Ronald Reagan did it. So did Bill Clinton. Barack Obama did as well.
Can Joe Biden do it too?
After a difficult first two years in the White House, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama each rebuilt enough public support to win a second term—not long after many observers had labeled them fatally damaged by their early setbacks.
Although the specific environment and challenges confronting those three presidents diverged in many ways, the trajectory of each man’s first term followed the same broad arc. Each was elected at a moment of great unease about the country’s direction, particularly in terms of the economy. Each saw his approval rating tumble over his first two years, as voters concluded that conditions were not improving as fast as they had expected, or at least hoped. For all three, that decline culminated in big losses during their first midterm election (especially for Clinton and Obama). But in the second half of each man’s first term, public attitudes about the country’s direction improved, lifting the president’s approval rating. Just two years after their midterm reversals, all three won reelection, Clinton and Obama by solid margins and Reagan by a historic 49-state landslide.
Biden is certainly following the downward slope of this curve: With COVID-19 persisting, inflation flaring, and his legislative agenda stalling, the share of Americans who say the country is moving in the wrong direction has sharply increased since the spring. (Recent polls by both Gallup and NBC News have found that about three-fourths of Americans are dissatisfied with conditions in the country.) In hydraulic fashion, as that “wrong track” number has increased, Biden’s job-approval rating has skidded down to near 40 percent—just like Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and Obama’s did.
For political strategists in both parties, the key question is what will happen if inflation and the pandemic recede and attitudes about the country’s direction eventually improve, as they did under those three predecessors. At that point, could Biden rebuild his support? Or have enough voters permanently lost faith in the president that he will struggle to recover even if external conditions do?
No shortage of liberal and centrist commentators and analysts (including some in these pages) have raised alarms that Biden already may be too weakened to prevent Donald Trump or another Republican from reclaiming the White House in 2024. Few would argue that Biden can match Reagan, Clinton, or Obama as a political communicator or charismatic public presence. If Biden is reelected, on Election Day, he would be about 32 years older than Clinton and 31 years older than Obama when they were reelected. Biden would even be more than eight years older than Reagan at the time of his reelection.
Yet most Democratic strategists, with an eye on this recent history, believe that deeming Biden permanently damaged is wildly premature. “If you look at the horizon of a four-year term, it’s not too late,” Doug Sosnik, who served as a senior White House political adviser to Clinton, told me.
John Anzalone, one of Biden’s lead campaign pollsters, not surprisingly agrees. “I think this is very much a case of when it rains, you get wet,” he told me. “Reagan, Clinton, and Obama went through this dynamic and then improved when conditions improved, and there is every reason to believe that would happen with Biden.”
Republicans, by contrast, are cautiously optimistic that voters have soured on Biden in ways that will make it difficult for him to revive even if Americans grow more positive about underlying conditions in the country. The veteran Republican pollster Bill McInturff believes that Biden has seeded doubts about his strength and competence that will limit his support even if conditions improve (a conclusion even some Democrats privately see evidence for as well). McInturff points to results from the most recent NBC national poll, which his firm, Public Opinion Strategies, conducted with a Democratic partner, Hart Research Associates.
“Half the country provides a negative rating on President Biden’s leadership qualities, being competent, and ‘having the necessary mental and physical health to be president,’” McInturff told me in an email. “Any president would have a hard time getting a lift from an improving right direction rating when burdened by these very weak scores.”
Republicans and Democrats may disagree on whether improving attitudes about the country’s direction would be sufficient to also improve Biden’s standing. But they agree that they’re a necessary precondition to any potential recovery. So long as most Americans say they are dissatisfied with current conditions, history shows that Biden is unlikely to regain much support, no matter what else he does, from passing more legislation to strengthening his communications strategy.
Jimmy Carter’s experience underscores that truth. Amid a cascading series of challenges at home and abroad (from inflation to gas shortages to the Iranian hostage crisis), pessimism about the country’s direction spiked during his presidency and remained high throughout his term. With that discontent pushing Carter’s approval rating below 40 percent in Gallup surveys, he was routed by Reagan in the 1980 election.
George H. W. Bush offers another proof point. When the American-led coalition raced to victory in the first Iraq War, early in 1991, Bush’s approval rating in Gallup polling soared to about 90 percent as roughly two-thirds of Americans described themselves as satisfied with conditions in the United States. But amid an economic downturn, the share of satisfied Americans fell to just one-fourth by the fall of 1992; Bush’s approval rating collapsed and Clinton beat him decisively in the election that November.
If Carter and Bush show how difficult it is for an incumbent president to escape the undertow of pessimism about the country’s direction, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama show how much a president can benefit from even a modestly rising tide of optimism. When each man initially took office, the share of Americans who described themselves as dissatisfied with “the way things are going in the United States” stood at two-thirds or more in Gallup polling (reaching a stunning height of 85 percent when Obama entered the White House following the 2008 financial crash).
In each case, optimism about the country’s direction rallied during the new president’s first months. But then, with the economy still unsettled, the rally stalled and optimism declined from its postinaugural highs. By the time of their first midterm election, big majorities again said they were dissatisfied with the country’s direction (more than 70 percent for Reagan and Obama and roughly two-thirds for Clinton) and their job-approval ratings tumbled, falling to well below majority support in each case. Each man took his party down with him to substantial losses in that first midterm (with Obama suffering the worst midterm for either party since 1938).
