With the holidays upon us and the turn of the calendar looming, it’s time for the 2022 edition of my top ten list of politicians who had the best and worst year.
I first undertook this exercise back in December 2021, and found it a fruitful way to chart the course of a year in our political life. Far too often our focus on the present obfuscates the larger trends and lessons we can uncover when we take a fuller view of events.
As a matter of fact, there’s no better example of this phenomenon than the first two entries on this list.
Worst – Joe Biden (First Six Months)
I swear I didn’t plan it this way. Last year, I included Joe Biden on the best list for his first six months of 2021, and the worst list for his last six months of 2021. It just so happens that in 2022, Biden pulled off the reverse.
The President began the year facing a brutal trio of resurgent COVID, a stalled domestic agenda and skyrocketing inflation – and while COVID rates soon faded, the other two problems only seemed to grow worse.
Adding fuel to the fire was Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, which only further unsettled the world economy and the inflation rate rose to over 9% in July. By that time, President Biden’s approval rating was sinking below 38% and all indications suggested a red wave was set to sweep the nation in the November midterms.
Best – Joe Biden (Last Six Months)
Paradoxically, Biden’s luck would turn on a major defeat, when on June 24th the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Thanks to that controversial decision, the nation’s attention shifted from the Chief Executive to the highest court in the land.
A month later, President Biden caught another considerable break when Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin shocked the political world by announcing a deal on an energy and health-care bill. The subsequent Inflation Reduction Act resuscitated Biden’s dormant domestic agenda and finally prompted some excitement from disaffected Democrats.
By Labor Day, Pres. Biden’s approval rating was over 42% while Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms grew as well. This upward swing culminated in a surprisingly strong midterm performance, which included gaining a seat in the Senate, adding two net Governorships and losing only nine House seats – historically one of the strongest showings for a first term President.
Worst – Donald Trump
Conversely, 2022 was a tough time for Biden’s predecessor, and it only got worse as the year wore on. In the spring, for instance, Trump’s candidates in the Republican primaries were mostly successful; although he did suffer a high-profile defeat when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp won re-nomination despite his fierce opposition.
In a parallel to his successor, Trump’s luck also began to turn during the summer, as the widely watched January 6th hearings built a public case for Trump’s prosecution. Certainly Attorney General Merrick thought so, as the Justice Department soon opened up an investigation into Trump’s conduct leading up to, and on, that day.
Of course, that wasn’t the only federal case to be launched against Trump last summer, as an August 8th FBI search of Mar-A-Lago revealed that Trump possessed hundreds of classified documents which he was refusing to return. The move was part of yet another DOJ investigation of Trump, which combined with the Fulton County DA’s review of Trump’s 2020 election interference, makes three total criminal inquiries into Trump as we enter 2023.
Finally, there was the GOP’s disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms, which was almost universally blamed on Trump. That feeling apparently even extends to Republican primary voters, since several early 2024 surveys have Ron DeSantis vaulting over Donald Trump for the first time.
Best – Ron DeSantis
Speaking of which, it was undoubtedly a banner year for the Florida Governor. Aside from Trump, no one’s attracted more attention from the mainstream and conservative media than Ron DeSantis. On top of that, his culture war tactics are winning him support among both hardcore Trump supporters and those GOP Trump skeptics on the look out to replace the party’s polarizing standard bearer.
The 2022 midterm results only hypercharged DeSantis’ rise as the red wave in Florida contrasted with the red trickle nationwide. So as Trump threw his first public shots at DeSantis, the Governor began to pass the former President in a bunch of post-midterm polls. While it’s ultimately unclear whether DeSantis will fulfill these lofty expectations, for now he’s absolutely one of 2022’s biggest winners.
Worst – Supreme Court
This is the only entry on this list that’s being awarded not to a single person, but rather nine people; though perhaps it should just be five people. As you’ve no doubt heard, last June a bare majority of the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs V. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that women did not have a Constitutional right to an abortion. The decision effectively overturned Roe and Casey, therefore shifting the issue to the states and leading 18 states to ban the procedure.
