Can team Biden avoid a one-term presidency?

There’s still time.

That’s the message from Democratic strategists to their party’s hand-wringers, following a series of polls that show former President Donald Trump beating the incumbent in a 2024 rematch.

On paper, President Joe Biden’s reelection prospects do look highly uncertain, if not outright daunting. Even among Democrats, a majority (58%) say they want other candidates to enter the 2024 presidential race. At best, President Biden is in a dead heat with former President Trump, the likely Republican nominee.

For those who believe a second Trump term is a “break the glass” moment – an emergency for the future of American democracy – it’s time to pull out all the stops.

But with just under a year to go until the 2024 presidential election, most Americans haven’t fully tuned in. And therein lies hope for both Democrats and Republicans.

Under normal circumstances, a sitting U.S. president would have an advantage in a reelection race. History shows that most incumbents who try for another term win. But these are not normal times. Mr. Biden, who marked his 81st birthday today, is the oldest American president in history – a negative to voters of both parties. The economy is still recovering from the pandemic, and the rate of inflation, while declining, remains above normal. Two wars are raging abroad, with major U.S. interests at stake and no end in sight.

At home, Mr. Trump is deploying the language of autocrats, critics say, as his allies reportedly plan for a second term that could blow away the conventions of democratic rule.

In many ways, it’s shaping up to be an election year like no other, but in a fundamental way, it’s utterly typical: The state of the economy, and voter perceptions of it, could well determine the outcome.

“It’s the single biggest challenge for the administration,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who worked on the 2020 Biden campaign.

And even though the economy is improving, and has avoided (so far) a widely expected recession, many Americans aren’t feeling it: Grocery prices are at record highs, and “people are reminded of that daily,” says Ms. Lake, who conducts weekly focus groups. “You can’t argue with people about their real, lived experience.”

What’s more, she says, unlike with past inflationary periods, consumers have an unrealistic expectation that prices should go back to where they were before factors including pandemic spending by the government pushed them up.

The president is losing traction among Black, Hispanic, and young voters, all key constituencies. Among voters between the ages of 18 and 34, fully 70% disapprove of Mr. Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, according to a new NBC News poll. Among Democrats overall, Mr. Biden’s job approval has plummeted into the 70s in the Gallup poll, a record low for his presidency, attributed to his unequivocal support for Israel in the war.

Polls also consistently show Mr. Biden trailing Mr. Trump in voter trust on immigration, national security, and foreign policy. And while the president leads his likely adversary on abortion rights and handling of democracy, those issues have less overall salience with a larger, presidential-year electorate.

Mr. Biden, too, faces multiple third-party challengers who, in theory, could siphon away enough votes to cost him key battleground states, a phenomenon that contributed to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s loss to Mr. Trump in 2016.

So, is Mr. Biden headed the way of the first President Bush and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford – and into the nation’s second straight one-term presidency?

Not necessarily, historians say. It’s far too soon to draw conclusions from the early polls; many voters have yet to focus on the election. Furthermore, bad early polls can be useful in flagging weaknesses in a campaign and suggest ways to retool, as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama discovered on their way to second terms.

In fact, Mr. Biden – who served as vice president under President Obama – could be forgiven for having déjà vu. At this point in his first term, Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings in Gallup polls languished in the low 40s, not far above where Mr. Biden’s overall public approval stands now.

That’s not to suggest Mr. Biden has the performative skills of his more charismatic former boss – or of Mr. Trump. And in that regard, says presidential scholar William Howell, the angst Democrats are feeling over polls is justified.

“There’s Biden’s age, but more broadly, he doesn’t have a core base of enthusiasm within the party in the way Trump decidedly does,” says Professor Howell, director of the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago.

And that, in turn, fuels Democratic anxiety over what some see as the biggest issue at stake in 2024: the trajectory of American democracy.

“I do believe that that very much is on the ballot,” Professor Howell says. “But I’m not confident that that, as a campaign message, is the ticket for Biden to get reelected. Which leads to a kind of strange dissonance: The thing that matters most may be the thing that’s talked about the least.”

For now Ms. Lake, the Democratic strategist, is focused on the nuts and bolts of why Mr. Biden is struggling in polls today and how he breaks out of that rut.

“Ultimately, Joe Biden will get more credit for his accomplishments when there’s a contrast, and he will also unite and energize Democrats more,” Ms. Lake says. “There’s nothing more focusing than Donald Trump in his element, like when he’s calling people vermin on Veterans Day. That really bothers people, and really bothers women.”

The best issue for Mr. Biden and Democrats overall, polls show, will be abortion. The 2022 Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, with three Trump appointees voting in the majority to eliminate a nationwide right to the procedure, will motivate key constituencies, including suburban women, as will no other issue.

Buttressed by abortion, Democrats overperformed in off-year elections earlier this month. In Ohio, a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution passed easily, echoing results in other red and purple states. Advocates in several states – including Nevada and Arizona, both battlegrounds – are trying to put abortion referendums on ballots next year.

But in a presidential year, turnout will be higher than in off-year elections – and if Mr. Trump is on the ballot, that will goose turnout on both sides.

David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, says Mr. Biden already has a good economic story to tell; he and his surrogates just need to tell it.

“They’ve got work to do, but Joe Biden actually has a decent record to run on, if they’re able to communicate it well,” Mr. Pepper says. “What he inherited versus where we are is quite strong.”

Just watch Ohio Republicans in statewide office talk about the Ohio economy, he says. “They run around every day talking about how great it is. And it’s clearly not about Ohio; it’s a national recovery.”

Mr. Pepper also thinks “Scranton Joe” – the Mr. Biden who loves to travel to small cities like his Pennsylvania hometown, and talk to voters – can be effective in building up the public’s assessment of the economy.

“He can show up in Mansfield, Ohio, and say, ‘I know what’s happening in this town. And when we talk about infrastructure, we’re not just talking about the billion-dollar bridge in Cincinnati, which gets all the attention. We’re talking about the five-figure project that could make a difference to your town that’s been struggling too long,’” Mr. Pepper says.

But even if “It’s the economy, stupid” still reigns as the ultimate campaign mantra, other elements will factor in, says American University historian Allan Lichtman, who uses “13 keys” to predict U.S. presidential elections.

A year out, it’s too early to forecast 2024. And while it might seem that a Biden-Trump race features two incumbents, it will still be a referendum on the sitting president, Professor Lichtman says.

“This election will turn on governance more than anything else,” he says, adding a caveat: “Historical patterns are strong but not necessarily invincible. And we do have something quite unprecedented, not just a former president versus a current – but a former president who faces 91 felony counts, who could be convicted and sentenced to prison before the general election. Who knows how that might shake things up?”

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