Joe Biden's gamble with history

Eleven months into Joe BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s presidency, voters have developed a contagious case of buyer’s remorse. Biden’s approval rating stands at a dismal 41 percent, with six-in-ten respondents saying he has accomplished either “little” or “nothing.” A summer coronavirus surge, a messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, an influx of migrants at the southern border, Democratic Party infighting over the infrastructure and Build Back Better programs, rising gas prices and the highest inflation rate in 30 years have cast a pall over the White House. 

With the 2022 midterm elections drawing near, Republicans enjoy a 10-point lead in congressional balloting, the largest GOP advantage since the Washington Post and ABC News first began asking the question in 1981. Pundits agree that continued Democratic control of Congress is at a tipping point. As Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden on Bob Dole: 'among the greatest of the Greatest Generation' Former Sen. Bob Dole dies at 98 Maxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred MORE admitted in 1994, during a similar trough in his presidency, “We still haven’t quite got the rhythm right.” 

Biden has made a big bet that James Carville’s famous adage “It’s the economy, stupid!” still holds. His $1 trillion infrastructure bill, combined with the Build Back Better program, promises to create 1.5 million new jobs over the next 10 years. At the White House infrastructure signing ceremony, Biden said, “I truly believe that 50 years from now, historians are going to look back at this moment and say, ‘That’s the moment America began to win the competition of the 21st century.’” Biden’s bet is that by 2024, Americans will see evidence of his prophesy coming to fruition as roads, bridges, railroads and airports get fixed; lead pipes are removed; and broadband finally arrives to hard-to-reach rural communities.

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Biden is making another big wager with his human infrastructure bill. As it currently stands, the legislation passed by the House includes funding for universal pre-school for three-and-four-year-olds; extends the child care tax credit for another year; includes a four-week paid family leave program; contains provisions for home health care for the elderly and those with disabilities; expands ObamaCare subsidies and allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices; contains several environmental safeguards and tax credits that address climate change; and limits expenditures for daycare to no more than 7 percent of a family’s income, among many other goodies. 

Both measures are popular: According to one poll, 63 percent of American adults support Biden’s infrastructure bill, and 58 percent back spending $2 trillion to address climate change and expand preschool, health care and other social programs. While several provisions in the Build Back Better bill will expire in the coming years unless they are renewed by Congress, Biden is betting they will be so popular that even a Republican-controlled Congress would dare not repeal them.

Joe Biden’s gamble is similar to another historic wager made by Ronald Reagan. In 1982, voters also came down with a severe case of buyer’s remorse. Reagan’s approval rating stood at a grim 43 percent. Fifty-six percent disapproved of his economic performance, and an astounding 70 percent gave him a failing grade in handling unemployment. By Election Day that year, unemployment hovered at 10.8 percent and voters doubted Reaganomics would ultimately work. While Reagan bet that his tax and budget cuts were the right economic prescription, Republicans realized that Dr. Reagan’s remedy was, in the words of Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), “a riverboat gamble.”

Democrats hammered Reagan during that midterm campaign with the slogan, “It isn’t fair; it’s Republican.” A peevish Reagan lashed out: “Is it news that some fella out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off, that he should be interviewed nationwide?” 1982 saw Reagan lose his de facto majority of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) regained control of that chamber thanks to the addition of 26 Democratic seats.

By year’s end, Reagan was so unpopular that 47 percent said they would support Walter Mondale for president in 1984; just 41 percent backed Reagan. Taking note of his poor public standing, Reagan joked with his pollster Richard Wirthlin that he could get shot again. (After the 1981 assassination attempt, Reagan’s job approval soared to 67 percent.)

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But by 1984, Reagan’s flagging poll numbers recovered. Throughout the year, unemployment and inflation rates dropped, and the economy came alive with renewed prosperity. On Election Day, Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, and an astounding 59 percent of the popular vote. His dominance was such that historian Sean Wilentz noted that the 1980s began “the age of Reagan.” One can argue that until the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have continuously lived under Ronald Reagan’s shadow.

Joe Biden’s bet is that by 2024 inflation will have subsided, shovels will be churning the earth, middle-class wallets will be thicker and there will be an abundance of, as Biden has put it, “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” That is a big bet that also rests, at least in part, on James Carville’s maxim about the economy trumping any influence the culture wars may have on voters.

Like Ronald Reagan, Joe Biden has swung for the fences, and his legislative record is both historic and substantial. But, as with Reagan, the upcoming midterms are not the final payback. Instead, Biden’s wager will be called in 2024. Until then, all bets are off. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at Catholic University. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”