Biden and the Dreaded Bush/Carter Comparisons

Katie R. Ochoa

Tom with the BTRTN May 2022 Month in Review.

It’s really hard to find too much fault with the Joe Biden
presidency.  Sure, it has been far from
perfect, from missteps in COVID communications, to messiness in the Afghanistan
exit, to wildly understating the potential longevity of inflation.  But Biden has also scored a number of real
accomplishments: managing COVID down to a dull roar; propelling an economy that
is exhibiting real growth (that is, growth even accounting for inflation) and
near full-employment; getting a massive infrastructure bill passed (something
his three predecessors failed to do) on a bipartisan basis, no less; masterful
management of the Ukraine invasion, including restoration of unity among our
allies; and a return to competence, analysis, empathy and integrity in our
federal government.

What troubles America about the Biden presidency are factors
largely out of his control. He alone cannot set new rules for Congress to enable
passage of the kind of societal-changing legislation that many crave.  He cannot influence Joe Manchin, who is
opposed to filibuster reform – he simply has no leverage over Manchin (apart
from threatening to campaign in West Virginia on Manchin’s behalf, which
would pretty much destroy Manchin’s chances of re-election). He cannot put
vaccines into every arm, he cannot control the worldwide supply chain, he
cannot manufacturer baby formula; he cannot ban assault rifles; and he cannot
prevent Vladimir Putin from committing, simultaneously, military genocide and political
suicide.  Many Americans simply have a
wildly inflated view of presidential power, and in our system, the checks and
balances have never worked so well to ensure inaction on the many massive
issues of our times. 

But the buck stops with Biden, and so far he is bearing the brunt
of the blame for a divided and dysfunctional country. 
Perhaps the most frightening figure is that the percentage of Americans
who believe America is on the “right track” has fallen to 25%, and that is a
five-point drop in the last month.  It
was at 20% when Trump left office, and Biden literally “built it back” to 43%
within two months of his inauguration, before it began sliding, when it became
clear that Biden was not a miracle worker nonpareil.
 

The events of the last month have nearly cemented the death of the hoped-for
Biden 2022 comeback.  The Ukraine war
continues to go reasonably well, but the price tag on its support is soaring  and the drumbeat of opposition
to Biden’s support of it is now audible. 
The latest COVID variant has resulted in a doubling of new cases across
the country in May versus April, from just over a million cases to over two
million, and that’s just among reported cases (generally excluding home tests,
the use of which are presumably on the rise). 
Inflation may have peaked, but that is far from even a hollow victory
when it is still roaring at 8.3%.  Congress
is as inept as ever, the Built Back Better legislation remaining a fumbled
opportunity that is barely breathing. 
And well beyond that: in the wake of the latest mass shooting atrocity in
Uvalde, Texas, the murder of 19 elementary school children and two
educators, all our legislators can offer are outrage on the Democrats’ side and
pro-gun bullet points from the GOP.  That
adds up to zero
 action — when the vast
majority of the nation believes meaningful gun reform is long overdue.  

There is an awful lot of pain in the United
States right now, crying for relief, and Joe Biden is not able to provide it.

Unfortunately for Biden, the parallels to George H. W. Bush’s
presidency are hard to avoid.  Bush and
Biden share many similarities, both career politicians who brought to the White
House decades of deep experience across domestic and foreign affairs.  Both became dutiful Vice Presidents to far
more charismatic presidents.  Both are an
archetype:  kindly, old school,
unthreatening white men, dull as doornails, comfortable striding along the
hallways of power, into backrooms, situation rooms and the Oval Office.  They are the type of leaders that many find
comfort in, steady hands who can pick up a phone and hobnob with world leaders
on a first name basis, the kind who have seen everything and seem to never look
surprised by the onset of a new crisis. 
These characteristics, indeed, were what got Biden elected.

Bush’s presidency was a fairly simple story – he brilliantly
managed the Gulf War, forging an international alliance par excellence to counter Saddam Hussein’s naked grab of Kuwait,
and led a military coalition that devastated the Iraqis with the brute force of
Desert Storm.  And then, having accomplished his clearly articulated goals, he chose
not to overreach by chasing down and ousting Hussein, well aware and wary of
the nation-building commitment that would follow, with no exit strategy.  He brought the victorious troops home, with
few casualties. 

