Friday, February 2, 2024

BTRTN: What If Trump and the GOP Have No Issues to Run On?

Tom is back with the January, 2024 BTRTN Month in Review.


Joe Biden is stuck at a 40% approval rating.  Conventional wisdom would dictate that he can’t win reelection without material upward movement over the next nine months.  George W. Bush managed reelection with a 48% approval rating, and (since Truman) every other president who was reelected was over 50%.  Donald Trump, at 43%, failed to win reelection, as did Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who were both below 40%.  So, the approval rating has been a more than decent indicator of reelection prospects, which does not bode well for  Biden -- at the moment.

Biden has time.  Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all made significant approval rating progress in the last year before their reelections, all climbing from the low-to-mid 40% range to over 50% by Election Day.  But approval ratings are stickier in these polarized times, and the percentage of the electorate willing to give Biden a fair shake is far less than it might have been ten or more years ago. 

Biden’s approval rating reached 57% right after his Inaugural, and remained over 50% for his first six months in office, so clearly there are voters who liked him once and could, in theory, be wooed back.  Plus, Biden’s presumptive opponent, Trump, is roughly as unpopular as Biden himself, and Trump faces nine months of criminal and civil trials, which will not help him among the persuadable middle.  Biden might not need to get to 48% approval; 45% might do, or, perhaps he could squeak out a win even at his current level.  Trump, after all, came quite close even with that 43% rating.

One might think, for all of Biden’s approval rating woes, that the case against him must be pretty powerful.  But the GOP’s theory of the case may indeed be weakening, in large part because of actions Biden is taking to shore up his weaknesses.  Last month provided a vivid demonstration.

It would have been quite easy, several months ago, for any GOP strategist to rattle off the issues on which Biden was vulnerable.  His handling of the economy, immigration and crime would certainly head the list, and form the basic argument, in their view, for change.  One may debate the merits of the case, but polling confirms the significant weakness.  The second tier list would include Biden’s age coupled with his “mental competence,” as well as the wars still raging – with no resolution in sight -- in Ukraine and Gaza.  And the Israel-Hamas war now appears to be spreading with the Houthi attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea, and the Iranian-backed drone attacks in Jordan that killed three U.S. soldiers.

Let’s look at each of these five issues, in turn. 

·        The economy.  “It’s the economy, stupid” continues to be the most important tidbit of campaign wisdom ever uttered, and James Carville is re-canonized in every election cycle for his insight.  It is clear that the conventional measures of economic health – such as GDP, the unemployment rate, the stock market – are extremely healthy, but because of the long tail of Covid-induced inflation, many Americans are suffering from high prices and they blame Biden. 

But inflation peaked 19 months ago, it is now all but tamed at 3%, and virtually no one fears a 2024 recession anymore.  Biden did not create inflation, and he has fixed it without the predicted economic pain.  But more to the real point – how the economy is being perceived -- there is new evidence that an all-important bellwether, consumer confidence, is on the rise.  Such a rise could – could – augur well for Biden as the year progresses.   The Conference Board index rose to 115 in January, its highest level in 25 months (since December, 2021), and their chief economist issued this accompanying statement:  January’s increase in consumer confidence likely reflected slower inflation, anticipation of lower interest rates ahead, and generally favorable employment conditions as companies continue to hoard labor.  The gain was seen across all age groups.” 

Now we have to see if Biden starts to get at least some credit for the conditions that have bred this optimism – and there has indeed been some discernable upward movement in the rating of his performance in managing the economy (see below), from 40% to 43% approval in the last month.  But it is certainly getting more difficult for Trump and the GOP to rail on the state of the economy with any credibility. 

·        Immigration.  Immigration has emerged as a major issue in the campaign, a Biden vulnerability and an issue for which he has failed to develop any effective, workable strategy, policy or messaging.  This is a real issue, in that the facts are that migrant encounters at the US-Mexican border reached 2.5 million in the 12-month period ending in October, 2023, shattering the record of 1.6 million set in the previous year.  These encounters have increased dramatically in the Biden years; they had dropped sharply under Obama (to below 500,000) and roughly stayed at that level under Trump.   Immigration has soared because of a number of factors beyond Biden’s control, including a massive influx of immigrants from countries other than Mexico, who do not have the same types of return agreements that we have with Mexico.  And the GOP has generally been unwilling to engage in meaningful immigration reform since they reneged on the “Gang of Eight” bipartisan legislation in 2013. 

But in January Biden took a big step to stanch the political bleeding by endorsing a bipartisan, though indisputably conservative Senate immigration bill which, while still in negotiation, is close to the finish line.  It is being shepherded by arch-conservative Oklahoma Senator James Lankford.  The bill actually could be a “heads I win, tails you lose” for Biden.  If the House fails to pass it, Biden can use the GOP-driven bill as his pitch to voters in the campaign, clear evidence that the GOP is not actually interested in solutions, even those of their own devising.  And if the bill is passed and signed by Biden, he has another bipartisan achievement to campaign on, on his worst issue. 

Trump wants the bill dead, to deny Biden that massive political victory, and is using his control over the House (and lapdog Speaker Mike Johnson) to ensure it is killed.  His interest, of course, is to preserve the issue as a campaign cudgel against Biden, but this approach could very well backfire, opening the door to the well-deserved charge that he is putting self before country.  Lankford and the many GOP Senators who support the hardline bill, which contains little of the progressive measures that were in the “Gang of Eight” approach, are livid that Trump is opposing their efforts to provide real relief, and are plowing ahead to finish the bill.  

