History’s Lessons for Joe Biden

One year in, the Joe Biden presidency is — to put it mildly — not going very well. The administration has repeatedly failed its biggest tests: the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the push to pass its Build Back Better social spending package in Congress and, most recently, the response to the omicron variant of COVID-19. In this context, it’s no surprise Biden’s poll numbers have tanked: the most recent Gallup Poll puts President Biden’s approval rating at 40%, a 17% drop since his inauguration. Yet Biden’s precipitous drop in approval is not altogether uncommon in recent history. His two most recent Democratic predecessors, presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, each saw their Gallup approval rating drop by almost 20% during their first two years in office. Both of them went on to win decisive re-election victories. Their examples offer insight into what President Biden can do to flip his political fortunes.

Bill Clinton is perhaps the most apt historical comparison for Joe Biden: a president who campaigned as a relative moderate, then veered leftward during his first year in office. Like Biden, Clinton saw a modest legislative victory in his first year in office: Clinton’s 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act fulfilled some of his core economic campaign promises, as the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act did for Biden. But the defining narrative of both presidencies in their first year was one of incompetence and failure. The defeat of Clinton’s hopelessly complex left-wing healthcare plan mirrors Biden’s inability to muscle his Build Back Better Act through a Democrat-controlled Congress. And both presidents flopped on the world stage: Clinton lost American soldiers during an ill-fated U.N. mission in Somalia, and Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will long be remembered for its breathtaking incompetence. President Clinton responded with a fundamental change of his political strategy: after the “Republican Revolution” of the 1994 midterms, he tacked rightward, embracing welfare reform and small government. His strategy of “triangulation” between the extremes of the two parties placed him at the ideological center of American politics and in the White House for a second term. It could be a fruitful strategy for Biden to emulate if he seeks to fulfill his campaign pledge to seek consensus and bring America together. With both parties captive to their fringes, the rational center of American politics is wide open for Biden’s taking.

The Biden team, though, seems more inclined towards the tactics of the Obama administration. For Obama, a slow economic recovery after the Great Recession and the passage of the Affordable Care Act brought on heavy backlash and a shellacking in the 2010 midterms. Rather than course correct like Clinton, President Obama doubled down. With his legislative agenda stymied by Republicans in the House, Obama turned to a series of executive orders on issues important to his Democratic base — student loans, the environment and consumer protection. Along with his unique magnetism and dynamism, Obama’s strident partisanship led him to victory in 2012. Seeking to emulate Obama, Biden has turned up the heat in recent weeks. His Jan. 11 voting rights speech in Atlanta compared supporters of the Senate filibuster to Jefferson Davis and likened mundane Georgia election legislation to Jim Crow. Even Biden allies winced: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told CNN that Biden went “too far.” A week later, Biden said in a press conference that a top priority of his second year will be to “make the contrast [between himself and Republicans] as clear as we can.” Emulating Obama’s base-first approach plainly ignores the forces which elevated Biden to the presidency. He was elected with a simple mandate: restore competence and civility to the Oval Office. Each time he uses inflammatory rhetoric to fire up the troops in support of doomed legislation, he fails on both fronts.

Biden’s ability to flip the script will ultimately be determined by his own skill as a politician — or really, his lack thereof. Clinton and Obama were generational political talents, each brilliant tacticians and communicators. Biden is neither of those things. His own staff is obviously terrified of putting him in front of the American people: an analysis by the University of California Santa Barbara found that he held only 10 press conferences in his first year, half as many as his recent predecessors. Even in speeches, Biden’s oratory is less than stirring: he veers aimlessly from impassioned yelling to a sotto voce whisper, tripping over his words as he loses his train of thought. Biden’s policy chops are not much better: if there is a defining characteristic of his long political career, it is an uncanny ability to be consistently and forcefully wrong on matters of grave national importance. Most fundamentally, Biden simply seems not to be up to the job of president. Before any change of his political fortunes, he must once again convince the American people that he has the stamina and vitality that the office requires. It is not too late for Biden to do so — there is a long list of American presidents who recovered from a fitful first year. But long as that list might be, the list of presidents with fewer tools than Biden to change the narrative is similarly short. Joe Biden is up a creek, and there’s no paddle in sight.