Why is Joe Biden smiling? History is on his side

Why is Joe Biden smiling? History is on his side

Presidents are kind of like NFL quarterbacks: They get too much credit when their team wins and too much blame when they lose. Rightly or wrongly, U.S. presidents tend to be the face of whatever’s happening in the country over a given snapshot of time.

It was a rough summer for Joe Biden, and his problems have persisted well into the fall. According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator, Biden’s approval rating went underwater at the end of August and has slid ever since, recently plateauing in the 42-43% range. (Which is still fully four points higher than Donald Trump polled at this point in his presidency.)

The reasons for this dip are pretty obvious. The Afghanistan pullout was shaky, to put it mildly, and Biden became the face of that debacle—even though one could plausibly argue that the seeds of the travesty were actually planted by neocon fuckheads and the barking mad yam salad known as Donald Trump.

In addition to that setback, the delta variant surged just as it began to look like we were turning a corner on the pandemic, Biden’s ambitious economic agenda appeared to stall as a result of Democratic infighting, and post-pandemic supply chain glitches made inflation a palpable issue for the first time in decades. So, naturally, Biden’s presidency is over, right?

Well, not so fast. A little historical perspective is in order, tout de suite.

Exhibit 1: Bill Clinton. Faced with the rough-and-tumble of national politics for the first time, Clinton’s honeymoon period was short, and by day 133 of his presidency, his polling average had plunged to a dismal 36.8%. In June 1993, Time magazine famously dismissed Clinton as “The Incredible Shrinking President”—before he went on to win a second term in a landslide.

But perhaps a more relevant comparison is Ronald Reagan’s presidency. I would argue that Reagan laid the groundwork for the current fraught era in American history. Decades of plutocrat-coddling policies, including a blind devotion to trickle-down economics, steadily hollowed out the middle class and left many working-class Americans behind. Unfortunately, millions of voters have misdiagnosed the problem—which can essentially be boiled down to the rich being given free rein to screw everyone else with impunity for the past 40 years—and have pointed to the feverish rantings of a con man as their lodestar.

Biden is trying to reverse—finally and forcefully—the predictable inequality that has resulted from Reagan’s approach. And—so far, anyway—he doesn’t seem to be getting much credit for it. Because what people are seeing right now are high gas prices and a Thanksgiving dinner that’s more expensive than it used to be.

Biden is meeting the moment by doing what he can to relieve bottlenecks and tamp down the price of gas, but what will likely make the biggest difference in price inflation is time. Assuming we don’t experience another big coronavirus-related economic setback, things should (hopefully!) settle down on the inflation front sometime next year. And if they do, look out, because Biden did in 10 months what Trump couldn’t in four years—i.e., pass a $1.2 trillion hard infrastructure plan—and is on the verge of passing his sweeping Build Back Better agenda. Those investments should prove to be rocket fuel for the economy going forward and, even better, the benefits will be broadly enjoyed by the American people.

If this all sounds like wishful thinking, consider this dicey scenario from New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie:

As his first year in office comes to a close, an ambitious new president is on the decline. His legislative agenda has stalled in a fractious Congress. Voters are angry over inflation and other economic concerns, and he is struggling to find his footing on the world stage.

Allies and critics say the president and his party have made a major misstep, mistaking their successful defeat of an incumbent president for a decisive mandate in favor of their program. The results have been a flagging approval rating, a disenchanted public and an opposition party with the wind at its back. If elections for Congress were held today, there’s no question that the president would lose out to the mounting backlash against his administration.

Oh, crap. Biden and the Democrats are really screwed, huh? Bouie continues:

What year is this? Not 2021, but 1981, and the president is Ronald Reagan, who at the end of his first year in office was described in exactly these terms. “As the president heads into his second year,” Hedrick Smith wrote in The New York Times Magazine in January 1982, “a lot of the magic is gone and the politics of optimism has fallen on hard times. Recession has hit with a force totally unexpected in the euphoric high tide of Reaganism last summer.” Reagan’s “present headaches,” Smith continued, “reflect the life-cycle of the modern American presidency — flashy freshman beginnings, followed by a sophomore slump, with some third-year recovery or dazzling achievement.” 

Of course, in 1984, with a strong economic wind at his back, Reagan blew Democratic challenger Walter Mondale out of the water, winning 49 out of 50 states. Inflation had been a lingering problem before Reagan assumed office, but a forced recession early in his first term got that bugbear under control, and with the help of deficit spending and tax cuts, the economy soared. That was pretty much all the public needed to see.

But the economy isn’t the only issue, right? Well, when it comes right down to it, it kind of is—at least when you look outside each party’s respective base to independent voters, who are far less plugged in to the daily donnybrook that is U.S. politics. Think Biden’s chances will be affected by the 13 service members lost during the Afghanistan pullout? Well, Reagan lost 241 U.S. military personnel during the Beirut suicide bombing in October 1983, and a little more than a year later he won … 49 states.

Of course, Biden won’t win by that kind of margin if he runs for reelection in 2024—or anything remotely close to it. Our nation’s currently splintered politics will see to that. But he can—and likely will—win reelection. No one can predict the future, of course, but history tells us that his chances are good.

The midterms will be a heavier lift, but if BBB passes, Biden’s veto pen will be around to protect its widely shared benefits for at least another three years, and possibly eight—and by that time people will be so used to universal pre-K, paid family leave, child care benefits, health care enhancements, etc., that it will be all but impossible for Republicans to reverse those policies without getting hammered at the ballot box. (Think Obamacare’s preexisting conditions protections and the 2018 midterms. Or, better yet, think about how little appetite there is these days for bowdlerizing Social Security and Medicare.)

I know it’s human nature to panic and think that what’s happening now is what will be happening a month, a year, or even three years from now, but nothing could be further from the truth. Biden is doing a great job with the wheelbarrow of fermented squirrel shit Donald Trump trundled up to his doorstep (even better than Obama did in a similar situation 12 years ago), but it’s reasonable—and human—to be impatient when a crisis is still very much at hand.

Biden hasn’t had enough time to turn the Titanic around, but he’s working on it. And I truly believe we’ll miss the iceberg and encounter smoother sailing ahead—assuming democracy can survive the GOP, that is.

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