TURES COLUMN: Can Biden bounce back from a rough 2021?

Published 9:30 am Saturday, November 27, 2021

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As the Democratic Party struggles with a tough 2021 election season, and no shortage of polls claiming Joe Biden’s numbers are tumbling, it’s worth asking if it is the beginning of the end for the winner of the 2020 Election. In the old days, it would be, thanks to a theory known as the “Presidential Life Cycle.” But research by my undergraduates shows that presidents can recover lost ground in presidential approval ratings.

Most textbooks on the American Presidency, and even some on American Politics and American Foreign Policy, are certain to cite the “Presidential Life Cycle.” As Jerel Rosati writes in the International Journal “President John F. Kennedy understood this when he said that the president ‘is rightly described as a man of extraordinary powers. Yet it is true that he must wield those powers under extraordinary limitations.’ It is also important to remember that the presidency usually has its own ‘life cycle:’ presidents are strongest when they enter office and their power tends to decline over time. Thus, although the president of the United States is powerful, his power is not so great as the popular stereotype would have it, even in the area of foreign policy.” He goes on to say that American presidents have seen their power decline since the end of the Vietnam War.

In fact, I believe it was top Political Scientist John Mueller in the early 1970s, who quipped that in order to stay popular, a president should resign on Day 1, or become Dwight D. Eisenhower!

But if you take a class with me, you can count on two things. First, we’ll test myths, not repeat them.

Second, we’ll analyze a lot of statistics. So we researched our data on presidential surveys from Gallup Polling’s Presidential Job Approval Center. And this is what we found.

Kristina Calixto, Chase Davis, Kenya Ellington, DeQueze Fryer, Jacob Jeffords, Shedrick Lindsey, Mason McLaughlin, Erik Moran, Brennan Oates, Abbey Reese and Tamino Schoeffer found that the Presidential Life Cycle (PLC) generally did fit…ironically before the 1980s. 

Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter fit the PLC.  Even Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy kept rating a little higher than others, but still experienced lower approval ratings than on Inauguration Day. And while Gerald Ford did recover somewhat, it wasn’t enough to win reelection.

It was a different story from the 1980s to the present.

Both George Bushs fit the Presidential Life Cycle well, experiencing a dramatic decline in approval ratings over time. But some, like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, were able to come back from early declines in favorability with the public, even ending their time in office on a fairly strong note.  Donald Trump declined a little, but experienced more of a plateau than a fall off a cliff in poll numbers.

As I write this, Joe Biden has declined in presidential approval ratings since Inauguration Day, to numbers almost as low as Donald Trump on a good week (low to mid 40s, depending on whether it is a consistently conservative polling firm).  Early in the postwar period, he would be finished.  As we’ve seen from recent presidents, it is possible to have your standing in the public rebound from low numbers.

Even Reagan and Clinton were once in the mid-30% range, while Obama fell to the mid-40s on more than one occasion. But as we’ve found, it is possible to get a second act in American politics.