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The Number That Will Forecast Biden’s Fate
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The Number That Will Forecast Biden’s Fate

Keep an eye on economic growth.

President Joe Biden holds a milkshake during a quick stop at Cook Out, a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, following an event to promote his economic agenda on January 18, 2024. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

“Only Jimmy Carter fared worse in his third year” is not a welcome phrase for any president seeking reelection. But that’s the grim assessment from Gallup, which found President Joe Biden had a lower job approval rating for his third year in office of any president in seven decades, other than Carter.

Carter’s landslide 1980 defeat is the cautionary tale for all modern presidents, the Herbert Hoover of the late 20th century.

The score was called an “ominous warning” and “dismal.” To be sure, Biden is unpopular. His current average approval rating in our calculations is just above 39 percent, which, when paired with his stubbornly high average disapproval of nearly 58 percent, puts the incumbent more than 18 points underwater.

But do you know who had the lowest third year job approval average since Carter before Biden claimed the title? Donald Trump. And before Trump? Barack Obama.

America hasn’t had much love for its presidents in quite a while. While Biden notched several months with a net-positive score at the beginning of his term, you have to go all the way back to Obama’s first months in office, nearly 15 years ago, to find a president with numbers in the 60s, which had previously been common from the 1950s to the 2000s. 

That’s because there’s a category other than Carter adjacency in which Obama, Trump, and Biden are the undisputed champions: partisan approval gap. Five percent of Republicans approved of Biden in 2023. Seven percent of Democrats approved of Trump in 2019. Twelve percent of Republicans approved of Obama in 2011. In the days of less-intense partisan sorting, it was common for a quarter to a third of the members of the opposing party to approve of the president’s performance. Now, that sounds like heresy.

So, Biden being 2.2 points less well regarded in his third year than Trump was doesn’t mean that much. It’s bad for Biden that he’s been underwater since the fall of 2021, but as we saw in the 2022 midterm elections, the formerly iron correlation between presidential approval and voter preferences has gotten more than a little fuzzy. 

The number that Biden should be fretting over, though, is this one: 3.3 percent. That was the growth rate in the gross domestic product for the last three months of 2023. And that’s pretty dang good. The best for any president at the same point since George W. Bush 20 years ago. 

Economic growth is also increasingly reflected in public sentiment numbers, which the Pew Research Center found were up across the board. The consensus view seems to be that while Americans are pessimistic about the economy and inflation, the mood has lightened considerably.

And while voters are still down on Biden and his handling of the economy, it’s not unreasonable to believe that a rising tide will lift his boat. But what if the tide goes out?

While zombie partisanship has weakened the correlation between presidential approval and reelection chances, one relationship remains as strong as ever: the pace of economic growth in the first six months of the election year and incumbent retention.

Among the seven presidents before Biden, three lost their bids for second terms and four were successful. In the case of all four winners, the economy was stable or improved from the end of their third year to the middle of their fourth. 

You can go quarter-by-quarter here, but the most impressive landslide in the modern era, Ronald Reagan’s 525-13 Electoral College victory of 1984, tells the story nicely. It came after a summer in which economic growth was roaring along at an 8 percent rate, a tick up from the 7.9 percent of the end of 1983. That’s how his third-year approval number from Gallup, a puny 44.9 percent, boomed to 55 percent by the middle of the election year.

Bill Clinton saw the growth rate nearly double from the end of 1995 to the middle of 1996, and climbed 6 points in his approval numbers. Obama watched the economy go from an anemic 1.6 percent growth rate at the end of 2011 to a more comfortable 2.36 percent for the second quarter of 2012, nudging his approval rating up a point and a half to 46 percent. George W. Bush was the only winner not to see measurable improvement from December to July, holding basically steady from 4.3 percent to 4.2 percent. But he was riding his post-9/11 popularity down, which still left him at a manageable 49 percent midyear in 2004.

The losers tell the opposite story. Carter was nursing a 1.28 percent economic growth rate at the end of 1979, but then the bottom fell out and the economy tipped into recession by the summer of 1980. Trump has an even more stark story to tell. The economy at the end of 2019 was dragging a bit but still growing at a rate of 2.1 percent. But then came the coronavirus pandemic, and by the end of the second quarter, the economy was in freefall, contracting at a rate of 31.4 percent.

