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Biden's predecessors could have felt his first-year pain

President Biden speaks during a rare formal news conference on the last day of his first year in the White House.
Susan Walsh
/
AP
President Biden speaks during a rare formal news conference on the last day of his first year in the White House.

Several U.S. presidents have been known for their love of reading history, especially biographies and most especially biographies of former presidents.

If President Biden did not have this White House habit yet, now would be a good time to pick it up.

For the moment, the current president surely feels beleaguered. Battered by a week of largely negative reviews, berated by activists on all sides, Biden is down in public approval polls by an average of about 15 points from a year ago.

His accomplishments in the first year have been largely upstaged by his defeats; his early progress against the pandemic overshadowed by setbacks. Record job growth and rising wages have been eclipsed by a surge in inflation. Conventional wisdom in Washington and elsewhere expects this November's midterm elections to return Republicans to majority control in the House and possibly the Senate.

Still, solace may be found in those who have gone before, especially those who have labored in the Oval Office in the age of polls and TV news.

Without exception, presidents in their first year or so have encountered setbacks or problems that would have lasting consequences for their presidencies and their parties.

Most of the presidents elected since World War II have seen their poll numbers fall in Year One, sometimes dramatically. The two presidents whose first-year polling rose appreciably were both the beneficiaries of global events (and were also both named George Bush).

All but one saw his party suffer a net loss of seats in the House in the first set of midterm elections, typically with a loss of Senate seats and governorships as well.

Yet it must be noted that these early reversals have not always been hobbling. On the contrary, three of the past four presidents elected — and five of the past eight — have recovered from shaky starts to win re-election.

Trump was embattled from the start

The most obvious point of comparison with Biden's first year is the inaugural year of his immediate predecessor. Former President Donald Trump was dogged by controversies left over from his campaign and took office polling under 50%.

Trump had far larger majorities in both chambers of Congress than Biden. Yet his first year ended with his signature issues – repeal of Obamacare and the building of a wall with Mexico – both stalled in Congress, both permanently, as it turned out.

In August of that first year, a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., led to a riot that turned deadly for one person protesting the march. (Trump famously said there were "good people on both sides.")

By summer, Trump's public approval ratings were below 40%, where they stayed much of the year in the Gallup, the RCP average and the 538.com average. It was the lowest standing at the one-year mark since polling began. (His average for his time in office would be just 41%, the lowest of any presidency since polling began.)

In the midterm elections of 2018, Republicans lost a net of 41 seats and their majority in the House. The new Democratic leadership would subsequently impeach Trump twice, battling him on virtually every issue.

Yet, by the end of his term, Trump had regained the mid-to-high 40s range in the polls, and in the 2020 election he managed to win nearly 47% of the popular vote (his 74.2 million votes were the most for any incumbent ever, but 7 million fewer than cast for challenger Biden).

Obama's campaign magic fades

The president for whom Biden served as vice president also found the first year a tall order. In fact, his poll standing fell farther in his first year than that of any other president since polling began.

Obama had the largest majorities in Congress of any Democrat in a generation (nearly three-fifths in each chamber). But negotiating the Affordable Care Act and new regulations for scandal-scarred Wall Street proved daunting nonetheless. Progressives were bitterly disappointed in the final form of both bills.

In the spring of Obama's first year, 2009, rallies in Washington and elsewhere featured activists and citizens gathering under the banner of the "Tea Party." Initially focused on fiscal restraint, the populist coalition soon attracted activists on a wide array of issues.

In that first summer, crowds swarmed the town hall meetings held by Democratic members of Congress, protesting what they were already calling Obamacare, even though it had yet to be enacted.

By summer, Obama's polling had descended from his stratospheric start in the high-60s. In the fall, Republicans won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey running explicitly against him. At year's end, he was down to 50% approval in the Gallup (from 67%) and down to 48% in the polls aggregated by 538.com (a drop of 20 points for the year).

Little wonder, then, that in November 2010 Obama's party took what he himself called "a shellacking" in the midterms, shedding 63 seats in the House and barely holding its majority in the Senate.

Still, like others before him, Obama managed to keep pitching and working with the remnant of support he had on the Hill and secured a second term in office in 2012.

George W. Bush: The 9/11 exception

No postwar president has finished his first year riding quite so high as the one who was in office for the worst disaster of the era – the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush was elected by the narrowest Electoral College margin in history, and like Trump he began his first year "underwater" in the approval polls at 46%. He had a healthy majority in the House, but only a 50-50 tie in the Senate (broken for the GOP by Vice President Richard B. Cheney).

Bush was himself stuck at around 50% in the polls when Sept. 11 arrived. But after terrorists had killed nearly 3,000 Americans and destroyed the World Trade Center, Bush was able to summon the nation to a moment of unity – first in grief, then in retaliatory resolve. His approval numbers shot up to 90% and stayed around 80% into early 2002. That fall, Bush's party added to its House majority and won back its majority in the Senate, a first-midterm showing unmatched since Franklin Roosevelt in 1934.