Bush’s approval rating shot up to 90%, the highest Gallup has
recorded since it started tracking presidential approval with Harry
Truman.  But it all came tumbling down
with an election year recession, to which Bush had neither an answer nor the
slightest idea how to relate to the economic concerns of the Every Man,
exposing his to-the-manor-born roots. (He rather famously whiffed when asked in
a debate with Bill Clinton how much a gallon of milk cost.)  He was thus defeated by Clinton in 1992. 

Biden’s analogies to Bush are clear.  The Ukraine story, while far from complete,
is already quite a foreign policy win for Biden.  Bush merely had to tap into his long
relationships with allies to activate them to the Kuwaiti cause; Biden had the
far harder task of reinventing those bonds, which were badly weakened by
Trump.  No one would ever call Biden an
out-of-touch patrician, but his response to the domestic issues, including
inflation and, to a lesser extent, COVID, echo Bush’s, in that Biden seems
uncertain and reactive on these issues, in sharp contrast to the bold,
innovative leader we have seen dealing with Ukraine.

The Bush comparison is bad enough, but the murmuring you are
starting to hear is the even-more-dreaded Carter comparison.  The Bush presidency has been rehabilitated
somewhat in recent years, in part by the inevitable comparison to his rash son,
who bungled his own Middle East war, and also by virtue of a very sympathetic
biography by Jon Meacham.  Carter has
regained some ground as well, through his own model post-presidency, but the four
years of his presidency are still viewed harshly, far worse than Bush’s.  Carter’s average approval rating of 46%
(again, Gallup) during his presidency was the lowest since Truman, and worse than all his successors,
including Bush’s rather lofty 60% — with the single exception of Donald Trump
(41%). 

Carter, a one-term Governor of Georgia, had neither the resume nor
the gravitas of George H. W. Bush, who was a former congressman, CIA director,
RNC chair, Ambassador to China and Vice President.  Carter was also viewed as a moralistic and
stiff prude who exuded little public warmth. 
While his presidency was not devoid of accomplishment, notably in his
brokering the Camp David Accords, he was
overwhelmed by the double blows of stagflation and the Iran hostage
crisis.  His inability to solve either
led to his own one-term demise, losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980. 

Carter’s
presidency is now defined, perhaps, by a single word he never uttered:
“malaise.”  He may not have said the precise word in his “Malaise Speech,” but it is a good word to describe his assessment
of the national will – what he did term
a “crisis of confidence” – that was occurring on his watch. 

“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul of
our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt of the meaning
of our own lives and in the loss of unity and purpose as a Nation. The erosion
of confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political
fabric of the nation.”

This is the comparison that Biden simply must avoid.  We, as a country, may have met the Ukraine
challenge like the America of old, but we did not meet the COVID challenge, are
not meeting the climate change challenge, nor the gun control challenge and so
many more, with our politics locked in a death spiral of inaction.  Biden thought he could solve this – and the
infrastructure bill offered tangible proof of his formidable talent in building
legislative consensus.  But after that –
pffft.  Americans now seem to be in
despair, each tribe believing the other represents the death of America, with one
side adopting cheating as its defining mantra, and the other simply stymied and
frustrated.  Little seems to be getting
done to combat the large issues of the day, including inflation and, now, gun
control.  Might you call that a crisis of
confidence in our system, a national malaise? 

The only presidents in the last 100 years to serve only a single
full-term are Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, Bush and Donald Trump.  Biden has zero interest in adding his name to
that list. He must find more victories to avoid those Bush/Carter
comparisons that would truly doom him to join the list of single termers.

