Lowering bar for Biden administration

by  Stuart Rothenberg

Less than two years from now, during Joe Biden’s first midterm election — and assuredly four years from now, during the next presidential contest — one of the two parties is likely to raise an inevitable question: “Are you better off now than you were two — or four — years ago, when Donald Trump was president?”

The fight over the framing of that question has already begun.

When the White House changes party, the incoming administration invariably complains about how much worse things are than it — and the country — knew. We’ve seen some of that, but we’ll see more.

For now, President Joe Biden starts off benefiting from the current economic and COVID-19 news, which demonstrates how poorly the previous administration performed and gives Biden an opportunity to succeed where his predecessor failed.

Hundreds of thousands of fatalities from the coronavirus, an insufficient amount of vaccine, high unemployment and too many Americans who can’t pay their rent or keep their businesses open — all that creates a low bar for the Biden administration to show significant progress over the next 12 to 18 months.

But recoveries can take a long time, leaving incumbent administrations open to criticism. And these days, the GOP opposition is spending much of its time preparing to complain and criticize.

For example, two days after Biden’s inauguration, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “A radical leftist agenda in a divided country will not help unify our country, it will only confirm 75 million Americans biggest fears about the new administration.”

The Fox News/One America News/NewsMax message machines won’t sit quietly by as the Biden administration introduces its agenda. They’ll blame every hiccup and fumble on the Democrats in the White House, Senate and House.

But how long will the White House be able to blame Trump for the nation’s problems? 

The Trump factor

Clearly, Trump’s bizarre form of “governing” and delayed handoff of the presidency to Biden and the Democrats should give the Biden team more time than it ordinarily might have.

Biden was slow getting started because Trump and those in high-level administration positions withheld information about domestic and international challenges. Biden’s Cabinet picks have been slow to be confirmed, and Trump left vacancies unfilled for months.

So, sure, Biden is in an unusual position and almost certainly can blame his predecessor for longer than most incoming presidents can.

But Ronald Reagan inherited a horrendous economic situation (“stagflation”) from former President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and two years later, the GOP lost 26 House seats, largely because of what was termed the “Reagan recession.” Reagan gave the economy the medicine it needed (high interest rates, which squeezed inflation out but resulted in more unemployment), but the voters were not appreciative during the midterms and blamed him in 1982, not Carter.

Two years later, with the economy roaring back and inflation under control, voters decided they were happy with the president. Reagan’s reelection campaign ran on a message of “It’s morning in America again” and carried 49 states.

The importance of the Trump vs. Biden comparison means you’ll likely see Democrats complaining about how much worse things are than the country knows. And they are likely to have plenty of ammunition to make their case once they comb through the mountain of information that will be available to them now that they control the White House and Congress.

Biden’s team ought to be able to hold Trump responsible for many of the nation’s problems through the spring and summer, possibly even to the end of the year. But when the calendar turns to 2022, history suggests Biden and his party will have been in “control” long enough that voters will start assigning credit/blame to them for the nation’s condition.

Open questions

There are wild cards that will affect how much responsibility Biden and Trump will bear.

How quickly will Biden flatten the curve of the coronavirus? The faster he succeeds, the more credit he will get.

Will Biden succeed in boosting the economy, including putting people back to work?  Will the president continue to emphasize the importance of uniting the country?

What new issues will appear that raise questions about the administration’s judgment?

What will Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill say and do?

Will the former president hover over the GOP for the next two years?  Will Republicans spend more time fighting with each other than with Democrats?

In some ways, the bar is low for Biden. But the evenly divided Senate and narrow Democratic majority in the House limit what he can do. This means  he must manage expectations, which will surely play a  part in the political battles of 2022 and 2024.

 Stuart Rothenberg writes for CQ Roll Call.