Can Biden make a comeback? What history teaches us (and doesn’t)
August was a cruel month for President Biden. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was messy, while here at home the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report was far below expectations. Cases of COVID-19 hit the 40 million mark, and more than 650,000 people have died of the virus. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found Biden’s disapproval rating rising to 51 percent, up from 42 percent in April.
Afghanistan has certainly contributed to Biden’s downward slide, with 60 percent of Americans disliking how he handled the withdrawal. Biden also experienced serious erosion on two other key concerns. Since April, approval of his economic management has fallen seven points to 45 percent, while support for his handling of the pandemic has plunged 12 points to 52 percent. Only two presidents at this early stage have seen their overall approval numbers fall into negative territory: Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
History teaches us that presidents whose ratings plummet can recover. Harry S. Truman took office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Americans rallied behind him, with 87 percent expressing support. But one year later, Truman’s job approval fell to a paltry 27 percent. Americans were fed up with labor strikes, meat shortages and Truman’s inability to cope. Republicans took control of Congress, with the party poised to win the White House. But Truman did not give up, and in 1948 he rallied voters against a “Do Nothing” Congress and won a stunning upset. At the start of his second term, Truman’s approval rating was back to a robust 69 percent.
At the start of 1986, 72 percent liked Ronald Reagan’s job performance. But the Iran-Contra affair changed all that. The exposure of illegal sales of arms to Iran in return for the release of U.S. hostages, with the proceeds benefitting the Nicaraguan Contras, saw Reagan’s approval numbers fall 25 points to 47 percent. Sixty-two percent disapproved of how Reagan handled that controversy. But arms control agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that helped end what Reagan called the “Evil Empire” boosted his ratings. By November 1988, Reagan’s job approval stood at a healthy 60 percent — enough to propel his vice president, George H.W. Bush, into the White House.
In 1993, Bill Clinton entered office with 58 percent public support. But Clinton’s big government health care plan, coupled with his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy allowing gays to serve in the military, left voters thinking that instead of electing a “New Democrat” they had chosen George McGovern.
By 1994, Clinton’s approval fell to 41 percent and Republicans took control of Congress. Two years later, Clinton changed his tune, telling Americans that “the era of big government is over” while signing a welfare reform bill over the objections of many liberal Democrats. By Election Day, 53 percent liked Clinton’s performance, and he won an easy victory over Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
In 2009, Barack Obama took office amid a financial crisis that left the economy in tatters. Obama began his presidency with 68 percent support. But his decision to focus on health care worried voters. Republicans seized the opportunity to rail against ObamaCare, and by Election Day 2010, Obama’s approval rating had fallen to 44 percent, a number that was bad enough to give Republicans control of Congress. Seeking reelection, Obama made his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, the issue, and his approval rating jumped to 54 percent, enough to score an easy victory.
Each of these presidents recovered because they changed the subject. But can Joe Biden do the same? He is certainly trying. For Biden, failure to enact his “Build Back Better” program is not an option. Even if Biden’s priorities become law, voters must see immediate results, not promises of far-off benefits. Barack Obama’s health care plan didn’t kick into high gear until 2014, and he paid a price for that. Today, having had experience with the program, 54 percent of Americans like ObamaCare, and 76 percent favor expanding Medicaid.
While Biden’s child care tax credit is paying immediate dividends, the administration has been swamped by a series of disasters — Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, immigration and the coronavirus, among others. To date, the administration has not effectively linked Biden to those monthly checks in bank accounts. His $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan is spread over a 10-year period, while the bipartisan infrastructure proposal passed by the Senate covers an eight-year period. Long-term thinking is fine, but voters like immediate action.
Back in 1980, Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin wrote that voters wanted a president who would “supplant disarray with order, mismanagement with management, and malaise with confidence.” Wirthlin advised Reagan to “convey the clearest possible message that Reagan stands for leadership and control.” His advice was particularly resonant in 2020. Biden offered his lengthy resume as proof that he was prepared to end the disarray of the Trump presidency and effectively manage the pandemic.
American voters are results oriented. Today, they care about one thing: ending the pandemic. Biden understands that. His speech outlining vaccine mandates can be summarized in two words: leadership and control. If voters perceive Biden as controlling the pandemic and leading the country out of its lockdowns, he will recover. If not, he won’t.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”