How Biden Might Recover

A press release that President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign issued last week offered a revealing window into his advisers’ thinking about how he might overcome widespread discontent with his performance to win a second term next year.

While the release focused mostly on portraying former President Donald Trump as a threat to legal abortion, the most telling passage came when the Biden campaign urged the political press corps “to meet the moment and responsibly inform the electorate of what their lives might look like if the leading GOP candidate for president is allowed back in the White House.”

That sentence probably says as much as any internal strategy memo about how Biden’s team plans to win a second term, especially if the president faces a rematch with Trump. With that exhortation the campaign made clear that it wants Americans to focus as much on what Trump would do with power if he’s reelected as on what Biden has done in office.

It’s common for presidents facing public disappointment in their performance to attempt to shift the public’s attention toward their rival. All embattled modern first-term presidents have insisted that voters will treat their reelection campaign as a choice, not a referendum. Biden is no exception. He routinely implores voters to compare him not “to the Almighty” but “to the alternative.”

But it hasn’t been easy for modern presidents to persuade large numbers of voters disenchanted with their performance to vote for them on the theory that the electorate would like the alternative less. The other recent presidents with approval ratings around Election Day as low as Biden’s are now were Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992. Both lost their bids for a second term. Continued cooling of inflation might allow Biden to improve his approval rating, which stands around 40 percent in most surveys (Gallup’s latest put it at only 37 percent). But if Biden can’t make big gains, he will secure a second term only if he wins more voters who are unhappy with his performance than any president in modern times.

The silver lining for Biden is that in Trump he has a polarizing potential opponent who might allow him to do just that. In the 2022 and 2023 elections, a crucial slice of voters down on the economy and Biden’s performance voted for Democrats in the key races anyway, largely because they viewed the Trump-aligned GOP alternatives as too extreme. And, though neither the media nor the electorate is yet paying full attention, Trump in his 2024 campaign is regularly unveiling deeply divisive policy positions (such as mass deportation and internment camps for undocumented immigrants) and employing extremist and openly racist language (echoing fascist dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in describing his political opponents as “vermin”). Eventually, Trump’s excesses could shape the 2024 election as much as Biden’s record will.

If the GOP renominates Trump, attitudes about the challenger might overshadow views about the incumbent to an unprecedented extent, the veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff believes. McInturff told me that in his firm’s polling over the years, most voters usually say that when a president seeks reelection, their view about the incumbent is what most influences their decision about whom to support. But in a recent national survey McInturff’s firm conducted with a Democratic partner for NBC, nearly three-fifths of voters said that their most important consideration in a Trump-Biden rematch would be their views of the former president.

“I have never seen a number like this NBC result between an incumbent and ‘challenger,’” McInturff told me in an email. “If 2024 is a Biden versus Trump campaign, we are in uncharted waters.”

Through the last decades of the 20th century, the conventional wisdom among campaign strategists was that most voters, contrary to what incumbents hoped, viewed presidential elections primarily as a referendum, not a choice. Buffeted by disappointment in their tenure, both Carter and Bush decisively lost their reelection bids despite their enormous efforts to convince voters that their opponent could not be trusted with power.

In this century, it’s become somewhat easier for presidents to overcome doubts about their performance by inflaming fears about their rival. Barack Obama in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004 had more success than Carter and the elder Bush at both mobilizing their core supporters and attracting swing voters by raising doubts about their opponent.

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, said the principal reason presidents now appear more capable of surviving discontent about their performance is the rise of negative partisanship. That’s the phrase he and other political scientists use to describe a political environment in which many voters are motivated primarily by their belief that the other party represents an unacceptable threat to their values and vision of America. “Emphasizing the negative results of electing your opponent has become a way of unifying your party,” Abramowitz told me.

While more voters than in the past appear willing to treat presidential reelections as a choice rather than a referendum, Biden may need to push this dynamic to a new extreme. Obama and Bush both had approval ratings right around 50 percent in polling just before they won reelection; that meant they needed to convince only a slice of voters ambivalent about them that they would be even more unhappy with their opponent.

Biden’s approval rating is much lower, and he is even further behind the majority approval enjoyed by Bill Clinton in 1996 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 before they won decisive reelections.

Those comparisons make clear that one crucial question confronting Biden is how much he can improve his own standing over the next year. The president has economic achievements he can tout to try to rebuild his support, particularly an investment boom in clean energy, semiconductors, and electric vehicles tied to the trio of major bills he passed. Unemployment is at historic lows, and in recent months wages have begun rising faster than prices. The latest economic reports show that inflation, which most analysts consider the primary reason for the public discontent with his tenure, is continuing to moderate.