It’s the third loser, though, that ought to really worry Biden. George H.W. Bush was sweating the economy as his fourth year began. The fourth quarter of 1991 had been pretty grim, with a barely there growth rate of 1.2 percent. It was better than the three quarters of contraction that preceded it, but still not good enough. By the summer, though, things were really turning around. Growth was up to 3.2 percent for the second quarter of 1992 and would continue picking up speed all the way through the election.

But it was too little, too late. The middle- and working-class voters who decide elections didn’t feel the benefits of the recovery soon enough or deeply enough. When the Clinton campaign zeroed in on the economy that summer, many swing voters who had backed Bush in 1988 were ready for a change. And with a third-party option on the ballot in the form of businessman H. Ross Perot, Bush got dumped like there was a recession on, even though the recovery was well underway.

Biden’s third year had the fastest-growing fourth-quarter economy of any president since the 1970s other than Reagan and Bush the younger. If the pace stays about the same or increases between now and the end of June, the incumbent is a very good bet for re-election, whether he’s underwater in his approval rating or not. If the pace slows, however, even having a challenger as unpopular as Trump probably wouldn’t be enough to save him. 


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STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 39.2%
Average disapproval: 57.6%
Net score: –18.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.8 points

Change from one month ago: ↓ 0.4 points

[Average includes: NewsNation: 43% approve-57% disapprove; ABC News/Ipsos: 33% approve-58% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk: 39% approve-58% disapprove; Fox News: 43% approve-57% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 38% approve-58% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: ‘THE HABIT OF SEEING IN THE DARK’

New Yorker: Beatriz Flamini read on the Internet about people who had survived in caves for extended periods. The modern record was four hundred and sixty-three days. … But nobody had inhabited a cave in the way Flamini was envisaging. … She recalls settling on ‘five hundred days, just to round it up—because I knew I could, I just knew it.’ … Her basic goal remained intact: to neither see nor speak to another human being for five hundred days. She didn’t even want to see her own face. … She got in touch with a spelunking club near Granada that knew of an ideal cave in the mountains north of Motril, a town overlooking the Andalusian coast. … When it came time to descend, she and a small group of volunteers gathered at the cave’s mouth. Joy and anxiety flitted across her face, as though she wasn’t sure if she was going on vacation or to jail. … As she lowered herself down the long, narrow chute, she looked up at the volunteers, stuck out her tongue, and joked, ‘See you in just a night.’” 


HALEY POWERS ON AS PRIMARY TURNS SOUTH

Politico: “[Haley’s] slim chances now hinge on a come-from-behind victory in her home state next month. … Even as Haley is framing the race as just beginning, both parties are anointing Trump as the GOP nominee. … But New Hampshire is essentially the friendliest territory Haley can expect — an electorate swarmed by moderates and independents on Tuesday — and it only gets harder from here. … South Carolina’s electorate is far more conservative and more evangelical — the types of voters among whom Trump has dominated in the first two nominating contests this month. … What Haley needs is a momentous surge of Trump skeptics who don’t typically vote in Republican primaries. South Carolina doesn’t have partisan voter registration, so anyone can vote in the GOP primary on Feb. 24. … And ironically, Biden’s push for a big win in the Palmetto State could undermine Haley’s efforts to beat Trump later next month on her home turf.” 

South Carolina delegation nearly unanimous for Trump: Post & Courier: “Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan has endorsed Donald Trump for president, becoming the last GOP member of South Carolina’s federal delegation to weigh in on the 2024 race. … Of the state’s eight Republicans elected to federal office, seven are backing Trump in the 2024 GOP contest. The lone outlier is U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman. … Duncan has served in Congress for the last 14 years, representing a 10-county area in the western part of the state that makes up the 3rd Congressional District. It is one of the most conservative pockets of South Carolina. His annual Faith and Freedom BBQ became a must-stop for presidential aspirants.”

