You don’t need me to tell you Joe Biden is in trouble.
With the President approaching his second July Fourth in office, inflation is at its highest level in a generation, his social spending bill remains stalled in the Senate and the latest Gallup Poll found his approval rating to be just 41% (FiveThirtyEight’s average is even lower).
Altogether, that’s quite a daunting state of affairs. The pertinent question, though, is whether it’s insurmountable.
So for this July Fourth, I’m taking a look at where the last seven Presidents stood four months out from their first midterm, and examining what lessons they might hold for the Biden White House.
For this exercise, I used Gallup’s Presidential rating archive and applied the last approval number for each President before July 4th of their second year.
Jimmy Carter: 42%
By President Carter’s second summer, the dreaded malaise was already dragging down his Administration. His top domestic priority, energy reform, remained mired in Congress while his top overseas priority, peace between Egypt and Israel, seemed hopelessly stalemated. All the while, rising inflation was fueling public anger and sinking Carter’s numbers down to new lows.
In an interview with TIME Magazine (which got bumped from the cover in favor of the Supreme Court’s new affirmative action decision), Carter is portrayed as a prevaricating neophyte who’s in over his head.
Ironically, Carter was just weeks away from his most admirable accomplishment, the Camp David Accords. That treaty led to a temporary surge in Carter’s approval ratings in the fall of 1978, before he bottomed out again in 1979. For the moment, however, the peace bump helped Carter avoid a midterm bloodbath.
Ronald Reagan: 44%
When Ronald Reagan departed to California for an extended vacation over the July 4th holiday in 1982, the conservative revolution looked to be a bust.
The unemployment rate had risen past 9%, and was poised to soon break the double-digit mark for the first time since the Great Depression. As you might imagine, such economic conditions pushed Regan’s own numbers down into the mid-40s. It got so bad for Reagan that Congress was in the process of partly reversing his 1981 tax cuts.
Disillusioned conservatives looking for a bleak July 4th beach read could pick up a new book by Kevin Phillips, who wrote the seminal 1969 work “The Emerging Republican Majority”, unambiguously titled “Post Conservative America: People, Politics, and Ideology in a Time of Crisis”.
“The question for the political analyst is no longer whether Ronald Reagan will succeed or fail,” Phillips wrote in a May 1982 article promoting his book. “He is failing, and attention must now focus upon the ramifications and dimensions of that failure.”
After the 1982 midterms, Reagan’s fragile House coalition was broken and a second term appeared out of reach. Of course, as GDP rose and unemployment fell, Reagan’s political strength was dramatically different just two years later.
George H.W. Bush: 69%
So far, every President we’ve discussed was burdened with an approval rating below 50% at this point in their Administration. George Herbert Walker Bush, who just so happens to be the first to govern during a time of peace and prosperity, breaks that trend. Yet the seeds of Bush’s eventual downfall were apparent even in the summer of 1990.
As one contemporary New York Times article presciently put it, “Mr. Bush has been advised that the only obstacle to his re-election in 1992 would be a sour economy two years from now.”
Just prior to the July 4th holiday, Bush admitted during a press conference that he intended to raise taxes as part of an effort to cut the budget deficit. The idea was that reducing the deficit would in turn persuade the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates. Instead, tight fiscal policy and an oil shock following Iraq’s August invasion of Kuwait led to a recession.
Moreover, the tax hike was a particularly toxic move for Bush because of his famous ‘Read my lips’ pledge during his 1988 RNC acceptance address. It made him look feckless and infuriated his conservative base, providing the spark for Pat Buchanan’s damaging 1992 primary challenge.
In fact, just the suggestion of higher taxes dropped his approval rating nine points in a month. No wonder Republicans were whispering worries to reporters that Bush would be in deep trouble if he lost 1988 campaign mastermind Lee Atwater, then fighting a losing battle with a brain tumor.
You know the rest of the story. Hostilities in the Persian Gulf caused Bush’s numbers to rebound and shoot up higher than ever before; but it wasn’t built to last and that second term never came.
Bill Clinton: 43%
By his second July 4th weekend, Bill Clinton had gotten into the habit of making weekend trips to Camp David in order to escape the turmoil in D.C. When it comes to approval ratings at least, few presidencies were more tumultuous in their first months than Clinton’s. Starting out in the high 50s, he soon fell to the high 30s, before recovering back to the 50s, only to be on his way down to the 30s again before 1994 was over.
