Why George H.W. Bush’s Single Term Should Worry Joe Biden

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The President seemed to be riding high. American citizens had rallied behind the President to support his direct military intervention to a country invading its neighbor, to protect Eastern Europe’s democracy, and to ease tensions between Cold War enemies.

It seems President Joe Biden has become mighty jealous over President George H.W. Bush.

Then-President Bush was having a moment in April of his second year in office—exactly where Biden sits today. The global order was reset by the end of Cold War. The public made Bush a rockstar as U.S. forces stepped in to help push Saddam Hussein back across the border into Iraq from Kuwait, American dollars were flowing to help Poland’s pro-democracy movements, and the once-branded Evil Empire grounded in Moscow seemed to have collapsed. The Berlin Wall was down and Bush’s poll numbers were up, parked in the mid-70s.

This is Biden’s situation. The public has meager interest in supporting Ukraine’s defense against an invading Russian force, although there is zero appetite for sending U.S. troops to repel the aggression. Biden’s domestic agenda, including his signature but stalled social-spending plan, seems stuck in park, if not reverse. The four-decade mark of inflation has seen workers leave unrewarding occupations, while Cold War tensions are heating up with each cluster bomb dropped on the Ukrainian suburbs.

Yet, despite the best polling since Lyndon Baines Johnson took over after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Bush lost his 1992 bid for reelection. Bush 41 was at 74% approval by this time in his term. Biden is at 41%, despite facing the same themes and challenges as Bush 41. In the political world, one of these 41s is more attractive than the other.

This is the reality facing Democrats. Politico rightly described insiders’ diagnosis that Democrats are sleepwalking toward a disaster this fall. With the notable exception of the first midterms after 9/11, the parties of the incumbent President lose House seats in their first at-bat with midterm voters; Bush’s Republicans lost eight seats in 1990, a number that today would be enough to take the gavel away from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Biden isn’t exactly an asset for battleground states. Candidates aren’t looking to him for backup. The Trumpian wing of the GOP is fighting to dominate in primaries, the longstanding Democratic money machine isn’t flowing cash to races, and viable candidates aren’t locking arms with the party. Consider Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire. She is currently on the ballot and visited the southern border this week to support a Trump-era immigration strategy.

To be sure, Biden’s economic stats are a mixed bag. He’s presiding over a huge market for new hires. The possibly-post-COVID-19 environment could give the U.S. economy generation-changing power. Inflation is also a significant drag on voters’ lives. For a moment, I’m a geek and the Consumer Price Index has almost doubled since H.W. His re-election campaign was lost. And voters—especially Democrats—seem uninspired at the moment.

This is all to say that Bush 41 and Biden arrived at the White House having spent decades in Washington working with the systems they were so familiar with. These two foreign policy experts, who served eight years as understudies of the presidency themselves, seemed to be among the best candidates to ever take the oath. They were elected to reelection after early victories abroad. However, the American public was indifferent about global affairs and there was a mismatch between economic factors. This slowed down sentiment.

Yes, there were many presidents who won their second terms with a lack of sleep during their first terms. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were both in their 40s at the same time. But there aren’t a lot of examples in the modern era of a President turning around his standing from this low of an ebb, especially if the midterms are going to be as brutal for Democrats as analysts anticipate. A blowout election doesn’t exactly inspire confidence or bring tailwinds. Biden is more in need of a storm than a breeze at this moment. Bush shows that it is possible to deny the political winds in the West Wing. But, at the ballot, this will be very difficult.

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