On top of this bill fiasco, the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is a classic overreach on the part of the GOP and will go nowhere.  As a Wall Street Journal editorial explained, a “policy dispute does not qualify as a high crime or misdemeanor.”  At this very moment, GOP Senators think highly enough of Mayorkas that they are working with him on their bill.  Conviction is out of the question, since all Democrats in both chambers will support Mayorkas.  The real questions are, first, does Mike Johnson truly have the votes to impeach him – thinking about those 18 reps who represent districts that Biden won in 2020 -- and second, how many GOP Senators will vote to acquit him?  The more GOP votes against the impeachment, the more embarrassing it becomes, and evidence that Biden can use that the GOP is fundamentally deranged and cannot govern. 

So, by bowing to Trump and blocking popular legislation, and in attempting to impeach Mayorkas, the GOP risks losing their very best issue. 

·        Crime.  If the economy and immigration are mitigated as cudgels, what then?  Crime?  Crime has at time been an effective issue for Republicans, especially in New York State in the 2022 midterms (a rare bright spot in what was otherwise a GOP debacle).  But the facts on crime are not nearly as compelling as on immigration, and Biden is thus far less vulnerable on the issue.  There has, plain and simple, been no surge in violent crime under Biden.  Unlike inflation and border encounters, that is fake news. 

There were roughly 750+ violent crimes per 100,000 households in the U.S. in 1991, a figure that steadily declined in the Clinton, Bush and Obama years to under 400, leveling off in the 370-380 range in the later Obama years.  It actually bumped up a little (to ~390) in Trump’s last full year in office, the Covid year, but has fallen under Biden in 2021, 2022 and the first 9 months of 2023 – to a low point over this extended era.  It’s hard to imagine crime being successfully elevated by the GOP as a critical issue nationally on which Biden can be defeated. 

·        War.  Biden is also taking aggressive action to shore up his weak standing among young U.S. voters, at this point openly and bluntly making clear to Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will not tolerate an ongoing war and Israel needs to end it, period, in the coming months.  Netanyahu thus far has not agreed, but the Israeli war military effort has slowed, the rate of civilian deaths in Gaza is dropping, and discussions on potential peace terms, including the release of remaining hostages, are underway in Paris, involving contingents from the U.S., Israel, Egypt and Qatar.  

Trump and his acolytes are fond of saying that there were no wars under Trump (conveniently forgetting about Afghanistan).  But Biden will surely highlight the obvious – that Trump would not have lifted a finger to stop Putin in Ukraine; would have supported Netanyahu in the same manner and likely never sought any hostage release effort at all; that Trump harbors an extreme agenda that involves exiting NATO, diminishing U.S. influence globally, and allowing autocrats free reign to poach sovereign nations within their sphere (including Putin when he sets his sights on the Baltic states or Poland, all NATO members).  Putin, of course, is desperately holding onto a Ukraine stalemate in the hopes that Trump will win this November – he, of course, can see the GOP’s opposition to fund Ukraine, which is at Trump’s behest. 

Biden needs to make far more progress to improve his foreign policy standing, and this involves more difficult needle-threading.  He needs to convince young voters that he is serious about reducing the suffering in Gaza even as he continues to support Israel’s rightful desire to eliminate the threat of Hamas, and, even more immediately, he needs to find a way to respond to the drone killings proportionately while simultaneously defusing the escalating regional tensions and preventing a wider war.  

·        Age.  If the GOP really wanted to make hay about Biden’s age and competence, they might not have nominated a generational peer of Biden’s who has frequent memory lapses (he seems to have particular trouble distinguishing Nikki Haley from Nancy Pelosi) and often sounds unhinged, such as when he is echoing famous Nazis.  The generational choices, DeSantis and Haley, were rejected, and with that went the generational argument.  

Both Biden and Trump could deteriorate visibly during the campaign, and the odds of either of them doing so are about the same (Biden works out, is fit and trim and makes some attempt at having a healthy diet, whereas Trump is wildly overweight and guzzles fast food and red meat like there is no tomorrow).  Trump, who often says (incorrectly) that Biden can’t string two sentences together, is himself given to off-the-cuff speeches that devolve into nonsensical word salad. 

It would be a fantasy to believe that Biden’s vulnerabilities will all miraculously melt away.  The January opportunities may not all lead to sunshine, and more rain, in other forms, will come.  And, of course, lacking facts, Trump will make stuff up. 

But Biden has the electoral powerhouse abortion issue on his side (particularly if SCOTUS further restricts access to mifepristone in June) and a very solid chance to mitigate, if not defuse, his two most vulnerable issues, the economy and immigration.  He also has the very real power of the presidency to use to improve his position, as have so many predecessors. 

And keep in mind that the Democrats have won every election cycle since 2016, including a virtual clean sweep in 2023, when they flipped the Virginia legislature, won the Ohio abortion referendum, took the Wisconsin state supreme court, held the Kentucky governorship, darn near won the Mississippi one, and outperformed recent voting history by, on average, +11 percentage points in 30 state legislature special elections across the country.  The political environment is surely leaning blue. 

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in January remained at 40%, though his net negative dropped from -16 to -14 percentage points.  His issue ratings, however, were generally higher, particularly on the economy and inflation, which each saw a modest jump of +3 percentage points.

The generic ballot has the GOP up by a point.

The "Bidenometer" dropped from +60 to +52, driven entirely by new (Q4) GDP numbers, which were solid (+3.3%) but below the extraordinary level (+4.9%) of the prior quarter (Q3).  The +52 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below). 





The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +52 for January, 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 52% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +52, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +52 under Biden.

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