He has time.  Reagan,
Clinton and Obama all got shellacked in their first midterms – likely Biden’s
fate — and recovered to win second terms, rather easily in fact.  Manchin is now working with Chuck Schumer on
a mini-BBB; Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy is talking with GOP
moderates willing to engage in early post-Uvalde gun control discussions; and
look for Biden to issue a string executive orders designed to demonstrate
action across hot button issues, if not permanent change.  This may not add up to enough to hold the
House in 2022, but it could make a difference on the margin in those
battleground Senate races, and put Biden on the path to reelection in 2024.

Especially if his opponent is Donald Trump, who has seen his
vaunted king-making powers take a hit in early GOP primaries (with as many
prominent losses among those he backed as wins); continues to face ominous
legal headwinds in Georgia, New York and rumblings from the Department of
Justice; and chose to appear at the NRA convention just days after Uvalde and
double down on total gun rights protection, a position the center tends to
loathe. If Biden is teetering on the cusp of Carter malaise comparisons, Trump
certainly won’t offer Reaganesque “Morning in America” bromides to a downcast
citizenry.  Remember Trump’s dark and
wacky Inaugural address, that apocalyptic screed that George W. Bush neatly and
memorably characterized minutes after it ended as follows:  “That was some weird shit.” 

If Trump falters, many point to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as a
new era incarnation of him.  But DeSantis
is simply just another smooth-as-silk but bland-as-vanilla politician.  He simply does not inspire the godlike
devotion that fills arenas and drives messianic followers to the polls, as does
Trump.  Trump is what DeSantis is not: a bellowing
charlatan, full-throated firebrand and tabloid and TV celebrity of the first
order.  DeSantis is far more like George
H.W. Bush than George Wallace, and that ain’t gonna butter the biscuit
electorally.

The GOP has a real problem in 2024, with Trump, his wannabees
yapping nervously on the sidelines, and an increasing field of emboldened
never-Trumpers, such as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Wyoming
Representative (for now) Lynne Cheney, who might make life quite uncomfortable
for Trump and his wannabees on the campaign trail, laying waste to their
ludicrous “stolen election” claims on debate podiums, in front of large
audiences.

But for now, it is up to Biden to chart a winning path in the next
30 months.

MADNESS

How is this possible in the United
States of America, that the man who said this is revered by 30-40% of our
nation?

“Shortly after hundreds of rioters at the Capitol started
chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ on Jan. 6, 2021, the White House chief of staff,
Mark Meadows, left the dining room off the Oval Office, walked into his own
office and told colleagues that President Donald J. Trump was complaining that
the vice president was being whisked to safety. 
Mr. Meadows, according to an account provided to the House committee
investigating Jan. 6, then told the colleagues that Mr. Trump had said
something to the effect of, maybe Mr. Pence should be hanged.”

APPROVAL RATING

Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March dropped a
single point, from 43% to 42%.
 

 

HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES

Biden’s “key issue” ratings generally held at April levels, except
for a slight drop on his handling of the economy and the already-noted 5-point
drop on “right track.”   

 

GENERIC BALLOT

In May polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the
Democrats on the generic ballot by +1.4 percentage points.  Using
BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm
elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP
would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare,
though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his
first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40).  This figure could be further eroded when we incorporate a full restricting effect; redistricting is not quite complete as yet.

 

 

BIDENOMETER

The “Bidenometer” dropped again from April to May, from +12 to +8,
driven mostly by an abrupt rise in the price of gas.  Other measures were virtually unchanged, inclduing, perhaps oddly, consumer confidence, which remains rather high at 106.

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective
answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980
Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years
ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we
better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or
worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump
Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data
points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of
gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The
measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from
the inaugural to the present time.

The +8 means that, on average, the five measures are 8% higher
than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +8, the economy is performing better
under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.
  Unemployment
is much lower, the Dow is much higher, as is consumer
confidence.  Only gas prices have moved in the wrong direction under
Biden.  Even the recent GDP blip is
better than the -3.5% that marked Trump’s last quarter
.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see
from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It
declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession
at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under
Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and
Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +8 under Biden.

 

 

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly
approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or
weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You
Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and
does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The
outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more
precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election
time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly
generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You
Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of
economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of
aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021,
on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether
the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left
office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones
Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and
the GDP.

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