For all three, the script flipped after that. The specifics of their external conditions varied: Reagan presided over a full-scale economic boom that sent GDP, job growth, and consumer confidence soaring from 1982 to 1984, while Clinton and Obama benefited from less spectacular growth that generated more modest increases in economic confidence. But in each instance, the share of Americans who said they were satisfied with the country’s direction increased by at least double digits from the time of the president’s midterm losses to the fall of his reelection campaign. And as that number rose, so did his approval rating—powering a second-term victory.
Sosnik said the key to each win was not so much the absolute level of conditions during the reelection campaign, but the trend line. Unemployment, for instance, was still at more than 7 percent when both Reagan and Obama won reelection, but they benefited because it was dropping from a previous high of 10.8 percent under Reagan and 10 percent under Obama. “You want high numbers and positive trend lines, but what’s most important of those two things are the trend lines,” he said. Sosnik added that history shows the pivotal time frame for presidents demonstrating progress is from roughly the fall of their third year through the spring of their fourth, the year of the reelection campaign.
Even a longer-term recovery may look different for Biden than it did for his more distant predecessors. Reagan’s approval rating crossed back into majority territory about a year before his reelection and ultimately approached 60 percent as the vote neared; Clinton regained majority support early in 1996 and hit nearly 55 percent in the campaign’s final weeks.
But in this century, no president has approached such heights during his reelection campaign. Obama’s approval rating, after falling below majority status in 2010, didn’t consistently exceed 50 percent again until the very final weeks of his reelection campaign, and then only barely. George W. Bush’s approval rating soared after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But amid growing disillusionment with the Iraq War, he struggled to reach 50 percent approval at any point during his reelection campaign—and ultimately won his second term with the narrowest popular-vote margin for any reelected president since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Donald Trump never managed majority approval at any point in his first term, and despite inspiring enormous turnout from his supporters, he lost to Biden by more than 7 million votes.
Those struggles reflect the hardening polarization of modern U.S. politics, which has lowered the potential ceiling of support for any president. “I think if [Biden] gets to 50, he’s got to say that’s probably good enough,” Paul Kellstedt, a political-science professor at Texas A&M who has studied the relationship between presidential approval and economic attitudes, told me. “That’s the world we are living in right now, and the world of Clinton cruising to a 1996 reelection or Reagan cruising to a 1984 reelection are gone.”
One big reason for the lower ceiling, Kellstedt believes, is that assessments of the economy are now so shaped by partisanship that fewer voters will credit a president from the other party even for objectively good conditions. “Because people are so motivated to see what they want to believe in the economy,” he said, “economic evaluations themselves are becoming less and less connected to economic reality.”
Before Biden can worry about whether he’ll get credit for improving conditions, of course, he needs conditions to actually improve. Like most observers, Kellstedt believes that the high share of Americans expressing dissatisfaction with the country’s direction is because of “a very complex cocktail of two shots of COVID, one shot of inflation.” Together, those factors are almost completely eclipsing the positive economic trends in employment, growth, wages, and the stock market. “Until COVID gets quote-unquote ‘fixed,’ whatever that looks like, people are not going to feel good about the economy,” the Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who polls on economic attitudes for CNBC, told me.
Over the past decade in Public Opinion Strategies polls, the approval rating for the president has consistently run about 15 to 20 percentage points higher than the right-track number. Biden remains in that range now, which suggests that if the country’s outlook improves, Biden’s position almost certainly will as well. Anzalone, Biden’s campaign pollster, said that because the “trauma” confronting the country during the pandemic “is actually more intense and deep and long” than the economic travails that Reagan, Clinton, and Obama dealt with, “when things really get better, Biden’s numbers may jump even a little quicker” than they did for his three predecessors.
McInturff, the Republican pollster, sees the opposite prospect: Even if Americans’ outlook brightens, he believes that Biden will struggle to benefit as much as those earlier presidents did. He pointed to Biden’s especially poor numbers in the NBC poll on uniting the country. On that measure, McInturff said, Biden’s rating is lower than even Trump’s after his first year. “That is a core promise that President Biden made to the country during his campaign and his inaugural address,” he argued. “It represents a failure that is going to be hard for him to reverse.”
Scott Reed painfully watched Clinton’s recovery as the campaign manager for Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP nominee. Now Reed maintains that matching that revival will be difficult for Biden. “Clinton recovered by moving to the center, having a growing economy and pretty much world peace,” Reed said in an email. “Contrast [that] to Biden who keeps moving left, owns the runaway inflation and has [Vladimir] Putin about to grab Ukraine due to signs of U.S. weakness.”
But Democrats see a potentially different parallel with Clinton. Clinton’s early missteps fueled the landslide that carried Republicans to control of both the House and the Senate in 1994. Yet it was during the fierce confrontations with those new GOP majorities over the budget in the winter of 1995–96 that Clinton’s approval rating crossed back over 50 percent and he took a lead over Dole that he never relinquished.
Today, many Democrats, such as Ben Tulchin, the pollster for Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, worry that Biden is floundering partly because he has not done enough to sharpen contrasts with Republicans or to consistently underscore Trump’s potential threats to American democracy. Biden, Tulchin told me, has usually “struggled” when he’s been the center of attention, required to “convey a compelling narrative or message. That’s not his forte.” Part of his problem now, Tulchin argues, is that “he hasn’t identified an enemy, a compelling enemy.”
If Biden’s early difficulties cause him to lose control of one or both congressional chambers in his first midterm, as Clinton and Obama did, events may deliver him that foil in the form of a Republican House or Senate majority deeply in thrall to Trump. “Sometimes,” Sosnik said, “you find who you are by who you are fighting.”