Despite primary wins, Trump weak with independents: New York Times: “Outside the soft bubble of Republican primaries, Mr. Trump’s campaign is confronting enduring vulnerabilities that make his nomination a considerable risk for his party. His takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 repelled suburban moderates and independents, and there’s little evidence he has found a way to draw them back. … Four in 10 voters who backed Ms. Haley said their dislike of Mr. Trump was a more important factor in their vote than their approval of Ms. Haley. … Mr. Trump will no doubt win many of these voters in November. But the number of Haley supporters telling pollsters they will back Mr. Biden — roughly 40 percent according to state and national polls — is striking. … New Hampshire’s results highlighted other weaknesses for Mr. Trump. He lost to Ms. Haley among voters with a college degree and the party’s highest earners.” 

BIDEN’S TRUMP BET ON THE LINE 

Politico: “The general election has all but begun — and it’s the race President Joe Biden’s team wanted. … Assuming Trump clears that hurdle, Biden aides and allies believe a faceoff with Trump will help negate the incumbent’s biggest weakness — his age — and motivate both swing voters and reluctant Democrats to turn out against Trump. … In a series of speeches this month, Biden has signaled both democracy and abortion rights will be among the cornerstones of his campaign. … Biden’s political brain trust is upbeat about the campaign’s chances with independent, swing voters — in many cases, suburban women — who went for Trump in 2016 but broke away hard from him four years later. … But Biden has myriad vulnerabilities, too. Polls show Americans have not given him credit for the nation’s economic recovery and continue to be angry about inflation. His age remains an issue.”

Abortion front and center at first rally: Wall Street Journal: “While Biden has at times been a reluctant messenger on abortion, he has embraced the argument that abortion access is a freedom that has been stripped away by Republicans. And he has assailed Trump, who as president appointed three justices to the court that overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Trump has bragged about his role in overturning Roe, declaring at a recent Fox News town hall in Iowa: ‘I did it. I’m proud to have done it.’ … Biden’s rally capped a flurry of events to mark this week’s anniversary of the Roe decision, including a speech in Wisconsin by Harris.” 

2020 architect back at the drawing board: New York Times: Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, who was the campaign manager for Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign … has served as a deputy chief of staff in the White House since he became president. … Mike Donilon, a senior adviser who has worked for Mr. Biden for decades, will also move to Wilmington and become the campaign’s chief strategist. … Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the campaign’s manager since shortly after it began in April, is expected to retain that title.

The moves formalize a setup in which Ms. O’Malley Dillon has for months overseen the campaign’s direction from Washington and Mr. Donilon has helped shape its strategy. … The leadership change comes as the campaign is set to shift into a general-election posture and a more aggressive effort to contrast Mr. Biden with Mr. Trump.” 

Auto Workers assemble for Biden: CBS News: “The United Auto Workers announced its endorsement of President Biden on Wednesday, a key, if expected, show of support as the president hones in on the general election. The endorsement of the 400,000-member union is critical for Mr. Biden as he seeks to bolster his support among working class Americans. Mr. Biden became the first president in modern history to join a picket line when he visited striking workers near Detroit in September, a move UAW President Shawn Fain touted as he made the case to members that Mr. Biden, not former President Donald Trump, is their champion. … Blue-collar workers in union-heavy swing states such as Wisconsin and Michigan are critical for Mr. Biden’s reelection bid.” 

SINEMA, ROSENDALE LAST SENATE DOMINOES TO FALL

Politico: “The biggest drama is out West, where independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale are mulling their futures. … Rosendale’s decision is probably the most important to the Senate map. It would create a GOP primary that could force the national party to spend tens of millions of dollars. … Tester beat Rosendale in 2018 despite support from Trump and Republicans of all stripes. … He’s signaled to Republicans for months he plans to run. And the party has made it absolutely clear they don’t want him in the Senate race. … Sinema, who generally aligns with Democrats on key votes, has until April 8 to decide to run again — but in reality, she would need to start collecting signatures to make the ballot well before then. … A Sinema reelection bid would create a chaotic and indecipherable race in a challenging state.”

The dam breaks: Arizona GOP chair resigns after Lake leak: The Hill: “The chair of the Arizona Republican Party announced he will resign Wednesday after leaked audio appeared to show him attempting to pay Senate candidate Kari Lake not to run for office in 2024. … Jeff DeWit said that the audio was ‘selectively edited.’ He explained, however, that he chose to resign because he was threatened by members of Lake’s team that more tapes would be released if he did not step down. … ‘There are very powerful people who want to keep you out,’ DeWit reportedly told the Senate hopeful in the recording, saying only that these figures were from the ‘east.’ … Lake, a former news anchor, has faced pushback against her Senate bid.” 

Moreno, Dolan, LaRose spar as Ohio’s March primary nears: Columbus Dispatch: “Republicans in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race met on the debate stage for the first time Monday, lashing out at each other as they make their pitch to GOP voters. Secretary of State Frank LaRose, businessman Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, will face off in the March 19 primary. … All three said they oppose birthright citizenship. … Still, points of disagreement emerged. Moreno said he believes all undocumented immigrants should be deported, despite having said in 2016 that he supports a path to citizenship. … Moreno, for his part, accused LaRose of ‘neo-con rhetoric’ when LaRose said he supports utilizing the U.S. military to attack Mexican drug cartels. … All three candidates said they would support a national abortion ban months after Ohio voters approved a constitutional right to abortion access.” 

McCormick, Casey court Pennsylvania’s sizable Jewish vote: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The Israel-Hamas war and U.S. policy in the Middle East remain early flashpoints in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, where there are more Jews than all but four other states. … Mr. McCormick has sought to link Mr. Biden’s policies and what he describes as America’s weakened position in the Middle East to his opponent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a three-term incumbent Democrat and longtime supporter of Israel who is endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. … Mr. Biden and Mr. Casey have received solid support from Western Pennsylvania’s Jewish community, but the Israel-Hamas conflict has also sparked criticism from progressives more willing to criticize Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.” 

BRIEFLY

Dems command airwaves ahead of Santos special election—Politico

Louisiana adds majority-black district after after redistricting suit—NBC News

Controversial Michigan GOP chair is ousted—New York Times

WITHIN EARSHOT: ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?

Tim Scott is engaged to be married. We never thought this was going to happen. What’s going on?”—Donald Trump comments on the South Carolina senator’s recent engagement before Scott joined him on stage at a New Hampshire rally. 


MAILBAG

“Writing this the morning after the New Hampshire primary after Haley lost by 11 points, but came out swinging with her ‘concession’ speech. In the same vein, could Nikki try to bait Trump by attacking his well-run campaign?  For instance, could she say he’s not debating because his team is too good at their job and they know he’s not capable of going toe to toe with her?  Could she basically paint him with the same brush as he painted ‘Basement Joe Biden,’ whose handlers know he’s a liability so keeping him out of situations he used to be able to compete in is his best bet?  Such a tactic would surely fall flat for a more, shall we say, rational candidate, but Trump has shown he lacks the self-control to let any slight go unaddressed. Surely attacking not only his competence, but also his position at the top of the food chain would elicit the type of responses that could only help her campaign.”—Charles McRave, Evington, Virginia

I think that’s the ticket, Mr. McRave. On that and a host of issues, Haley’s task is to try to draw Trump into a fight. Which seems pretty likely, especially since Trump seems assured of victory. With other frontrunners, the opposite has been true. The stronger the leader’s position, the less likely he has been to punch down at a lost-cause runner up. But Trump loves to fight and has no qualms about punching down. You could see in the debacle around the Trump team’s effort to weaponize the Republican National Committee how hard it will be for Trump to resist taking the bait. All he needs to do to deal with Haley now is smile and nod, basically patronize her and her supporters, say “good for her,” and focus every day on the general election. Instead, he says “I don’t get too angry, I get even” and declares that Haley donors will be “permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” And then there’s his surrogates, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who told MSNBC that “any Republican that isn’t willing to [adopt] these policies, we’re completely eradicating from the party.” To win Trump’s favor, they will continue to imitate him in his attacks in hopes of earning his favor and higher status in the “MAGA camp.” Haley probably can’t win, but the only way she can survive to fight on is if Trump is reckless enough to engage with her. So every day, she will try to find a way to get up his nose. 

