Joe Biden is nearing 80 but he’s living life at 40. The soon-to-be octogenarian hit his approval rating nadir of 40 percent in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. It’s a presidency best described as “adrift” with loud whispers of no reelection campaign. But Biden doesn’t need to experience a midlife crisis. Rather, it’s time for him to embrace his early 40s.
Biden joins the low 40s club with Presidents Truman, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Trump — all were around 40 percent approval at a similar time in their first terms. All but Trump were faced with elevated levels of inflation.
Yet it goes beyond the price at the pump or grocery store. As one governor told Carter in 1979, “[Y]ou are not leading this nation — you’re just managing the government.” This is an all-too-common sentiment shared about the president today.
Biden is seen as managing a declining nation rather than leading a promising one. The case for first electing Biden was similar to that of Carter — modest moderates who were panaceas for perceived institutional decline and incompetence. Biden’s election was a hope for a return to normalcy.
The case for a second term is unclear. Low voter and consumer sentiment today match the sentiment during Carter’s presidency. American optimism about personal finances is on the decline. Bad behavior is on the rise. Distrust of institutions of power remains high. Everything is not normal.
But Biden’s future in the low 40s club is hardly a fait accompli. The president has three secret weapons that separate him from someone like Carter.
First, the Federal Reserve under Chairman Jay Powell is responding quicker to inflation than when G. William Miller was in charge during Carter’s presidency. While behind the curve, the Powell Fed is resolved to increase rates and lower the balance sheet. A “soft landing” is far from guaranteed but the path is coming much earlier in Biden’s term compared to when Volcker replaced Miller a little over a year before Carter’s reelection. That timing proved better for Reagan, as the Volcker recession in his first two years in office paved the way for Morning in America by his 1984 reelection.
Second, the reason Biden ran in 2020 could be the reason he runs in 2024. Imagine if Carter was running for reelection against Gerald Ford again in 1980 or if Richard Nixon was the de facto leader of the GOP. Carter’s fate could’ve been much different. It’s a fate Biden may be fortunate enough to experience. Running against past foes is not dissimilar to members of the low 40s club who won reelections. Truman ran against New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1948, who lost to the FDR-Truman ticket four years earlier. Reagan ran against Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, who was on the losing ticket with Carter four years earlier. Trump isn’t looking to rebrand himself or shine the spotlight away from him to make an election a referendum on Biden rather than a choice. Biden beat Trump once, he can beat him again.
Finally, unlike Carter, Biden’s Democratic institutionalism runs deep. He’s not looking to fire half his Cabinet or chastise fellow Americans. Biden holds close connections throughout the big tent Democratic Party. Even at his low point in approval, about 80 percent of Democratic voters support him. There’s no Ted Kennedy eager to challenge Biden today.
It’s this last point that should empower Biden to lead, rather than manage. It could be a hot Joe summer. Whether it’s the ongoing rigamarole of reconciliation legislation for domestic energy, prescription drug pricing reform, and tax fairness or the internal squabbles over student debt forgiveness, Biden can embrace his 40s and take a stand. It may upset some constituencies, but legislative and executive success breeds more success and a sense of leadership.
Biden may not have had his thumb on the scale to reach certain legislative deal, letting it play out in Congress. But it’s an atmosphere he has fostered. It never hurts for a president to take undue credit for policy achievements when he receives undue scorn for everything else. The policies, partisan and bipartisan, this year would be a CV that is certainly for a man with a future.
All of this may be cold comfort for Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms. There’s no policy today that’s going to quickly reverse inflation, crime, and general discontent. But sometimes a midlife crisis or a midterm shellacking is what’s needed to take charge of one’s life or presidency. Biden doesn’t need a leather jacket, just some gumption. Along with some help from his monetary and MAGA friends, he could make 80 the new 50.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @Ben_Koltun