After a difficult first two years in the White House, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all rebuilt enough public support to win reelection to a second term—not long after many observers labeled them fatally damaged by their early setbacks.
Despite the fact that the specific environment and challenges faced by those three presidents differed in many ways, the trajectory of each man’s first term followed the same broad arc. Each was elected at a time when there was widespread concern about the country’s direction, particularly in terms of the economy. Each saw his approval rating plummet during his first two years in office, as voters concluded that conditions were not improving as quickly as they had hoped. For all three, the decline culminated in crushing defeats in their first midterm elections. However, public attitudes toward the country’s direction improved in the second half of each president’s first term, raising the president’s approval rating. Clinton, Obama, and Reagan all won reelection just two years after their midterm reversals, with Clinton and Obama winning by wide margins and Reagan winning by a historic 49-state landslide.
Biden is unquestionably following the curve’s downward slope: With COVID-19 still in effect, inflation on the rise, and his legislative agenda stalled, the proportion of Americans who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction has risen sharply since the spring. As that “wrong track” number has risen, Biden’s job approval rating has plummeted to near 40 percent, just as Reagan’s, Clinton’s, and Obama’s have.
The key question for political strategists in both parties is what will happen if inflation and the pandemic subside and attitudes toward the country’s direction improve, as they did under those three predecessors. Could Biden re-establish his support at that point? Or have enough voters lost faith in the president to the point where he will struggle to recover even if external conditions improve?
Nonetheless, most Democratic strategists believe that, based on recent history, declaring Biden permanently damaged is far too soon. “Looking at the horizon of a four-year term, it’s not too late,” Doug Sosnik, Clinton’s senior White House political adviser, told me.
Republicans, on the other hand, are cautiously optimistic that voters have soured on Biden in ways that will make it difficult for him to resurrect even if Americans become more optimistic about the country’s underlying conditions. Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster, believes Biden has planted doubts about his strength and competence that will limit his support even if conditions improve. McInturff cites findings from a recent NBC national poll conducted by his firm, Public Opinion Strategies, in collaboration with a Democratic partner, Hart Research Associates.
Republicans and Democrats may disagree on whether improving attitudes toward the country’s direction is sufficient to boost Biden’s standing. They all agree, however, that they are a necessary precondition for any potential recovery. As long as the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with current conditions, Biden is unlikely to regain much support, regardless of what else he does, from passing more legislation to strengthening his communications strategy.
Jimmy Carter’s experience demonstrates this point. Pessimism about the country’s direction peaked during his presidency and remained high throughout his term, despite a cascading series of challenges at home and abroad. As a result of this discontent, Carter’s approval rating in Gallup polls fell below 40%, and he was defeated by Reagan in the 1980 election.
Another example is George H. W. Bush. When the US-led coalition raced to victory in the first Iraq War in early 1991, Bush’s approval rating in Gallup polling soared to around 90%, with roughly two-thirds of Americans describing themselves as satisfied with conditions in the US. However, in the midst of an economic downturn, the share of satisfied Americans fell to one-fourth by the fall of 1992; Bush’s approval rating plummeted, and Clinton easily defeated him in the election that November.
In each case, optimism about the country’s direction grew during the first months of the new president’s presidency. But, with the economy still in shambles, the rally stalled, and optimism fell from its post-inauguration highs. By the time of their first midterm election, big majorities again said they were dissatisfied with the country’s direction 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.