Joe Biden, join the club. You’re in another one of those moments when the American presidency seems like too difficult a job, too formidable a challenge, too thankless an undertaking.
Gerald Ford rescued the Republican Party from its reputation as a crime mob after Richard Nixon and Watergate only to face a challenge in GOP primaries from Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter restored American politics to a semblance of decency only to face an energy crisis, a hostage situation in Iran and a challenge from within his own party by Senator Edward Kennedy. George H.W. Bush created a formidable international coalition after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and steered the West through the shoals of the collapse of Soviet Communism but foundered on the reefs of the economy.
More recently, Bill Clinton presided over relative peace and prosperity but was bombarded with crises and then an impeachment from an unforced error of judgment in his affair with a White House intern. George W. Bush rallied the country after the 2001 terrorist attacks but sank in the muck of the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis. Barack Obama never fully redeemed the great hope he inspired, angering his opponents and disappointing his supporters. Donald Trump wreaked havoc and nearly wrecked the sacred notion of the peaceful transition of power.
“Ultimately, regardless of the day-to-day news cycles and the noise,” George W. Bush told Mr. Obama, “the American people need their president to succeed.”
Not so easy to do, as Mr. Biden is discovering.
On the one hand, he has calmed the country and ended the chaos that hovered over the White House. On the other, he promoted a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and hasn’t been able to win congressional approval of his top domestic priorities. And – not in his control but still on his watch – he faces raging inflation, a Russian invasion of a Western-oriented country, the remnants of a global pandemic and a country where resentment has replaced resilience as the prevailing national mood.
All that plus a political divide that has hardened into what seems like a permanent polarization.
The last three presidents have operated in a period far different from even the most challenged contemporary presidents.
Mr. Nixon, who for more than a quarter-century attacked, tormented and alienated Democrats and is regarded as a classic polarizer, had a 41 percentage point gap between his average Republican approval rating as president (75 per cent) and his average Democratic approval rating (34 per cent). At that time, that gap seemed astonishing; John F. Kennedy had a 35-point gap and Lyndon Johnson had a 27-point gap, according to Gallup surveys.
By contrast, Mr. Obama had a 70-point party gap, Mr. Trump had an 81-point gap, and Mr. Biden has a 79-point gap.
These most recent presidents have almost no support from members of their opposition parties. Where an average of 31 per cent of Democrats supported Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump had an average support of 7 percentage points from Democrats and Mr. Biden checks in with only a 5 percentage point approval rating from Republicans.
“You can almost think of the presidency as a no-win proposition,” said Stephen Farnsworth, the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “Presidents have a great deal of support on their side of the partisan divide and almost none on the other side of the political divide.”
Mr. Biden has an additional challenge that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Trump possessed. He is a relative moderate, far less exciting than the figure he defeated in the Democratic primaries (Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) and the incumbent president he defeated in the 2020 general election (Mr. Trump).
“The politically passionate people tend to inhabit the ends of political spectrum while the centre attracts the moderates and the indifferent,” said Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist. “The political extremes support strong, bold candidates. The political centre prefers measured, even-handed politicians who then look weak when they try to govern by pleasing the mélange of their electoral coalition.”
Indeed, the soundtrack for the Biden presidency might come from the band Stealers Wheel, a ballad by Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan that was the number-two ranked song in Canada in May, 1973. Its most famous lines were:
Clowns to the left of me!
Jokers to the right!
Here I am stuck in the middle with you.
Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do.
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face.
Losing control and running all over the place.
In those lyrics is a warning for Mr. Biden: the song was a one-hit wonder for the Scottish folk band, a bad omen for a man who has indicated he wants to be more than a one-term president.
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