On this particular weekend, President Clinton was surely preoccupied with Bob Woodward’s hot new release “The Agenda”, which chronicled his first year in office. The book was primarily focused on the frenetic creation of Clinton’s economic plan and its perilous passage through Congress. Clinton couldn’t have been happy that Woodward portrayed Alan Greenspan as the real hero of the book, guiding an inexperienced President to economic responsibility.
“The Agenda” also explored Clinton’s momentous decision in the fall of 1993 to tackle the NAFTA agreement ahead of healthcare reform. So while the controversial trade deal went through, by July 4th Hillary Clinton’s healthcare effort was perilously close to falling apart. Just a month later, in fact, that’s exactly what happened.
George W. Bush: 76%
Much like his father, George W. Bush enjoyed stellar approval ratings during his second summer in the White House. Still experiencing a halo effect from the September 11th attacks, and with the Iraq War still a few months away, President Bush held immense political power at this moment.
Nor was Bush hesitant to use such leverage to keep a tight grip over his party. In the first week of July 2002, for instance, the Bush White House was fully backing John Sununu’s effort to oust incumbent Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire. Befitting Bush’s stature and the nature of the times, this gambit worked and aided the GOP’s quest to hold that seat in November.
At the time, the best hope Democrats and progressive critics could hold onto was that the unfolding Enron scandal would drag Bush back down to Earth. To counter such an effort, Bush traveled to Wall Street to publicly criticize bad actors.
In the long run, trouble on Wall Street and in the Middle East would sink Bush to all-time lows. Such worries, however, weren’t apparent on Election Night 2002. As for the first time since FDR, a President gained seats in both the House and Senate during his first midterms.
Barack Obama: 46%
For Barack Obama, July 4th of 2010 was a real best of times, worst of times situation. After a seemingly interminable fight, he’d finally signed his healthcare reform bill into law and would soon follow it up with a Wall Street reform package. Never again would he be able to string together such monumental victories. Those wins, though, came at a considerable cost.
The honeymoon days of approval ratings in the 60s were long gone, with the President now stuck below the 50% mark. The sluggish economic recovery was the primary culprit here, with America in the midst of a thirty-month streak with an unemployment rate at nine percent or higher.
In the meantime, the Tea Party was fueling a rejuvenation in the Republican Party. Conversely, Democrats were already afraid that they would not be able to turn out the Obama Coalition without the man himself on the ballot – a worry that became all too real throughout the 2010s.
As Joe Biden no doubt remembers, the 2010 midterms were historically brutal for Democrats. For instance, nearly a dozen years later the party is still trying to recover their standing in several state legislatures. No doubt these memories are foremost in President Biden’s mind as he looks ahead to November.
Donald Trump: 42%
Donald Trump, more than anyone else we’re examining today, appeared almost immune to the typical rhythms of presidential approval ratings. His numbers always seemed to hover at the same spot, the low 40s, throughout his tenure.
That, of course, was not strictly speaking true. Trump’s worst ratings tended to be in his first year, when he was regularly stuck in the high 30s. After signing his tax cut bill in December 2017, though, some Republicans rallied back to his side. As a result, on July 4th of 2018 Trump was back in the low 40s.
Only a few days later Trump would travel to Helsinki, where he held a one-on-one press conference with Vladimir Putin. Siding with Putin over America’s intelligence agencies, Trump once again publicly doubted Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Despite widespread condemnation, Trump only dropped about a point or two in the polls.
In November, Trump held onto enough GOP support to gain two Senate seats but suffered everywhere else, including losing control of the House. That pattern continued in 2020, when Trump bested his 2016 vote total only for Biden to outpace him.
So, is Joe Biden destined to suffer a devastating defeat in the 2022 midterms? At this point, almost certainly.
Sure, Jimmy Carter avoided a similar fate in 1978, but that was the result of a near miraculous Middle East peace deal.
Could a foreign policy triumph save Biden? Well, it couldn’t hurt. Still, the best the President can hope for on that track is the possibility of a major Russian setback in Ukraine. That might move the needle a bit, but I wouldn’t expect anything close to what we saw in 1978.
Ultimately, a President’s fate is tied to domestic conditions. With inflation so high, and the public so angry over rising prices, the only real path to victory would be some sudden reversal of this trend. Barring that, a midterm shellacking seems practically inevitable.
The silver lining, of course, is that such a defeat would not be predictive of the future. Reagan, Clinton and Obama (not to mention several other predecessors) were all able to recover in time to win a second term. As strong as the tides of history are, events will always intervene.