The announcement comes after months of teasing from the Biden administration — first it was supposed to happen somewhere around Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then “not long after” February’s State of the Union. Then in the beginning of April. But in the end, today’s announcement was mostly unsurprising because most presidents seek reelection, and they often win when they go for it. That said, in polls fielded throughout Biden’s first few years in office, many Democratic voters said they’re ready to move on from him, a sentiment almost certainly spurred by concerns about Biden’s age (he’s 80 now, and he’d be almost 82 on Election Day) and his low approval ratings.
The problem, of course, is that an obvious alternative to Biden hasn’t surfaced. And in some ways, it will be easy for him to make the case that he’s been a successful president who deserves another four years in office. But the worries that made his own base ambivalent about a second Biden term are likely to haunt his candidacy, too.
So let’s walk through Biden’s first two(ish) years in the White House — the good, the bad and the ugly — and take a look at his odds in both the primary and the general election.
Perhaps no measure better captures the good, the bad and the ugly of Biden’s presidency than his approval rating. Americans were relatively high on Biden when he was elected, but that didn’t last long. He came into office with a 53 percent approval rating and 36 percent disapproval rating, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, and it wasn’t hard to understand why: Americans were largely unhappy with former President Donald Trump. Just a few months after his inauguration, Biden signed into law the widely popular American Rescue Plan, a sweeping aid package that included help to states to help combat the coronavirus pandemic and $1,400 direct payments to certain Americans.
But goodwill is fragile in an increasingly polarized political environment, and Americans started to sour on Biden after only a few months. Starting in August 2021, his approval rating dropped precipitously and his disapproval rating rose sharply. It was a kind of presidential perfect storm: the delta variant of the coronavirus was surging, the economic fallout from the pandemic was starting to come into focus and the administration’s bungled response to withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan was making headlines. Later that winter, it also became more clear that major parts of Biden’s election platform — like passing bills to protect voting rights and to reform policing — were doomed, and Biden’s omnibus Build Back Better Act suffered a setback after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin refused to back an early version with a multi-trillion dollar price tag, citing concerns about how it would affect inflation.
As the chart above shows,William Howell, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, told me. In fact, one feature of American politics is that presidential approval ratings almost always drop over time. “I think that we tend to over-interpret the significance of individual events or perceived gaffes,” Howell said. “But when the euphoria of a campaign or the fresh gloss of a new candidate wears off and you get into the drudgery of actually governing, approval ratings routinely decline. And that’s what we’ve seen here.”Biden never quite recovered. In fact, since that first summer of his presidency, Biden’s approval has consistently remained underwater. But there’s not necessarily one policy failure that explains this trend,
One challenge for Biden is that his presidency has arguably been quite successful — his wins just haven’t been enough to save his approval rating. Despite only barely having majority support in the U.S. Senate for all of his time in office so far, the post-honeymoon phase of Biden’s presidency was surprisingly productive: He was able to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and another bipartisan gun-safety bill. In addition, almost half of Americans gave the Biden administration decently high marks for its initial handling of Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. The president also received praise after he announced a popular plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt (though that’s currently tangled up with the Supreme Court).
But none of those victories really helped Biden in the court of public opinion. Even Democrats’ strong performance in last year’s midterm races failed to move the needle for him, and now that Republicans control the U.S. House, it’s unlikely that Biden will be able to usher through meaty legislative priorities. Compared to past presidents, though, Biden actually starts his reelection bid as somewhat of an underdog. In fact, as of April 24, only 42.5 percent of Americans approved of his job as president. That’s actually not far off from Trump (41.3 percent) and former President Barack Obama’s (45.1 percent) approval numbers on April 24 the year before they sought reelection. But, perhaps worryingly for Biden, he’s still on lower end compared to recent presidents.
|George H.W. Bush
|George W. Bush
Of course, having an underwater approval rating doesn’t mean Biden’s reelection campaign is doomed. Given the polarized nature of our current politics, all future presidents — not just Biden — will likely suffer lower approval ratings “absent a really good economy,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Without that, Bowman told me, “it’s hard to foresee a president moving their ratings up significantly.” What’s working against Biden, though, is that the economy has never been an area of immense strength for him: According to an the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey from mid-March, just 31 percent of adults overall said that they approve of Biden’s stewardship of the national economy, which is consistent with past surveys.
Yet even with lackluster marks on the economy, there was no reason to expect Biden would throw in the towel after just one term. As I mentioned before, both Biden — and his wife, Jill — have long teased today’s announcement (which probably helped keep any notable primary challengers at bay — sorry Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson)! But even though Biden may be Democrats’ most viable option at this point, that doesn’t mean his party’s voters are over the moon about today’s announcement.