All of these factors may lift Biden, but probably only modestly. Even if prices for gas, groceries, and rent stop rising, that doesn’t mean they will fall back to the levels they were at when Biden took office. Voters appear unhappy not only about inflation, but about the Federal Reserve Board’s cure of higher interest rates, which has made it harder to purchase homes and cars and to finance credit-card debt. Biden also faces the challenge that some portion of his high disapproval rating is grounded not in dissatisfaction over current conditions, but in a belief that he’s too old to handle the job for another term. Better economic news won’t dispel that doubt.

For all of these reasons, while Biden may notch some improvement, many strategists in both parties believe that it will be exceedingly difficult for him to restore his approval rating to 50 percent. Historically, that’s been viewed as the minimum for a president seeking reelection. But that may no longer be true. The ceiling on any president’s potential job rating is much lower than it once was because virtually no voters in the other opposition party now ever say they approve of his performance. In that environment, securing approval from at least half of the country may no longer be necessary for an incumbent seeking reelection.

Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, reflected the changing thinking when he told me he does not believe that Biden needs to reach majority approval to win another term. “I don’t think it’s a requirement,” Messina said. “It might be if we are dealing with an open race with two nonpresidents. People forget that they are both incumbents. Neither one of them is going to get to 50 percent in approval. What you are trying to drive is the choice.”

For Biden, the key group could be voters who say they disapprove of his performance in office, but only “somewhat,” rather than “strongly.” The Democrats’ unusually good showing among those “somewhat” disapproving voters was a central reason the party performed unexpectedly well in the 2022 midterm election. But in an NBC national survey released earlier this week, Trump narrowly led Biden among those disenchanted voters, a result more in line with historic patterns.

Biden may have an easier time recapturing more of those somewhat negative voters by raising doubts about Trump than by resolving their doubts about his own record. Doug Sosnik, the chief White House political adviser for Bill Clinton during his 1996 reelection campaign, told me that it would be difficult for Biden to prevail against Trump if he can’t improve his approval ratings at least somewhat from their current anemic level. But if Biden can lift his own approval just to 46 or 47 percent, Sosnik said, “he can get the remaining points” he would need to win “pretty damn easily off of” resistance to Trump.

Current polling is probably not fully capturing that resistance, because Trump’s plans for a second term have received relatively little public attention. On virtually every front, Trump has already laid out a much more militantly conservative and overtly authoritarian agenda than he ran on in 2016 or 2020. His proposals include the mass deportation of and internment camps for undocumented immigrants, gutting the civil service, invoking the Insurrection Act to quash public protests, and openly deploying the Justice Department against his political enemies. If Trump is the GOP nominee, Democratic advertising will ensure that voters in the decisive swing states are much more aware of his agenda and often-venomous rhetoric than they are today. (The Biden campaign has started issuing near-daily press releases calling out Trump’s most extreme proposals.)

But comparisons between the current and former presidents work both ways. And polls show that considerable disappointment in Biden’s performance is improving the retrospective assessment of Trump’s record, particularly on the economy.

In a recent national poll by Marquette University Law School, nearly twice as many voters said they trusted Trump rather than Biden to handle both the economy and immigration. The Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg released a survey last week of the nine most competitive presidential states, in which even the Democratic “base of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ+ community, Gen Z, millennials, unmarried and college women give Trump higher approval ratings than Biden.” Among all voters in those crucial states, the share that said they thought Trump did a good job as president was nearly 10 percentage points higher than the group that gives Biden good grades now.

Poll results such as those scare Democratic strategists perhaps more than any other; they indicate that some voters may be growing more willing to accept what they didn’t like about Trump (chaos, vitriol, threats to democracy) because they think he’s an antidote for what they don’t like about Biden (his results on inflation, immigration, and crime.) Jim McLaughlin, a Trump-campaign pollster, told me earlier this year that because of their discouragement with Biden’s record, even some voters who say “I may not love the guy” are growing newly receptive to Trump. “The example I had people use is that he is like your annoying brother-in-law that you can’t stand but you know at the end of the day he’s a good husband, he’s a good father,” McLaughlin said.

The problem for Trump’s team is that he constantly pushes the boundaries of what the public might accept. Holding his strong current level of support in polls among Hispanics, for instance, may become much more difficult for Trump after Democrats spend more advertising dollars highlighting his plans to establish internment camps for undocumented immigrants, his refusal to rule out reprising his policy of separating migrant children from their parents, and his threats to use military force inside Mexico. Trump’s coming trials on 91 separate criminal charges will test the public’s tolerance in other ways: Even a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Trump leading Biden in most of the key swing states found that the results could flip if the former president is convicted.

Trump presents opponents with an almost endless list of vulnerabilities. But Biden’s own vulnerabilities have lifted Trump to a stronger position in recent polls than he achieved at any point in the 2020 race. These polls aren’t prophecies of how voters will make their decisions next November if they are forced to choose again between Biden and Trump. But they are a measure of how much difficult work Biden has ahead to win either a referendum or a choice against the man he ousted four years ago.

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