One was a new Democratic president who inherited an intractable crisis while pushing a stalled legislative agenda marked by contentious debate.
The other was Joe Biden.
As the current president begins his second year in office, some Democrats fear Biden is stuck in a painful cycle similar to one that beset former President Barack Obama, who in 2010 suffered electoral backlash when the country rebounded more slowly than expected from the Great Recession.
Rather than a financial crisis, Biden has been hounded by a pandemic that has persisted after the advent of a vaccine and disrupted the economy in unanticipated ways. But he, like Obama before him, has struggled to fulfill his promise to move the country past a generational crisis, sapping his popularity and raising the prospect that — like his Democratic predecessor — he might be on track for a first midterm electoral wipeout that could cost his party control of Congress.
“Both presidents inherited deep crises, though different in nature,” said Robert Gibbs, who served as Obama’s first press secretary in the White House. “But I also think what unites them as well is they weren’t simple crises with simple solutions that wrapped up quickly.
“In Obama’s case, the economic recovery took years,” he continued. “I think the added crises of the virus, as well as the economy, has presented longer-term challenges for President Biden as well.”
Democrats lost 63 House seats and control of the legislative body in Obama’s first midterm, a result the former president would call a “shellacking.” Democrats this year still have nearly 10 months to mount a defense of their slim House majority to avoid those kinds of losses, although Biden’s approval rating is lower than Obama’s at this point in their respective presidencies.
Adding to the Democrats’ unease — and the sense that Biden’s presidency is running in parallel to Obama’s through their first year — are chaotic efforts to pass the president’s agenda through Congress amid the ongoing pandemic. For Obama, that was his healthcare plan, widely known as Obamacare, which Democrats negotiated for far longer than expected before it became law in March of his second year.
Biden, meanwhile, is still trying to pass a massive social spending and climate change bill, known as Build Back Better, after negotiations within his own party stalled late last year.
“When Obama was president, I feel like the Great Recession robbed him of his presidency because he wanted to come in and really do some things,” said former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, whose time in the Senate overlapped with the first six years of Obama’s presidency. “And by necessity, the focus especially in the first year or two really had to be on the recession and the recovery.
“I do feel the same with President Biden,” Pryor added. “The pandemic is certainly a thing that’s robbing him of his presidency because he can’t focus on some of the things he might otherwise do.”
Managing the crises
How presidents respond to national crises has always shaped how the public sees their presidencies, whether it’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s after the Great Depression and the attack on Pearl Harbor or George W. Bush post-9/11.
Obama, for his part, took office in 2009 during a sharp recession caused by a financial crisis on Wall Street. A year later, he and his advisers hoped that the president would receive credit for what they were calling a “recovery summer,” an economic rebound that would make clear to voters ahead of the midterm election Obama had done a good job managing the recession.
But instead, economic progress in the United States stalled. And the credit Obama and his team hoped to receive never materialized.
“‘Recovery summer’ turned out to be a bust,” Obama wrote in “A Promised Land,” a memoir about his political career.
Whether the pandemic and its accompanying economic shocks last through the summer is less certain for Biden. But waves of new COVID-19 variants that came even after the rollout of vaccines — and after the president said the country was triumphing over the virus in the summer — have continued the public health crisis.
Perhaps even more politically damaging for the president, however, have been pandemic-related disruptions to global supply chains, which have helped drive rampant inflation and contributed to a pervasive pessimism within the public about the state of the economy.
“We have faced some of the biggest challenges that we’ve ever faced in this country these past few years, challenges to our public health, challenges to our economy,” Biden said during a press conference this week. “But we’re getting through it, and not only are we getting through it, we’re laying the foundation for the future.”
The public health and economic struggles have given a political opening for Republicans, who blame Biden’s legislative agenda, including a nearly $2 trillion stimulus measure passed last year, for exacerbating inflation.
Rather than Obama, they draw comparisons to former one-term Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
“He’s an unmitigated disaster. He’s the worst president of my lifetime, in one year. Congratulations. It took Jimmy four years to get to that,” said Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a former Miami-Dade mayor in his first term in one of the state’s most competitive congressional districts.
The specter of inflation
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the Florida delegation’s most senior member, also invoked Carter rather than Obama when asked to assess Biden’s first year in office.
“I haven’t used the word inflation in my adult life. In this country, it’s just not something that we’ve dealt with, you know, unless we were during the Carter years,” Diaz-Balart said. “This is a phenomenon created by the ineptness and the bad policies of this administration.”
Biden campaigned during the 2020 election on his ability to “shut down the virus,” a pledge Republicans say with increasing frequency he has clearly violated amid an omicron-fueled surge of cases across the country.
Swing district Republicans, such as Gimenez, head into the 2022 midterms confident they’ll retain their seats as the GOP appears poised to gain more and flip control of Congress.
“If you go to the grocery stores in Florida, you have empty shelves. There’s things you can’t get now,” said Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who holds major sway over the party’s midterm messaging as National Republican Senatorial Committee chair.
“Biden needs to pivot. He’s got to get away from representing the radical left. He’s got to think of, how do I help the average American? What’s the average American want? They don’t want their gas prices up. They want their food prices down,” Scott said. “They want to be able to live.”
Democratic allies of Biden’s counter that the president is doing what he can in the face of a global disaster and increased political polarization at home.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat and senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, contended that the bitterness and resistance that Biden has faced from Republicans during his first year exceed even what Obama faced.
That partisan opposition has been compounded by the ongoing pandemic, which has overshadowed Biden’s major accomplishments on infrastructure.
“The virus has contracted all around him and that has done damage to the perception of what he’s done as president,” said Cleaver, who was in quarantine after testing positive for the virus on Wednesday.
“He’s facing some pretty ferocious winds that maybe nobody’s ever faced in the White House, and he has faced it without bitterness,” said Cleaver, who was among Biden’s earliest congressional endorsements.
Cleaver acknowledged that voters may not realize the positive impact of Biden’s policies before the midterm elections, but he argued they would by the next presidential election in 2024 as bridges are repaired and other projects are built in their communities.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former Democratic National Committee chair who represents South Florida, said Obama went through a similar problem and that Democrats have to do a better job highlighting the contrast for voters.
“White House Democrats are used to cleaning up after failed Republicans. Bush dealt President Obama one of the worst hands in history by piloting America to the brink of depression, while Trump’s trail of ruin included inept or sabotaged responses to a global pandemic, climate change and an economic meltdown. Biden pulled America out of that nightmare and put us back on track, while President Obama stabilized the economy and housing sector, saved the auto industry and historically expanded health coverage,” Wasserman Schultz said in an email.
“Both Democrats delivered historic achievements despite Congressional Republicans putting their party over Americans’ well-being, but we need to remind voters this fall that it’s Republicans who keep putting us in these historic spirals — and it’s Democrats who keep pulling us out of them.”