President Biden's approval ratings are lower than ever. A NBC Poll this weekend was just the latest example, showing him trailing Donald J. Trump by five percentage points nationally, with his approval down to 37 percent.
But over the past few months, the conditions for a Biden return have gradually come into place. This hasn't shown up in the polls, at least not yet. But for the first time since the 2022 midterm elections, Mr. Biden is showing unmistakable political openness. If he fails to capitalize in the coming months, it will reinforce doubts about his political viability.
The two big developments came on what voters see as Mr. Biden's biggest weaknesses on these issues: the economy and the border.
First, the economy. Over the past three months, consumer confidence has jumped At highest level since July 2021. Lower inflation, sustained growth and Fed statements have raised awareness that a soft landing is within reach. The stock market has also made huge gains: The S&P 500 is now about 20% higher than during the last round of New York Times/Siena College state polls in late October.
It may be too early to hope that the improving economic situation will help Mr. Biden in the polls. Even today, most voters still don't say the economy is good or great. They just believe it's not that bad and it won't get worse. And in today's polarized era, presidents' approval ratings tend to move very slowly — usually no more than a few percentage points per month, even when political conditions are favorable. But over time, these conditions should begin to improve Mr. Biden's approval rating, at least among Democrats and independents.
Second, there is immigration. Even Mr. Trump and his old advisors increasingly recognize the country's growing economic power, so the border appears poised to become the Republicans' central message. This is a politically powerful argument. Voters increasingly see immigration as one of the top problems facing the country and overwhelmingly say Mr. Trump would do a better job of addressing it. The issue is so difficult for Mr. Biden that it is difficult to see how he could defend himself.
Now his defense is clear. On Sunday, a bipartisan group of Senate Democrats and Republicans announced an agreement on legislation regarding the border and aid to Ukraine. The deal appears dead in the House, largely because Mr. Trump opposes it. As a result, it could also be dead in the Senate.
Congressional policies don't typically play a role in presidential campaigns, but it's easy to see how this might be an exception. If Republicans defeat a bipartisan border bill, Mr. Biden will have a plausible way to blame Republicans — and by extension Mr. Trump — on the issue that should be best for Republicans. If they campaign skillfully, Republicans could be forced to pay the political price of blocking the deal.
I don't want to compare everything between 2024 and 1948, but hey, the analogy keeps getting better. In that election, President Truman campaigned against the Do Nothing Congress, which had failed to act to reduce soaring prices and alleviate the housing crisis. Truman's strategy was not powerful simply because his bill was popular, which it was. It was also powerful because his Republican opponents said they, too, wanted action on the same issues.
At the Democratic convention, Truman bluffed by calling a special session of Congress. This put Republicans in the same situation they find themselves in today: choosing between allowing the president to take credit for Congress's action or risk accepting blame for his inaction. Republicans ultimately chose to pass housing and affordability bills, but Truman criticized these bills as inadequate. The Republicans found themselves in a no-win situation once Truman could say they were unwilling to do the things they said they wanted to do.
Could Mr. Biden use the Truman playbook and call a special session to pass the immigration bill in a few months? It may be a little too eerily reminiscent of 1948 for it to actually happen, but Mr. Biden clearly has the opportunity to defend himself on the border issue by attacking Republican inaction. It is also clear that Mr. Biden has the opportunity to campaign on improving the economic situation. Pair it with long-standing Democratic strengths on abortion rights and protecting democracy, and suddenly Biden's re-election playbook begins to come into focus.
Whether that playbook is enough to carry Mr. Biden to victory is another question. On paper, this looks solid: incumbent presidents with a good economy tend to win re-election. This is especially true when they face a few “crucial issues,” like abortion and democracy, that help them win over a small group of convincing voters. It's not always that simple, of course: His policy toward Israel is an example of an issue that could cost him the support of young left-wing voters who would normally be in his camp. Still, he can reasonably hope that these developments will help improve his ratings and poll numbers against Mr. Trump in the coming months. He's not far behind — perhaps only by about a percentage point in high-quality national polls.
If Mr. Biden sees no progress, it will raise the question of whether age is really the source of his weakness.
This weekend's NBC poll found that just 23% of voters said Mr. Biden was better than Mr. Trump when it came to “the mental and physical health needed to be president.” The economy may improve, but it's hard to see what he would do to allay doubts about his physical health. And if concerns about his age are so great that they prevent Mr. Biden from winning in the polls in the coming months, it will once again reignite questions about his political viability.