[The only other president since Roosevelt to avoid serious losses in his first midterm was John F. Kennedy in 1962. Kennedy had won a narrow victory in 1960 with virtually no "coattail effect" in Congress. So his party was not especially vulnerable at the time and lost a net of four seats in the House while breaking even in the Senate. ]

Bush's poll numbers slowly returned to earth, as the fighting in Iraq persisted and the glow of his post-9/11 performance began to fade. But Bush was able to eke out another Electoral College victory in 2004 and serve a second term.

Clinton's steep learning curve

If Bush was the great exception, Bill Clinton's case was perhaps the most telling example in recent history of a first-year comedown and first-midterm come-uppance.

Elected at 46, defeating an incumbent president, Clinton surely came to power with a full head of steam. But his early negotiations with entrenched Democrats in Congress went badly and a series of administrative missteps cost him momentum. Clinton's decision to focus on a major health care overhaul went awry practically from the beginning. In his first year, his Gallup approval number hit an early high of 59% in February and a low of 48% in November.

As the historic pattern would suggest, Clinton took a historic drubbing in the 1994 midterms, which cost the Democrats their majority in both the House and the Senate. In the House, this produced the first Republican Speaker in 40 years, Newt Gingrich, a fiery partisan whose influence on life in the chamber is still felt nearly three decades later.

For all that, Clinton was able to recalibrate and win re-election rather easily in 1996.

George H.W. Bush: Hero and goat

The single term of the first President Bush featured breath-taking highs and lows in his popularity, defying the usual trajectory of first-year and first-term presidential performance.

Having been vice president under the popular Ronald Reagan, Bush won 40 states in 1988. Taking office at a modest 51% approval in the Gallup, he benefited from a year of good news on the world stage as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Bush also got a bump to 80% approval with a brief incursion into Panama to protect the canal and depose a drug-dealing dictator.

In his second year, Bush assembled a multi-national coalition to resist the takeover of Kuwait by Iraq. The success of the brief Persian Gulf War in 1991 pushed the American president past 80% in his Gallup approval. But a recession later that year lingered in its effects, a primary challenge and a third-party candidate bruised his re-election prospects further and his polls fell sharply through most of his re-election year. His Gallup approval bottomed out at 29% in August.

Reagan's forgotten first-year foibles

Given the reverence still shown to the memory of President Reagan, it is somewhat surprising to reflect on the difficulties of his first year in office. He inherited both recession and inflation in 1981, and neither would improve much in his first year. While he enacted his most important changes in federal spending and taxation that year, the effects were not immediately obvious. His best polling came as he survived and recovered from an assassination attempt in the spring. Thereafter, his Gallup descended steadily for 20 months, hitting a low of 35% in his second winter in the White House.

That was shortly after midterms had cost him two dozen seats in the House, where the GOP was already in the minority. Democrats dominated elections in swing states that year, and many observers expected Reagan to retire after one term. But the Gipper would climb back in the latter two years of his term, as the economy improved and inflation eased. In 1984, he carried 49 states on his way to a second term.

Jimmy Carter: Outsider vs. insiders

Carter was the former governor of Georgia who promised "never to lie to you" and rose to the nomination and the White House as the antidote to a scandal-weary era in Washington. He began his first year at 66% approval and peaked at 75% in March.

But his inexperience with Capitol Hill soon showed, and controversies arose with some of his early appointments. His numbers drifted mostly downward through his first year as Americans dealt with double-digit inflation and energy shortages. Carter did not fall below 50% in the Gallup until early in his second year, but rarely rose above that level thereafter.

Carter's historic struggles with Russia and revolutionary Iran took place late in his term after he had lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate in 1978. His approval would fall below 40% by the time he lost his re-election bid to Reagan.

Richard Nixon: Grasping the nettle

Nixon took office in 1969 having won a surprisingly close election over a Democratic Party deeply divided by the Vietnam war. Nixon had hits and misses in his first year (his first two nominations to the Supreme Court met stiff opposition in the Senate). But he mostly polled well above 50% approval, and he was able to hold his party's midterm election losses to a relative minimum (12 seats in the House and 11 governorships).

Nixon enjoyed one big spike in his Gallup approval in mid-November of his first year, when he hit 67%. That poll coincided with the largest anti-war demonstrations of the era, including a massive march on Washington that Nixon pointedly ignored. He would not reach that high in the Gallup again until the week he was inaugurated for his second term in 1973 (after carrying 49 states). Thereafter began his long year of descent over the Watergate burglary and cover-up, and he left office 17 months later at 24% in the Gallup.

Presidents who preceded Nixon and the eras in which they served are more difficult to compare to the group described here. Lyndon Johnson became president when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His first year was an emotional one for the nation, and he was able to channel that to pass the Civil Rights Act and win a term of his own in a landslide. His first year as president in his own right was a continuation of this energy, and his Gallup approval did not fall below 60% until the first poll of 1966. Thereafter, as the Vietnam war worsened and big cities experienced summer riots, Johnson's numbers fell dramatically. The 1966 midterms cost his party 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate, as well as eight governorships.

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