The antidote to "Democratic panic syndrome": Putting Joe Biden's poll numbers in perspective

Barack Obama; Joe Biden Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images
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It's that time in the presidential campaign cycle again when Democrats feel the need to express their discontent with their choices and political journalists, in turn, declare that the party is in a panic. It's a tradition — and it's always most dramatic when an incumbent Democrat is facing re-election.

I'm reminded of Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who wrote in September of 1995, "There is little unity among Democrats or on the center-left on the desirability of reelecting President Clinton." He was right. At the time there were pitched battles going on among the centrists and the progressives which made the prospect of solidarity in the party a distant dream. The huge Republican win in the midterm election of 1994 as well as the non-stop scandal-mongering and investigations by the congressional Republicans had Democrats everywhere wondering how Clinton could possibly win re-election. The only thing that seemed to unite the party at the time was a mutual loathing of Newt Gingrich. 14 months later, Clinton won a decisive victory.

Similarly, at the same point in the 2012 election, there were rumblings from certain quarters that it might be wise to run a primary challenge against President Barack Obama after his approval numbers fell to the 30s in some polls. It had been a very rough three years trying to recover from the financial crisis, not to mention the rise of the Tea Party and a political massacre in the 2010 midterms. The New York Times reported in September of 2011, "Democrats Fret Aloud Over Obama's Chances":

[I]n a campaign cycle in which Democrats had entertained hopes of reversing losses from last year's midterm elections, some in the party fear that Mr. Obama's troubles could reverberate down the ballot into Congressional, state and local races. "In my district, the enthusiasm for him has mostly evaporated," said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon. "There is tremendous discontent with his direction."

The media was full of stories of unhappy centrists, moderates and progressives alike, all of whom were sure that Obama was in trouble. 14 months later, Obama beat Mitt Romney in a romp.

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It happens in midterm elections too.

Just two years ago there were endless stories about Democratic hand-wringing in advance of the 2022 midterms, mostly due to the off-year win by Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race that supposedly portended a red wave like no other. In December of 2021, Thomas Edsall of the New York Times wrote a story headlined, "Democrats Shouldn't Panic. They Should Go Into Shock."

The rise of inflationsupply chain shortages, a surge in illegal border crossings, the persistence of Covid, mayhem in Afghanistan and the uproar over "critical race theory" — all of these developments, individually and collectively, have taken their toll on President Biden and Democratic candidates, so much so that Democrats are now the underdogs going into 2022 and possibly 2024.

I'm sure you will recall just how apoplectic everyone was all the way up until election day. And I'm sure you'll also recall that that red tsunami turned out to be a tiny pink trickle.

Maybe we should call this the "Democratic panic syndrome" or simply chalk it up to a healthy regard for the vicissitudes of electoral politics. After all, the party in power often loses big in the midterms and after the horror of 2016, it's surprising that Democrats allow themselves to feel any hope at all in presidential races. (That was the one time Democrats failed to anticipate the worst — and the worst happened.)


Barack Obama's pollsters see "big red flags" for Donald Trump's re-election campaign

Over the Labor Day weekend, the Wall St. Journal released a poll that showed Donald Trump leading the GOP primary at 59% with his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, at 13%. There's nothing shocking there, Trump's leading by a huge margin in all of them, and that poll was conducted by none other than Trump's personal pollster, Tony Fabrizio, (along with a partner) so one would expect no less. But what got every Democratic pundit gasping and every talking head salivating was the finding that 73% of Americans believe 80-year-old Joe Biden is too old to be president while only  47% of voters believe the sprightly 77-year-old Donald Trump is similarly unqualified by his age.

The assumption, of course, is that this means Biden is going to lose and Donald Trump will assume the presidency and wreak his revenge on his enemies with relish, which would make anyone panic. (Did I mention this poll was conducted by Trump's personal pollster?) But it's important to consider the reality of what is going to be a very bizarre election. Yes, I think we can all agree that Biden is old. Trump is arguably in worse physical shape than Biden is but he dyes his hair and wears a lot of makeup so he hides the fact that he is also an old man. But like Biden, regardless of the perception that he's not, he looks perceptibly older these days.

In a perfect world, we would not have a presidential election between two men who were born in the WWII era. It's 2023 and it's past time to pass the torch. But we are where we are and there are strong reasons to take a breath and realize that Joe Biden is going into this campaign with some serious advantages that would be stupid to toss aside.

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First of all, the power of incumbency cannot be underrated. In the past 11 presidential elections with incumbent candidates, only 4 were unseated. Both the Clinton and Obama re-elections that everyone was so worried about were helped immensely by the fact that there was no primary and they already had fundraising bases and successful campaign experience.

It takes a while for people to catch up to economic good news and Biden has a good story to tell on that front. Reagan, for instance, was underwater in approval in August of 1983 before "Morning in America" and his 1984 landslide re-election. (I'm not suggesting that will happen with Biden — it's a different world today — it's just another illustration of how quickly things can improve.)

And there are some other issues in Biden's favor that are extremely salient at this time such as abortion rights and the attack on democracy, which adds up to a powerful critique of Trump and the authoritarian assault by the Republican party. (Government shutdowns and idiotic impeachments will only help illuminate their extremism) After all, Biden is facing a man who is going to be on trial during most of the campaign next year and could be running as a convicted felon. Yes, his followers will stick with him through it all but the idea that Biden's age will trump Trump's criminal status is to suggest that otherwise normal people will prefer an old man who is also a criminal to an old man who has done a good job as president. It's possible but I'm not convinced it's likely.

It's in the Democratic DNA to be nervous nellies. And maybe that's a good thing. It means they won't be complacent and will work hard to win the election. For the most part it's paid off in presidential politics for the past 30 years. But it's 14 months before the election. Nobody should be losing any sleep just yet.

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