Suffice to say, this outcome was not popular. Not only did a solid majority of Americans disagree with the Court’s ruling, but the decision actually caused support for abortion to rise – with exit polls showing that abortion was the second-most important issue to voters in the midterms. Given how close the battle for control of the Senate was, it really wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the Court’s five most conservative judges cost the GOP a majority in the upper chamber.
To top it all off, trust in the Supreme Court has fallen to an all-time low, with a plurality believing that the Court is too conservative.
Best – Gretchen Whitmer
Since most of the 2022 post-mortems related to how the midterms would affect the next presidential race, and Whitmer’s path to the White House is currently blocked by Biden (and arguably Harris), the Michigan Governor’s 2022 success was somewhat overlooked.
Whitmer not only secured a double-digit win in a closely contested swing state, but also led the ticket that managed to install a Democratic majority in the State House and Senate for the first time in a generation. With the legislature now on her side, Gov. Whitmer is poised to rack up a series of legislative victories over the next few years.
Worst – Rick Scott
When it comes to White House dreams, however, few are as transparently ambitious as Florida Senator Rick Scott. Sen. Scott jumped at the chance to run the National Republican Senate Committee in 2022 as the party sought to retake the majority. The Floridian must’ve imagined that such a feat would land him at the top of the list of 2024 hopefuls.
The Senator then proceeded to make a complete mess of things. First, he released his own plan full of unpopular proposals, including one that called on all federal spending programs to be subject to five year renewals. The Biden White House wasted no time branding this as a lethal threat to Social Security and Medicare, while the President joyously knocked Scott’s plan during every campaign stop.
All the while, Scott’s ineffective and money-wasting tenure atop the NRSC were driving Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans crazy. Nor could the Senator accept defeat after the GOP lost a seat in the midterms, as he instead tried to implement a pre-conceived plan to topple McConnell as the party’s Senate leader. Scott’s effort easily failed, and all the while another Floridian, Gov. Ron DeSantis, was stealing his 2024 dreams.
Best – Jim Jordan
At the time of this writing, it’s still unclear whether Rep. Kevin McCarthy will be able to secure enough votes to become the next Speaker of the House. Such a situation makes it difficult to discern just who the leaders of the new Republican House majority will be.
Yet one Congressman is perfectly poised to be the caucus’ most visible and powerful figure, along with a key say in choosing the next Speaker. Jim Jordan, after all, is a founding member of the influential Freedom Caucus and set to be the next Chair of the Judiciary Committee.
From his perch, Jordan will lead the various investigations into the Biden Administration that the GOP caucus has promised. As a result, the already immensely polarizing Jordan is set to be the face of the Republican House majority for the next two years.
Worst – Sean Patrick Maloney
2022 was the ultimate nightmare year for the Congressman and DCCC Chair from New York. Rep. Maloney’s plans were turned upside down in May when a court-drawn map unfavorable to Democrats was instituted. That’s not to say Maloney was caught flat-footed, in fact, within a half hour he announced he was jumping to a new district.
This decision, which left colleague Mondaire Jones stranded without a district of his own, rankled Democrats both in the Empire State and nationwide. How, many wondered, could the DCCC Chair focus on protecting the Democrats’ House majority and his own re-election at the same time? Turns out he couldn’t, as Maloney lost both the majority and his own contest.
The irony, of course, is that outside of New York, House Democrats actually did quite well in the 2022 midterms. Although Rep. Maloney wasn’t exactly humble in defeat, suggesting that Gov. Kathy Hochul was a drag at the top of the ticket and taking shots at Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Altogether, it’s clear that no Democrat had a worse 2022 than Sean Patrick Maloney.
Best – Hakeem Jeffries
As always in politics, though, one man’s downfall is another man’s opportunity. The House Democrats may’ve lost the majority, but that defeat prompted their aging leadership trio of Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn to finally step aside for a new generation. New York’s Hakeem Jeffries will lead the relatively youthful new Democratic trinity in the House, alongside Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California.
The 52 year-old Congressman is just the kind of young blood desperately needed in the Democratic Party right now. Jeffries is also starting off strong, quietly neutralizing all possible challengers and securing the position through a unanimous vote. While it remains to be seen just how effective Jeffries will ultimately be at leading the Democratic House caucus and guiding them back to the majority, for 2022 he’s a clear winner.