admin!” tweeted Jim Messina, who was Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. “Since Tuesday— Warnock wins by nearly 3 points; Brittney Griner home for Christmas; Marriage equality bill on its way to Biden’s desk.”
A year ago, White House officials anticipated being in a far worse position heading into the ‘24 campaign season. The administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan was still fresh in the minds of Americans and both inflation and gas prices were rising.
What’s more, Democrats were fighting with one another and Biden’s agenda had stalled. The White House had lost patience with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, over his refusal to back an ambitious package last year aimed at expanding the social safety net.
White House officials acknowledged the headwinds and worried that the midterm elections would be a repudiation of Biden’s record.
Now, they are heartened by both the Democrats’ midterm performance and legislative victories that included passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to curb climate change and lower prescription drug prices.
Biden is hoping for at least one more breakthrough during Congress’ lame-duck session. Lawmakers are now considering an immigration reform measure that would provide a pathway to citizenship for about 2 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. A sweetener for Republicans would be billions in new spending meant to improve border security.
“When I look at what the Biden White House has done, I think experience and patience really paid off,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who served as White House communications director during the Obama administration. “They did everything they could to put Democrats in the strongest possible position in the midterms. And it broke their way.”
Massive pieces of legislation are a way historians measure a presidency, but for voters, the human story of a 32-year-old woman returning home from a Russian penal colony may be more compelling proof of a White House’s labors.
Griner was transferred to Moscow about two days ago and, from there, left for an airport in the United Arab Emirates. She arrived Thursday morning, Eastern time, and got a special welcome.
Biden spoke to Griner from the Oval Office as she was on the tarmac, waiting to fly to San Antonio for a medical check. She was ebullient about her freedom, a senior Biden administration official said.
“It’s Joe Biden,” the president told her. “Welcome home!”
CORRECTION (Dec. 8, 2022, 6:51 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of the Georgia senator who won a runoff election Tuesday. He is Raphael Warnock, not Rafael.