Can an unpopular president win reelection?


INDIANAPOLIS — This Democrat was considered an “accidental” president. His approval rating was an abysmal 36% just months before a crucial election. Polls indicated he had little chance of succeeding in November. His administration was racked by high inflation and a steep housing shortage. His party had splintered, with two Democrats running independent bids. He faced a New York Republican who had lost his previous presidential race. After the polls had closed, a major Midwestern newspaper had declared the Republican the winner.

His name was President Harry S Truman. The year was 1948, when he faced a precarious reelection bid against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. Truman had ascended to the presidency after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt six weeks into his term. After taking office as World War II was concluding, he learned of the Manhattan Project.

And yet Truman had been a consequential president. Touring his Little White House annex in Key West, the guide takes you past his poker table and a bar, around a corner into a conference room where there is a huge table. The tour guide casually mentions that around this table, the CIA, National Security Council, the U.S. Air Force, and NATO had been created.

Now, fast forward eight decades. President Joe Biden is not popular. On Jan. 2, the FiveThirtyEight polling composite had his approval at 39.3% with 55.5% disapproving. Real Clear Politics had his approval rating at 40.4% with 56.1% disapproving.

In Indiana, according to recent internal polling of a Republican gubernatorial campaign, President Joe Biden has a 40%/58% approve/disapprove among Hoosier voters. This, despite the fact that Biden initiatives are funding a huge broadband expansion across rural Indiana. His infrastructure program is paying for billions of dollars of highway and bridge rehabilitation. The CHIPs law he signed in 2022 has created a semi-conductor hub in Odon, Ind., near the Crane Naval Base.

There was this historic assessment from Gallup: President Biden’s approval is at a historic low ebb. Approval ratings in December before a reelection year, Biden was at 39%, President Obama stood at 43%, President Trump at 45%, President George H.W. Bush was at 51%, and President Carter was at a lofty 54% (as was President Reagan).

President Lyndon B. Johnson was at 46% approval in December 1967, falling to 36% on March 15, 1968 due to the Tet Offensive. A little more than two weeks later LBJ shocked the world, saying he would forgo reelection in order to concentrate on a resolution to the Vietnam War.

The “December before” polls are not a precursor to predetermined outcome. Presidents Obama and Reagan easily won reelection. Presidents Bush41, Carter and Trump lost.

Gallup’s analysis: “Biden enters 2024 with a persistently low job approval rating, the worst of any modern-day president heading into a tough reelection campaign.”

Biden’s dilemma goes beyond Ukraine and Gaza, beyond the U.S.-Mexican border sieve, beyond inflation and gas prices. Biden has never been a popular presidential figure.

When he first ran for president in 1987, he was viewed as a moderate Democrat and led the field in fundraising during the first quarter. But he ended that campaign on Sept. 23, 1987, with The Associated Press reporting that he said he had been overrun by “the exaggerated shadow” of his past mistakes.

In the 2008 race that included U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Indiana U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, Sen. Biden never broke out of single digits in national polls and struggled to raise money. He placed fifth in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and withdrew from the race that night, saying, “Let me make something clear to you, I ain’t going away.”

In August 2008, it came down to Biden and Indiana U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh in forming the Democratic ticket behind nominee Obama, who selected the much older Biden (he’s 81 now, Bayh is currently 68).

After serving two terms as vice president, Biden was effectively passed over for the 2016 nomination in lieu of Hillary Clinton.

Three years after Donald Trump’s historic upset of Clinton in 2016 in a race between two historically unpopular nominees, Biden was the lone moderate in a 2020 field of progressive Democrats that included South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Biden finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses, fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It wasn’t until U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed him that Biden won the South Carolina primary just as the COVID pandemic began shutting America down, and then he basically secured the nomination on Super Tuesday as Buttigieg and others withdrew.

Biden defeated Trump with a record 82 million votes in 2020 while running the “basement campaign” that steered away from big rallies due to the pandemic. So Biden’s campaign was hardly a “movement.”

Can President Biden win reelection next November? Yes, but at this point it looks like a difficult endeavor.

According to economist Steve Rattner, Americans are “still fretting” about rising prices, “even as inflation subsided significantly.” More than 80% of economists predicted that 2023 would end in a recession, and instead, the economy is likely to have expanded by a remarkable 3%. On top of that, the stock market boomed. In 2023, the S&P 500 index rose to near record highs.

“Usually a strong economy buoys an incumbent president,” Rattner said. “Not this year.”

To which I caution: We’ll see in November.


Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol.