According to the latest Gallup poll, a majority of Americans disapprove of the job President Joe Biden is doing as president. Faced with the possibility of war amid an economic crisis and a pandemic, Biden’s first year in office has certainly been a challenging one.
Yet as historians and political scientists, we also know that the many difficulties – economic, political and military – facing President Biden have some precedent in American history. So as we approach Presidents’ Day, we ask, how does his performance compare to his predecessors, and, perhaps more importantly, what does it bode for his political future?
Like the situation Biden confronts, many presidents have struggled to correct the problems inherited from their predecessors. In 1838, for example, Martin Van Buren was facing down an economic depression. Dubbed the “Panic of 1837,” the downturn had been precipitated in large part when Van Buren’s predecessor, Andrew Jackson, issued the “Species Circular” that required all payments for federal land be made in gold or silver only. In 1840, the public turned against “Martin Van Ruin” and elected Whig challenger William Henry Harrison instead.
Abraham Lincoln faced an even more difficult situation in 1862. With the Civil War going badly for the Union Army, Lincoln’s popularity ebbed to an all-time low. In September, he took the bold step of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that declared enslaved African Americans in the South to be “forever free” as of January 1, 1863. However, the midterm elections that year proved disastrous for the Republicans, returning slim majorities in Congress. Lincoln persevered in his wartime policies and survived his re-election in 1864.
The pattern of difficult first years in office persisted through the 19th and 20th centuries. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose four terms in office have garnered him the top spot among 20th-century presidents, faced worsening public support during his first years in office. In 1935, George H. Gallup released the results of the first opinion poll focused on presidential performance, revealing that the majority of Americans thought that Roosevelt’s signature New Deal programs had become too expensive. Of course, Gallup also famously predicted that Roosevelt would lose in 1936, proving that relying on polling can be tricky business.
The advent of more regular polling has made it possible to measure the degree of public support for presidents after their first year in office. Other than George H.W. Bush in 1990 and George W. Bush in 2002, every first-term president since World War II has seen his poll numbers fall after year one.
Bill Clinton’s approval ratings fell significantly after his first year in the White House and it led to a Republican majority Congress in the midterm 1994 election. Similar to Biden, Clinton’s Democratic Party was splintered between liberal and “Blue Dog” moderates. While Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole became political foils, there was plenty of political self-interest within a divided government. Following his re-election, however, Clinton and Republican lawmakers found some cooperative pathways addressing the federal deficit and the economy. Even though his second term proved to be successful in the financial arena, Clinton suffered from government shutdowns and impeachment by a hostile Congress.
Other presidents used their political capital to pass landmark legislation. Lyndon Johnson, to whom Biden has often been compared, famously assuaged, hassled and chided lawmakers to vote his way. Even Republicans often voted with Democrats, since a splintered Democratic party meant Johnson had to work both sides of the aisle. Southern Democrats were hardly in sync with their party caucus and it took someone like Johnson to usher and save civil rights and voting rights legislation.
Like Johnson, Biden served as vice president and in the U.S. Senate. He should know the very institution he’s served, but Congress has limited his agenda. While Biden is not the first president faced with a difficult legislature, he may be unique in his approach to addressing the myriad issues confronting the country.
Looking ahead, Biden has been trying to get Congress to pass voting rights legislation and the Build Back Better bill. But getting Senate Democrats, and any Republicans, united on these and additional proposals has been challenging.
To avoid the pitfalls of his less successful predecessors, Biden should take a page from history. To move beyond the congressional deadlock, he could try the Johnson Treatment playbook and berate and persuade lawmakers. Biden could stick to his guns, as did Lincoln and Roosevelt, ignoring the naysayers and polling. Finally, he could pivot toward a more accommodating approach in a divided Congress as Clinton did. Otherwise, Biden may face the same future as Van Buren. Whatever his decision, Biden’s presidency will certainly depend on his choice before the midterm election.