Think Biden is a "failed" president who can't get re-elected? Consider Bill Clinton

Biden will certainly be damaged if he can't pass his big spending bill, but don't write his political epitaph

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 3, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It is historically ignorant to describe Joe Biden as a failed president, which hasn't stopped pundits from trying. From MSNBC to New York Magazine, the view has emerged that if Biden's package of infrastructure and spending bills falls flat, it will be his political death sentence. Centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are depicted as holding the president's very career in their hands. By refusing to support filibuster repeal, and then throwing up roadblocks to his proposed $3.5 trillion spending package, they are seemingly making it impossible for Biden to get anything done at all.

That is unquestionably a big political problem, because if Biden can't get big things done before Democrats lose Congress in the 2022 midterm elections — as is extremely likely to happen — he almost certainly won't be able to do so afterward. If he chooses to run again in 2024, the thinking goes, he'll be a sitting duck for Donald Trump or any other Republican who opposes him: a "failed president," like Trump himself.

Except that history suggests it doesn't work that way. Consider the case of Bill Clinton.

At roughly this time in Clinton's first term, he was also widely regarded as a failure. Like Biden, he had a handful of positive achievements: signing the Family Medical Leave Act, signing the Brady Act (at the time, a historic gun control measure), appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. (Biden's chief accomplishments are his vaccine policiesCOVID-19 stimulus and numerous judicial appointments.)

Clinton also had a number of damaging scandals during this period, from unflattering reports about his business and political fundraising activities to accusations about his handling of a federal raid in Waco, Texas. He also made a number of serious policy blunders. By the 1994 midterm elections, he had signed into law the now-infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, fueling an era of mass incarceration directed largely at Black men; agreed to the egregious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military, which treated LGBT rights like a bargaining chip; failed to pass an ambitious health care plan spearheaded by Hillary Clinton; overseen a military debacle in Somalia; agreed to the "free trade" deal known as NAFTA; and implemented austerity-driven fiscal policies that drove the Democrats unrecognizably to the right.

Clinton was just getting warmed up. Before Election Day 1996, he would also lose control of Congress in the 1994 midterms to Republicans powered by Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" and preside over a government shutdown during a budget battle with those same Republicans, which was largely their doing. America's economy was generally strong through those years, but Clinton's approval ratings fluctuated wildly. (Biden, for what it's worth, has been solidly in the 40s and 50s.) It seemed entirely plausible throughout Clinton's first term that he would lose to whomever the Republicans nominated, which turned out to be Sen. Bob Dole, a widely admired World War II veteran.

But American voters didn't (and don't) have long political memories and weren't focused on the granular details. When the 1996 election came around, they knew that the economy was doing well and the nation was at peace both domestically and abroad. In accordance with presidential election precedent, Clinton won easily. As with every election, reams of commentary have been written about the 1996 contest, but the explanation for Clinton's victory is ultimately just that simple.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

I'm not claiming that Americans don't care about politics. But the people who follow the details of budget negotiations, legislative deals and foreign policy are usually those who already know what they think. If you care enough about politics to hold a strong view about the Senate filibuster, chances are you're already sure who you will vote for next time around. In terms of determining election outcomes, you probably fall into the category of the people that one party wants to make sure turns out to vote, but the other party would prefer got the flu that week. It's very likely you do not fall into the category of people who sometimes vote for one party and sometimes the other. That group, as relatively small as it is, tends to be decisive.

As I have suggested before, Biden was elected in 2020 largely because of Barack Obama — a highly popular president who created a new political alignment during the 2008 election. Biden almost explicitly ran as Obama's political heir, and he won in part for that reason. He was also running against a president — you know who I mean! — who, unlike Clinton in 1996, was presiding over a crumbling economy and a public health disaster.

Biden's situation is certainly not an exact parallel with Clinton's — there was no one like Trump on the horizon, and the incumbent he defeated, George H.W. Bush, had the decency to go away. But the most important features apply. As Trump's defeat in 2020 makes clear, he didn't fundamentally transform the rules of American political life, even if it sometimes felt that way. People outside his base don't pay attention to the Trumpist right wing's whimsical fixations, any more than they did to the Gingrich talking points of the 1990s. Trump's takeover of the Republican Party has deepened political divides, and entrenched partisans on both sides. That likely inspires more people to turn out to vote, but it doesn't change the breakdown of how they vote. And in general, less partisan swing voters tend to cast their ballot based on the perceived conditions in the country.

This is the problem facing anyone who tries to predict the 2024 election from here: There is no way of knowing where we will be in three years. Economies can unexpectedly boom or go bust; international crises can emerge, with leaders rising to them or coming up short; unexpected catastrophes like hurricanes and pandemics can derail the best laid plans. And that's the short list. If Biden does unexpectedly well or egregiously flops in responding to these externalities, his political fate will improve or decline accordingly. Should nothing in his presidency move the needle all that much, the public will likely default to its standard voting patterns.

If anything, Biden's biggest political concern should be the Republicans' assault on voting. If his current approval ratings remain stable, and conditions remain acceptable at home and abroad, he'll hold a natural advantage by continuing to rely on Obama's 2008 coalition. Yet now that Trump's Big Lie is being used to roll back voting rights and empower partisan election officials, it is within the realm of possibility that Biden could have a victory stolen from him in 2024. If any policy failures right now are likely to hurt him politically three years hence, it will be the ones that limited his voters' ability to keep him in power. This won't just be the end of Biden's career, it might mean the end of democracy, confirming the Republicans' belief that only they have a right to political power.

But if we assume for the moment that people who want to vote will largely be allowed to — admittedly a very big if — the 2024 election will be decided on bedrock political loyalties, not on Donald Trump's bullshit histrionics. Trump would like to believe he has changed the world, but the same political rules that applied before he rode down that golden escalator still apply today. 

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa