Opinion | Trump’s Carter Problems vs. Biden’s Reagan Possibilities

The low approval rating and various political headwinds for President Biden have invited comparisons with another first-term Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and the challenges he faced running for re-election in 1980. Many Republicans are thinking about his defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, bullish that Donald Trump also has what it takes to oust a flagging incumbent.

It is true that the 2024 race is shaping up to be a 1980 replay of sorts, but with an important twist. The more significant comparisons could be between Mr. Trump and Mr. Carter and their difficulty in winning over voters and, even more, between Mr. Biden and Mr. Reagan and their attempts to address doubts about their age — which are flaring again for Mr. Biden.

To be sure, Carter-Biden comparisons are real: Mr. Biden’s third-year job approval average was the lowest for a sitting president since Mr. Carter’s, and Americans were dissatisfied with the economy and with the direction of the country under both men.

But what became increasingly clear throughout 1980 was that there was a ceiling on voter support for Mr. Carter. The electorate had already decided it didn’t want to give him a second term. Mr. Carter’s job approval at the end of March was close to his final 41 percent share of the vote in November.

In this year’s race, it is Mr. Trump who closely resembles Mr. Carter in the most important ways, including his ceiling of political support.

For one, the most galvanizing and divisive figures in 1980 and today were Mr. Carter and Mr. Trump. As with Mr. Carter, most voters have firm opinions about Mr. Trump. His ability to inspire his base is matched only by his ability to alienate the rest of the electorate — as evidenced by the Republican Party taking beatings in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections.

In the end, Mr. Carter could not win enough people over and increase his share of the electorate. Mr. Trump faces the same challenge this year. By contrast, Mr. Reagan benefited from Reagan Democrats, and Mr. Biden has the potential to get some votes from anti-Trump Republicans. This is particularly true if Mr. Trump is convicted of felonies before the election.

Mr. Biden is no doubt counting on those vulnerabilities to hurt Mr. Trump. But Mr. Biden also needs to do more. One of the lessons from the 1980 presidential campaign is that dissatisfaction with one candidate isn’t enough to seal his fate if the opponent can’t meet voters’ threshold for acceptability. To get re-elected, Mr. Biden needs to clear the same threshold that Mr. Reagan did.

In 1980, voters held on to doubts about Mr. Reagan’s age and temperament through much of the race, but given their concerns about Mr. Carter, they continued to lower the bar on what they needed to see from Mr. Reagan to earn their support.

It was only after the debate between the two men on Oct. 28 that Mr. Reagan was finally able to convince the public that he was up to the job of president. According to Gallup, before the debate, Mr. Reagan was trailing Mr. Carter by eight points with registered voters and by three points with likely voters. Immediately after the debate, Mr. Reagan moved to a three-point lead with likely voters, and one week later he won a landslide victory over Mr. Carter.

It wasn’t so much that Mr. Reagan won the debate as that he did enough to reassure voters that he was up to the job as president. He needed to close the deal.

Mr. Biden has a similar task ahead of him. Like Mr. Reagan, the president must overcome deep doubts about his age and his ability to put the country back on track over the next four years. What’s more, despite having a different political base from Mr. Reagan’s, Mr. Biden has to appeal to the same swing groups that Mr. Reagan did in order to win in 1980: college-educated, independent, suburban and moderate voters. Mr. Biden won these groups in 2020 (narrowly among suburban voters, like Mr. Reagan’s narrow margin among moderate voters).

In order to replicate his success with these key groups as well as with other voters, Mr. Biden needs to do more than simply attack Mr. Trump. At this point Mr. Biden’s biggest challenge is not Mr. Trump but himself. Can he convince the voters, as Mr. Reagan did, that he is up to the job of being president at an age when most people have retired?

And concerns about Mr. Biden’s age are intensifying. In an NBC News poll conducted in late January, 76 percent of respondents said they had concerns that Mr. Biden lacked the necessary mental and physical health to be president for a second term. That poll was taken before the release of the special counsel Robert K. Hur’s report, which described Mr. Biden as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

In order for Mr. Biden to steady his campaign and overcome doubts that Mr. Hur’s words will exacerbate, the president needs a strategy to at least neutralize these concerns about his age and mental competency. Pretending that this is not a problem or trying to joke his way through it will not work, even if he had the communication gifts of Mr. Reagan. Instead, Mr. Biden should emphasize that age alone is not what counts; it’s the wisdom of his ideas. And contrast his forward-looking views on climate change, abortion rights and reasonable gun control with Mr. Trump’s backward views on these issues.

Mr. Biden also needs to change his current economic message, which does not match how most Americans feel about their lives. He needs to acknowledge the economic challenges faced by many voters, many of whom are still feeling the aftershocks of the highest rate of inflation since the early 1980s, as he talks about his plans.

Lastly, Mr. Biden has not fully taken advantage of the powers of the presidency to sell what he has accomplished in office. There is no clear narrative to his presidency that tells a story to voters — one that maximizes his strengths while trying to neutralize his weaknesses.

By contrast, Mr. Reagan built his 1980 presidential bid and campaign schedule around his strengths — like his optimism and confidence about America and his charisma — and blended them with a narrative that was forward-looking while short on specifics. Given the concerns about his age, how he looked was as important as what he said. That is the reason some of his big campaign moments were not a speech or a formal event but rather him being shown working on his ranch and riding horses.

Mr. Biden’s schedule should be built around his strengths as well — his connections to people, not set pieces in which he speaks from a lectern. Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Biden should not be overscheduled, since he performs unevenly when he is tired, as he seemed during a news conference on Thursday night to respond to Mr. Hur’s report.

Mr. Biden will have the time to make his case during what could be the longest general election campaign in modern history. But he needs to have a sense of urgency to shore up his poll numbers. Mr. Trump appears ahead nationally as well as in key swing states. This is largely because of a slide in support for Mr. Biden rather than a surge of enthusiasm for Mr. Trump, whose ceiling of voter support could yet turn out like Mr. Carter’s.

Voters will be given daily reminders for the next nine months of how chaotic the next four years will be if Mr. Trump is elected. In the end, it will be up to Mr. Biden to convince enough voters that he is up to the presidency into his mid-80s. If he is not able to do that, it doesn’t really matter how the country feels about Mr. Trump.

Doug Sosnik was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 2000 and has advised over 50 governors and U.S. senators.

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