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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Biden May Bounce Back Like Clinton and Obama Did

Surveying the gloom over Joe Biden’s current popularity, I offered some historical perspective at New York:

What do pessimists think about the trajectory of Joe Biden’s presidency? It’s not good, according to the Atlantic’s David Frum:

“Democracy is genuinely on the ballot in 2022 and 2024, as it was in 2016, 2018, and 2020. But this time, so too are prices, borders, and crime. If the Biden administration cannot deliver better on those issues than it has so far done, Trump and his enablers will be just as happy to scoop power by default as to grab it by stealth or force.”

That’s right: NeverTrumper Frum thinks conditions in the country could be so terrible by 2024 that Trump won’t even have to cheat or stage a coup to regain power. But while we cannot really know what course events may take between now and 2024, we do know the historical record, which suggests that presidents in Biden’s situation tend to get reelected, even if they look eminently beatable at some point during their first terms.

Since World War II, nine elected presidents have sought a second full term. Six of them (Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama) were reelected, the first three by landslides and the fourth by a near-landslide. Of the three losers, one, George H.W. Bush, had a “party fatigue” problem; his party had held the White House for 12 years when he ran for reelection. That leaves two presidents who pretty much earned defeat on their own: Carter and Trump. That’s probably unfair to Jimmy Carter, since he inherited a horrific domestic economic situation that had been largely cooked up by Nixon with a big assist from OPEC. He also took office in the midst of a giant ideological realignment that cut his southern regional base right out from under him. And even Trump, who worked very hard at alienating voters, had the back luck to be in office when COVID-19 struck, not that he helped matters much.

The point is that the power of incumbency should never be minimized. Five of the six reelection winners (all but George W. Bush in the highly anomalous 2002 midterms) lost ground in their first midterm election. Two lost calamitously: Democrats lost 52 House seats in Clinton’s first midterm in 1994 and 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm in 2010. For that matter, Donald Trump lost 40 House seats in 2018, yet very nearly won reelection.

Yes, Biden’s job approval rating has been steadily sagging during the last three months and is now (per Gallup) at 43 percent. Using Gallup as well, Obama’s job approval rating hit 40 percent in August of 2011, and bumped along in the low 40s until it began to climb over 50 percent just prior to his reelection. Similarly, Bill Clinton’s rating fell all the way to 37 percent in mid-1993; was at 39 percent in August of 1994; and was only at 42 percent in early 1996. By the time he faced voters in November of that year his job approval was well over 50 percent. And yes, Trump secured some of the highest job approval ratings of his presidency during the run up to the 2020 elections, when he outperformed expectations.

Frum suggests Trump might cakewalk to a 2024 restoration if Biden doesn’t turn a lot of things around. But in reality, there is nothing that might give Uncle Joe more abiding hope of his own comeback than a comeback by his divisive predecessor, a totally known quantity with a demonstrated low ceiling on his support. Three times major parties have renominated a losing presidential candidate in the next cycle; on all three occasions these were rematches: Grover Cleveland (versus Benjamin Harrison) in 1892; William Jennings Bryan (versus William McKinley) in 1900; and Adlai Stevenson (versus Eisenhower) in 1956. Cleveland famously won. Bryan and Stevenson lost ground.

Does Trump resemble the stolid Cleveland in any significant way? Not really. He managed to come close to reelection by polarizing the country to the breaking point. Since then he has done absolutely nothing to appeal to any voters who failed to support him in 2020, and he’s the least likely person in America to change his ways.

Joe Biden will need both skill and luck to dispel the malaise currently afflicting his presidency. But based on what other presidents have done, and given his likely 2024 opponent, his reelection remains a solid — if hardly sure — bet.

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