America looks for fresh programming

by David M. Shribman

Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams did it. So did Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, too. Also William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley. And of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

Presidential-election reruns are not unknown in our history; they happened frequently in the nation’s early years. But there hasn’t been one in two-thirds of a century, though we may be approaching one in 2024. Joe Biden versus Donald Trump: The Sequel.

Despite their efforts at appearing youthful and exuberant, the president and the pretender look tired right now. And in truth, the American people are tired of both of them.

Seldom if ever — reliable public-opinion polls aren’t even a century old — have two leading politicians been so poorly regarded by the public. Biden’s approval rating is 43%, according to YouGov. Trump’s favorability rating is 38%. (Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood at 67% among Americans in a poll taken before his poignant remarks to Congress more than two weeks ago.)

Ballotpedia’s polling average indicates that Biden’s ratings are about 7 percentage points above Trump’s at this point in their respective presidencies. But that is hardly good news for the president. The rate of Americans who believe the country is going in the right direction is about the same for both leaders.

Biden at least has the chance to improve his ratings; Ronald Reagan stood at about the Biden level just after the midterm congressional elections of 1982, but by the eve of his reelection in 1984, he stood at 58%.

Trump has fewer opportunities for boosting his approval ratings, and in historical terms he is in dangerous territory – far worse than the last two presidents who were defeated for reelection.

At this relative point after his presidential defeat, Jimmy Carter — the president to whom Trump ardently resists comparison — recorded a 54% favorability, according to the Los Angeles Times poll. George H.W. Bush — a figure Trump reviles with special enmity — stood at 76% in the Times Mirror poll. That is exactly twice the figure Trump receives from a public he hopes will return him to the presidency. (Both defeated presidents gracefully left politics, Carter becoming the personification of good works, and Bush becoming the personification of a good man.)

Bryan was 48 the third time he ran for president; Richard Nixon was 59 the third time he sought the office, and Henry Clay was 67. Trump would be 78. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is less than half his age. GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who argues Trump prevailed in 2020, won’t even be 30 in 2024.

Age, of course, is no deterrent to greatness in leadership; Winston Churchill was 65 when he became British prime minister and was 80 when he finally left office, the same age of Nelson Mandela when he left the presidency of South Africa.

But the contenders of 2020, both angling for a 2024 rematch, oftentimes look like spent forces.

The American public may like the policy Biden is pursuing with regard to Ukraine, for example, but they like the man less. (Though his ratings have inched up since the war there began, he is not experiencing the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon that customarily occurs during crises; both President Bushes enjoyed robust poll ratings after Desert Storm and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, respectively.) Trump is attracting smaller crowds at his rallies, and many of the candidates he has endorsed in Republican primaries have dim prospects to be nominated. This is especially true in Alabama, Georgia and Michigan.

There is in all this a distinct advantage for Republicans. The Democrats may control both houses of Congress, but their high-profile bench is thin. Quick: Name four Democrats, besides the 80-year-old Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the 72-year-old Elizabeth Warren, who could plausibly run a strong presidential race. You might come up with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is 40. And of course Vice President Kamala Harris, 57. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She is 61. Who’s the fourth? I write about politics for a living and I can conjure up only a few others. President Gretchen Whitmer? Commander in Chief Mitch Landrieu?

The Republicans are loaded, as envious Big Ten college football coaches say when they contemplate a conference rival with 17 returning starters.  There are six plausible GOP nominees under the age of 60: governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Former Vice President Mike Pence is 62.

But presidential campaigns are factories of familiarity. Who outside Indiana had heard of Buttigieg before his 2020 campaign? Who – again outside Indiana, though you could add Wall Street – had heard of Wendell Willkie in 1939? (He was the 1940 GOP presidential nominee a year later.) Who outside Georgia had heard of Jimmy Carter? (He was the “mystery guest” on television’s “What’s My Line?” two years before he was elected president.)

Now consider the case of Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, defeated in a congressional primary. He cadged a cheap ticket to Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention and presented his credit card at the rental-car desk. It was rejected. Eight years later, he was elected president of the United States.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.