“In 2015 Trump spotted a wide open political market that others couldn’t see or didn’t want to see. We know now that the Republican party was ripe for the taking. If Trump hadn’t come along, would someone else have taken it? Could any of his imitators in Congress or the media have blazed the populist trail in his absence?”—Michael Smith, Georgetown, Kentucky

We can assess the quality of political leaders in a few categories: policy, administration, and character. When we look at the best presidents, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we see green lights all the way across: prudent policies, able management, and sterling character. But if you had to pick just one to have, you’d pick character. That’s because relatively little of what a president does is of his own choosing. It mostly comes down to reacting to events. So, I think it’s certainly true that American politics have been on a populistic, demagogic trajectory since before 2008. Voters have been angry at our broken institutions and eager to elect people to punish the perceived wrongdoers. Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both propelled by these impulses. But while Obama dabbled in pitchfork populism, Trump has been all tines, all the time. Obama faced constant pressure from his left from progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to go harder against the wealthy and corporations. Trump, on the other hand, was the pressure point on his own party for a similar brand of revenge politics. It was his party trying to moderate him rather than the other way around for Obama. President Biden won in 2020 promising to rein in this ugly energy, but has built a decidedly mixed record on the subject. Sometimes he preaches peace, but often he stokes fear and anger to achieve his political goals. Certainly it’s true that another Republican might have tapped into the alienation felt by many middle class voters, but that’s not really what you’re getting at here. What would have happened if the right-wing populists would have found a champion who was a person of decent character? Would a Rick Santorum or a Ron DeSantis have found a way to take advantage of the frustrations of the electorate but then have had the decency to govern with self-restraint? The problem with Trump isn’t his supporters, it’s how good he is at exploiting them to serve his own ambitions. The more pertinent questions now, though, are whether a) there is still a large enough appetite for demagoguery in the electorate to return Trump to power and b) how much Biden will succumb to those temptations in his bid to remain in the Oval Office.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes, and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: WATCH YOUR SIX 

Sen. Tim Scott speaks as  former President Donald Trump listens during a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Tim Scott speaks as former President Donald Trump listens during a campaign event in Concord, New Hampshire, on January 19, 2024. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

This week’s contest fairly demands a visual gag, which was hard for some entrants who were drawn in by the shakespearean vibes from Sen. Tim Scott’s Rubio-esque journey from conservative darling to Trump enthusiast. You’ll see below that many managed to successfully meld political commentary with visual humor, but our winner went straight at the sight gag:

“What’s that? He’s right behind me?”—Daniel Summers, Knoxville, Tennessee

Winner, Hark! Division:

“Is that my next employer I hear approaching?”—Michael Smith, Georgetown, Kentucky

Winner, When You Wish Upon a Reality Star Division:

“I’m sorry, Jiminy, I didn’t catch what you said.”—Bryan Gee, Lawrenceville, Georgia

Winner, Quacks Like Division:

“Same muck?  I’m sorry, I thought you said ‘lame duck.’”—Cannon Alsobrook, Smyrna, Georgia

Winner, Turn Down for What Division:

“Did you say something, Nikki?”—Frank Virnelli Jr., West Hartford, Connecticut

Winner, Donne, Donne, Donne Division:

“Senator Scott asks for whom the bell tolls.”—Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri


‘THE THIRST IS REAL’

New York Post: “A California woman has been accused of stealing $2,500 worth of Stanley Quencher tumblers after her car was found spilling over with the viral to-go cups. Roseville Police said the 23-year-old unidentified thief was approached by staffers at a retail store as she walked out with a cart full of the viral-sensation cups. … Cops then caught up with her car on Highway 65 — and found that number of Stanley Quenchers, valued at $2,500. ‘While Stanley Quenchers are all the rage, we strongly advise against turning to crime to fulfill your hydration habits,’ the Roseville Police wrote in a cheeky Facebook post announcing the arrest. … The department included a photo of dozens of the 65 recovered containers, which sell for up to $50 apiece, lined up on the front of a squad car. … Stanley is a 111-year old brand that has been enjoying a viral moment with its Stanley Quenchers thanks in part to influencer marketing on TikTok and the wholehearted embrace of the Gen Z crowd.” 

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.