Two ways Joe Biden gets reelected
There are two ways President Biden can get re-elected. One is economic: a Biden boom. The other is cultural: a Republican rupture.
Is an economic boom likely? The indicators are fairly positive. The U.S. economy added more than half a million jobs in January, a breathtaking rate of job growth. Unemployment (3.4 percent in January) is at its lowest level since 1969. Inflation is slowing (6.4 percent in January, the slowest rate since October 2021). Prices for most goods like food are not actually going down, but they are rising more slowly.
Do voters feel it? Apparently not so much.
In a CBS News poll taken at the beginning of this month, only 33 percent of Americans described the nation’s economy as “good.” That’s up slightly from 28 percent in January. But almost twice as many (61 percent) still describe the economy as “bad.”
A useful indicator is a poll question that has been asked frequently by different polling organizations for nearly 50 years: “How well are things going in the country today – very well, fairly well, pretty badly or very badly?” When the number who say “very well” or “fairly well” is more than 60 percent, the country is usually having a boom.
For example, in 1984, 74 percent thought things were going well in the country. President Ronald Reagan declared “Morning in America” and easily got re-elected.
In 1996, 67 percent said things were going well — just two years after President Bill Clinton suffered a huge setback in the midterm election, when Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. In 1996, however, an economic boom was underway, and Clinton won a second term.
If the number who say things are going well in the country drops below 40 percent, it usually signifies an economic bust, and the incumbent president is in trouble. That happened in 1980 — the “malaise” election — when the country was going through an energy crisis, out-of-control inflation, and a recession, all at the same time. The percentage who said things were going well dropped below 30. President Jimmy Carter was fired after one term.
The 2008 election was held in the midst of a financial crisis, after eight years of President George W. Bush. The percentage of Americans who thought things were going well in the country? A shocking 16 percent. Democrats elected Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president.
The most recent poll asking how well things are going was taken in December by SSRS Research for CNN. The number who said things were going well? 35 percent. In other words, “Meh.” We’re still in a bust, but things are slowly improving (the numbers were slightly up from 21 percent last June and 26 percent last October).
Some experts are forecasting a recession this year. That would very likely doom Biden. Democrats do not tolerate recessions. The U.S. has experienced 11 recessions since 1948. All of them, save one, started during a Republican administration. The exception? The 1980 recession, when Carter was president. He paid a bitter price.
No matter what happens with the economy, a Republican rupture could get President Biden re-elected.
Suppose Donald Trump loses the Republican nomination and runs for president as an independent. Asked this month if he would support the Republican nominee “whoever it is,” Trump said: “It would depend … It would have to depend on who the nominee was.”
The new House Republican majority, small as it is (nine seats out of 435), includes a hard right faction that seems to be producing gridlock. It took an excruciating 15 votes to elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) Speaker of the House, and only after he made concessions to GOP hard-liners. The far right is demanding significant — and controversial — spending cuts as the price for raising the country’s debt limit.
Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, is one of the most unpopular figures in American politics. Polled in December, 59 percent of registered voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump. And Biden? 49 percent unfavorable.
Trump does a masterful job of peeling away working-class voters — particularly non-college educated white voters — by stressing their cultural grievances. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, likely to be Trump’s strongest competitor for the Republican nomination, has become a hero to conservatives by championing those same culture war issues — but without Trump’s personal liabilities.
A contest between Trump and DeSantis for the GOP nomination would be intensely personal. And nasty. Trump has already labeled DeSantis “DeSanctimonious” and “Meatball Ron.”
Democrats have a fatal flaw — condescension. Working-class Americans are super-sensitive to any air of superiority in the nation’s educated elite, whether it’s Obama talking about small-town voters who cling to guns and religion or Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables.”
Joe Biden is not a culture warrior. He competes for working-class voters by stressing their economic interests (“a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America”). Biden needs an economic boom like the one that saved Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The president also has one big advantage that could prove decisive: Joe Biden does not have a condescending bone in his body.
Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.