Joe Biden’s reelection campaign is fumbling. His announcement landed with a thud, his approval ratings are low, and he’s trailing Republicans, including Donald Trump. He could face a recession, as well as serious primary and third-party challengers, in the months ahead. Yet the president and his advisers act as though the race is his to lose. Their complacency isn’t just arrogant. It’s reckless.
In a three-minute video released on the morning of April 26, Biden declared his candidacy for another term and pledged to “finish the job.” What that job is, he didn’t say. Biden neither mentioned any of his accomplishments nor offered positive reasons to vote for him a second time. Instead he explained that the “battle for the soul of America” continues and that “MAGA extremists” are a threat to democracy and freedom.
The cinematic imagery helped make his point. Editors juxtaposed footage of the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol with pictures of Biden smiling alongside race huckster Al Sharpton, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Vice President Kamala Harris. The implication was that Joe from Scranton is all that stands between America and the abyss.
Biden, then, doesn’t want the election to be a referendum on his job performance. He wants to present voters a choice between himself and an out-of-the-mainstream MAGA Republican, preferably Trump. This strategy of drawing contrasts benefited Democrats in 2018, 2020, and 2022. Yet it also carries risks.
That’s because recent elections have not been as clear-cut as progressives imagine. Democrats won the House and key governorships in 2018, but Republicans gained in the Senate. Biden won in 2020 thanks to 44,000 votes spread across Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, while the Senate split between the parties and Republicans picked up 14 House seats. Democrats picked up governorships and gained a Senate seat in 2022, but Republicans added nine House seats for a majority. A campaign that relies on America’s Trump allergy may work once more. But, if history is a guide, such a campaign will be close and unpredictable.
Biden’s diminished stature complicates matters further. When he ran in 2020, Biden was a likable former vice president challenging a polarizing and unpopular incumbent. The coronavirus pandemic allowed him to campaign from his basement in Delaware. He was sheltered from public scrutiny and had cover for his limited schedule and infrequent meetings with the press. The low profile didn’t bother him. Biden wanted Trump on center stage, driving independents, college-educated white voters, and suburbanites toward the Democrats waiting in the wings. Trump was happy to oblige.
Biden won, of course, and Trump’s behavior during the presidential transition added to the incoming president’s political capital. Biden, however, put that capital behind some terrible investments: a broken southern border, inflationary fiscal and trade policy, and withdrawal from the Middle East. His job-approval rating sank underwater during the botched retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021. He hasn’t recovered.
Biden starts the 2024 campaign with some of his worst approval ratings to date. Nor do his ratings compare favorably with those of his predecessors. Biden might take solace in the precedent set by Ronald Reagan, who had about the same numbers as Biden at this point in his term and won reelection. Biden is no Reagan, however. His average job-approval rating at this point in his presidency, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, is closer to Jimmy Carter’s and Donald Trump’s than Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s, and Barack Obama’s.
The May 7 Washington Post/ABC News poll exemplified the public’s negative attitude toward Biden. It had Biden’s overall job approval at the lowest level of his presidency: 36 percent. It showed Biden flailing among key voter groups such as independents (30 percent approval), white voters with college degrees (45 percent approval), and suburbanites (36 percent approval). Respondents preferred Trump’s economic stewardship to Biden’s by an 18-point margin.
Biden’s overall approval rating, while low, is nonetheless higher than his marks on individual issues. The April NBC News poll, for example, pegged Biden’s job approval at 41 percent, but his economic approval was at 38 percent. The April Harvard-Harris poll had Biden’s overall approval at 43 percent, but only 36 percent approved of how he’s handled inflation. And in the April Fox poll, Biden’s favorable rating was at 44 percent, but just 36 percent approved of his handling of immigration.
Not only do voters disapprove of Biden’s job performance. They also have serious doubts about him personally. He is, at 80, the oldest president in American history. He would be 86 years old at the conclusion of a second term. This is a problem because voters see Biden as absentminded and frail.
Biden’s mental and physical deterioration is no doubt part of the reason that majorities of Americans, including most Democrats, have expressed opposition to him running again. Roughly two-thirds of Americans in the Washington Post/ABC News poll said that Biden lacks the mental acuity to be president. The same proportion said that he is not physically up to the job.
A public that harbors doubts about Biden’s capacities won’t be making a simple choice between him and the Republican alternative next year. They instead will be choosing between Biden and his potential successor on one hand, and the Republican ticket on the other. Biden seems to have acknowledged this actuarial reality in his launch video. Vice President Harris is his co-star: She makes 13 appearances on screen. Asked why, Biden said that “she is really very, very good.” At least one person thinks so.
The vice president is less popular than Biden. When it comes to word salad, she’s a gourmet chef: The vapidity of her unrehearsed remarks deserves a Michelin star. Making up lost ground ahead of Election Day is hard enough for an incumbent president. It’s twice as hard for an incumbent saddled with a running mate who has become a liability.
Still, Biden is considered the favorite. The reason is Trump, whose presence on the ballot in November 2024 would mobilize millions of voters who do not want to see him in the Oval Office again. Even here, though, there is cause for concern on the part of the White House. Trump has upended the world before. He could do so again.
Biden led Trump throughout the 2020 election. That is not the case today. The Post/ABC poll had Trump ahead of Biden by 6 points. The RealClearPolitics average of polls at the time of writing has Trump ahead by 1 point. The race is tight. And it may grow tighter: Economic trouble such as a banking crisis or recession, a Joe Manchin independent candidacy for president, legal problems for Hunter Biden, a health scare, or some other event could add to the incumbent’s burden.
Simon Rosenberg, the Democratic strategist who correctly predicted that the “Red Wave” would not fully materialize in 2022, says Biden shouldn’t worry. Nothing matters besides Trump. “The fear of MAGA has been the most powerful force in American politics since 2018, and it remains the most powerful force,” Rosenberg told Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic recently. “It’s why Democrats did so much better than the fundamentals in 2022, and that will be the case again this time.”
Sure, Joe Biden is a safe bet for reelection—if you ignore his campaign rollout, lack of a message, job performance, approval ratings, running mate, and the horse race. And pay no attention when he fumbles over words and forgets where he is.
Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.