That ennui might be unavoidable for Biden, because a number of polls and reports suggest that Democrats’ biggest issue with Biden isn’t his performance in office — it’s his age. Biden was the oldest living president the day he was sworn into office, and according to a USA Today/Suffolk Poll from mid-April, a plurality of 2020 Biden voters (42 percent) said that his age makes them less likely to support him. What might work in Biden’s favor, though, at least in a primary, is that 55 percent of his voters said his age didn’t make a difference to them. Meanwhile, a second survey from CNN/SSRS conducted in March found that two-thirds of adults felt as though Biden doesn’t have the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively. And there are also real concerns that he’s not a particularly motivating figure, even if Democrats probably prefer him to a Republican alternative. That CNN/SSRS survey found that a majority of respondents thought that Biden does not inspire confidence (65 percent) and does not care about people like them (54 percent).
Biden’s reelection bid by the numbers | FiveThirtyEight
These numbers, of course, could present an opening for someone on Biden’s left flank to announce a challenge to his candidacy, but surveys show that some of the potential Democratic candidates polling best against Biden currently are in his administration: Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. So barring a major collapse in Biden’s standing, a serious primary challenger at this point appears very unlikely. Plus, in a February Yahoo News/YouGov survey, almost half (47 percent) of registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning independent voters said they’d renominate Biden for president versus “someone else” (34 percent).
And, fact is, elected presidents rarely face serious opposition for renomination. More importantly, Biden has a solid standing on a number of policy issues — at least among his base. That USA Today survey found that 70 percent of Biden voters (including 73 percent of self-identified liberals, 78 percent of moderates and 65 percent of conservatives) are largely in favor of the president’s positions and policies. Moreover, a second poll from The Economist/YouGov fielded in late March found Democratic adults overwhelmingly approved of Biden’s handling of the economy (72 percent), foreign policy (72 percent), immigration (64 percent), crime (60 percent) and inflation (59 percent). So while voters may not be jumping for joy about another four years under Biden, the poll seems to suggest that most also don’t mind how he’s currently governing.
“Elections operate like Wall Street: fear and greed. And while Biden’s age may tamper the greed, the prospects of a Donald Trump winning the presidency again is enough to raise the fear levels,” said Allan Lichtman, the author of “Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House,” which is now in seven editions, and a history professor at American University. “There’s no way Democrats are not going to coalesce around Joe Biden, even if Ron DeSantis is the nominee.”
All that’s to say that despite their misgivings about his age, Democrats will still likely vote for Biden in a primary. But what about his odds in a general election?
Voters currently say that they don’t want a redux of the 2020 election — but they might get one anyway. Biden and Trump, who is currently leading the Republican primary field, are currently favored to win their respective party’s nominations. And according to Lichtman, Biden’s run for a second term already gives Democrats an edge in 2024 since they avoid both an internal party battle and have the power of incumbency on their side.
But that doesn’t mean Biden will skate into a second term unscathed — far from it. In fact, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Biden’s age could be a liability in a general election, especially if he faces someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (currently polling second after Trump in FiveThirtyEight’s 2024 Republican primary polling average) who, at 44, is just over half Biden’s age, making for an easy generational contrast. And the imperfect, hypothetical head-to-head polling we have for the 2024 general election suggest that Biden would face an uphill climb against both Trump and DeSantis. A Wall Street Journal poll fielded in mid-to-late April, for instance, found Biden (45 percent) trailing DeSantis (48 percent) among registered voters in a hypothetical head-to-head contest, while the president narrowly led Trump by just 3 percentage points. (Both leads, however, were within the poll’s margin of error). This lines up with past polling, which also suggested that Biden would be essentially tied with both men.
Howell pointed out there are a number of reasons that we could be heading for a tight race in 2024. “So there’s the issue of his age, but the big question will be what the state of the economy and the inflation rate is,” he said. “And if that war in Ukraine is still dragging on come the election, we can expect Biden’s Republican opponent to raise all kinds of questions about why we were dragged into this and where it’s going. I think those are the big things to watch out for.”
But, again, early head-to-head polling here is imperfect and certainly subject to change, especially as the GOP primary field settles — after all, DeSantis isn’t even formally in the game. Regardless of what the surveys say, though, we live in a very evenly divided country and every presidential election these days is close, so we — and Biden — should be prepared for a very competitive race.