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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Obviously I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But here’s one reason for Democratic optimism, and one reason for utter uncertainty.

First, a look at the polls (as compiled by FiveThirtyEight):

Biden has been in close vicinity of 42% approval since late August. Nothing has moved the needle, including the unexpectedly strong midterms for the Democrats. If he remains there, his chances of winning seem very low — unless Trump wins the GOP nomination. Let’s assume Trump doesn’t win and Biden faces someone else (my strong guess is DeSantis). The question is: given his low approval at the midpoint of his first term, what could improve it?

Historical precedents offer an answer. Look at Obama (thanks again, FiveThirtyEight):

The green line is Biden’s approval rating, the black Obama’s. Though Biden’s is lower, both were under 50% at their first midterm. But notice that Obama’s rose shortly afterwards in 2010, and, with some significant fluctuation, he was above 50% in time for re-election, which he of course won.

Now look at Clinton:

It’s a similar pattern. Clinton was below 50% at his first midterm, and then his approval rose in 1994, well above 50% come re-election.

What do Obama and Clinton have in common?

The Democrats lost control of the House at both midterms. Afterwards Clinton and Obama both looked better with a split government, especially with a dysfunctionally conservative House. In terms of re-election, having Newt Gingrich as Speaker was a gift for Clinton in 1996, and Obama had the entire Tea Party to thank in 2012.

And now Biden is about to have Kevin McCarthy for Speaker — assuming McCarthy can muster enough support from his right flank by January 3rd when the House votes. Pelosi had her in-party challenges too, both in 2021 and 2019, so I’m betting McCarthy pulls through. Still, the GOP’s unexpectedly small majority means hard-right Reps. like Gaetz and Greene and and Gosar and Boebert have major leverage. That’s what drove John Boehner out in 2015, and Paul Ryan out in 2019.

McCarthy is already struggling. The updates are daily and media-wide:

That last one gives McCarthy a 12% approval rating. The composite polls at Real Clear Politics are kinder with a 22% average, but that is still significantly lower than Pelosi’s 35%.

So there’s reason to predict that Biden’s numbers will start to rise after McCarthy becomes Speaker of a newly GOP House on January 3rd (if GOP dysfunction prevents McCarthy from becoming Speaker then there’s even more reason).

But the Gingrich Effect isn’t the only factor, and it might not be the primary one.

Take a look at Reagan:

His first-term trajectory follows the same pattern as Clinton’s and Obama’s — but for different reasons. The 1982 midterms didn’t usher in a new House majority. Democrats had controlled and continued to control the House, though with an increase of 27 seats. Setting aside the fact that the two parties still varied ideologically then (there were liberal, moderate, and conservative members in each), Reagan didn’t gain a new House Speaker as a public opponent. Tip O’Neill began as Speaker with Carter (1977) and left office with Reagan (1987).

Reagan’s post-midterm rise was linked to something else.

From 1980 to 1983, the world suffered the worst recession since World War II. Oil prices spiked. Triggered by the Iranian Revolution, a gallon of gas went from 63 cents in 1978 to $1.19 in 1980 (or $2.85 to $4.25 in 2022 dollars). Inflation hit 13.5% in 1980. After a “double-dip” recession from July 1981 to November 1982 (the month of the midterm election), Reagan’s approval dropped to a low of 35% in January 1983.

But as the U.S. economy began to recover from the “Reagan Recession,” so did his popularity. Inflation fell to 3.2% in 1983. Unemployment fell from a high of 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.2% on 1984 election day.  Reagan’s reelection was tied to the economy.

What’s that say about Biden?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistic, in May 2020 (during the pandemic lockdown), inflation dropped to .1%, and then it steadily rose to a 9.1% high in June 2022, before lowering to 7.1% in November.

Triggered by Russian invasion of Ukraine, gas went from $3.26 in 2021 to $4.90 in 2022 (Hallman).

Though U.S. economy is probably not currently in recession (as defined by two consecutive quarters of a generally slowing economy), some predictors are pointing in that direction.

Will inflation continue to drop? Will the price of gas? Will the next quarter show an economic increase?

I have no idea. But I do predict that Biden’s 2024 prospects will be a direct reflection of economic happenstance. 2023 will likely be rocky, but if Biden starts primary season with a solid economy, and given the Gingrich Effect from the House GOP, he should win a second term.

If not, his approval rating is likely to remain as flat as Trump’s:

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