Analysis by Ronald Brownstein
Can President Joe Biden avoid the “summer slump”?
For most Americans, the unofficial arrival of summer with Memorial Day is a cause for celebration. But for newly elected presidents, it’s more often been a reason for dread. Sagging job approval ratings, unanticipated challenges at home and abroad and, above all, diminishing legislative momentum have been hallmarks of the first summer in office for recent presidents.
The dynamic has afflicted presidents of both parties. But the problem was especially acute for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the last two Democratic presidents, who arrived in Washington, like Biden, with extremely ambitious legislative wish lists. During their first summers, both Clinton and Obama found themselves sinking into legislative quagmires that sapped their public support and energized their opponents.
Biden has advantages Clinton and Obama did not: The economy is recovering faster today than it did for either of them, opponents have not mobilized as energetic a grassroots backlash against his plans today as they did in 1993 and 2009, respectively, and Biden’s approval rating has remained remarkably stable through late spring, while Clinton’s and Obama’s support (as well as Donald Trump’s) had already started slipping by then.
But many observers nonetheless see Biden facing a similar risk of a long, draining summer as crunch time in Congress approaches on his sweeping infrastructure and human capital plans and a long list of liberal priorities that have passed the House (headlined by national voting rights legislation) stack up in the Senate with little chance of approval unless Democrats can somehow reach agreement on retrenching or eliminating the filibuster.
Almost all recent presidents have seen their approval ratings sink from their inauguration through the end of their first summer in office, notes Brian Newman, a Pepperdine University political scientist who studies presidential performance. In Gallup polling, the approval ratings for Clinton and Obama fell by about 14 percentage points from the first survey after they took office through late August; George W. Bush and Trump (the only President to start with an initial approval rating below 50%) suffered declines at about half that level. George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan ended their first summers with higher approval ratings than when they began (though Reagan reverted to his starting point by the end of September).
The trajectory wasn’t identical for all of the recent presidents. Clinton, for instance, suffered his sharpest declines in late spring and early summer (right around now), and actually recovered some of his lost ground in July and August. Obama suffered more steady erosion through his first months; W. Bush bounced around the most (until his response to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, catapulted him to an elevated approval rating he maintained for months), while Trump’s numbers started very low (44% approval in his first Gallup survey) and edged into the thirties, a nadir that only Clinton also hit by the end of his first summer.
Reasons that first summer is so tough
Why is a summer slump so common for new presidents? Newman says the dominant answer among political scientists is shifting behavior among other political leaders and the media.
“Early in a president’s term, media coverage and many politicians from both parties stay relatively positive (or at least less negative than later),” he wrote me in an email. “Opposition politicians tend to mute their criticism, at least a bit, in the wake of an election defeat, offer mild assurances along the lines of ‘let’s wait and see what policies the new president will pursue’ and maybe mention hopes of working together on common goals. Media coverage tends to follow suit such that the overall tenor of coverage is relatively positive.”
But with time, that deference dissolves.
“After six months or so, opposition politicians (and maybe even some politicians in the president’s own party) have leveled more criticism and media coverage has become more negative compared to earlier,” Newman added. “When given more negative coverage and hearing critiques from prominent politicians, the public’s support dips.”
Like a new car traveling a rocky road, presidents also inevitability accumulate nicks and dents the longer they stay in office. Nominations fail; scandals (of varying magnitude like Clinton’s May 1993 “travelgate” imbroglio) develop; controversies multiply (such as W. Bush’s tilt toward social conservatives in his August 2001 decision limiting federal stem cell research). The worst damage is sometimes self-inflicted: Trump’s “very fine people” comments about White supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, came during his first August.
But perhaps the most common thread in the summer slump for these presidents is a shift in focus from executive action, which typically comes across as crisp and decisive, to legislative negotiation, which is inevitably lengthy and messy. As the veteran Republican pollster Bill McInturff notes, immediately upon taking office, presidents routinely unleash a flood of executive actions; when the White House shifts partisan control, that torrent includes reversing many of the executive actions taken by their predecessor.
“Every administration starts with news that gets covered as ‘action’ — executive orders, Cabinet slots being filled — all pushing a new agenda different than their predecessor,” McInturff points out. But over time, he adds, “Executive orders run out and the action is replaced by transactional and messy legislative back-and-forth. Favorable numbers drop.”
Long legislative fights during their first year have weakened presidents in both parties. Even Trump’s approval ratings reached some of their lowest points ever as he pushed his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in summer 2017. (The Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the law in early May 2017 but the Senate rejected the plan in late July.)
Clinton and Obama may have suffered sharper first-summer declines than Trump or George W. Bush (who pushed little legislation after the passage of his big tax cut in May 2001) precisely because their legislative ambitions were so much greater.
David Axelrod, the former chief political adviser to Obama and a senior CNN political commentator, for instance, says flatly that “Our summer slump was directly related to the size of our ambitions.”
Clinton spent his first summer ensnared in the excruciating effort to pass his budget plan, which didn’t clear the House and Senate until August 1993 and then only by a single vote in each chamber.
Obama, after quickly passing his economic stimulus plan in early 2009, became bogged down in a summer-long negotiation between Senate Democrats and Republicans over his health care plan, talks that ultimately failed to produce a bipartisan agreement. While the health care plan stalled, the conservative tea party movement — in many ways the antecedent of Trump’s preponderantly White, non-urban political movement — erupted in opposition to the proposal. Rowdy, sometimes threatening, crowds filled town halls for Democratic legislators that summer, their bristling belligerence foreshadowing the conservative turnout surge that swept the GOP to massive gains in the 2010 election.
But legislative difficulties weren’t the only reason the two recent Democratic presidents suffered the sharpest first-summer declines. Clinton faced a headwind during his first months because the economy was only slowly recovering from a recession, while Obama faced a gale in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Depression.
“For Clinton and Obama their ‘recession’ had ended but the recovery had not begun,” says Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s chief of staff and a senior White House adviser to Clinton. Bush and Trump, the two most recent Republican presidents, inherited economies on stronger trajectories.
With the economy steadily recovering from the pandemic, Biden is in a stronger position on that front than either Clinton or Obama. And Republicans so far have failed to mobilize against him anything like the grassroots resistance from the tea party or even the eventual uprising from gun owners, small business groups and conservative Christians that coalesced against Clinton.
Even so, Biden is clearly following down the tracks laid by Clinton and Obama into a summer of difficult legislative combat. Biden, notably, has deferred a big fight on health care — the issue that ignited such volcanic conservative opposition to Clinton and Obama. But, overall, Democrats now are seeking to pass legislation on an even broader range of issues than in either of those presidencies at this point. The priority list for Biden and congressional Democrats ranges from his proposals for massive new spending on physical infrastructure, education and the child tax credit to a long list of non-economic priorities that have already passed the House, including voting rights, citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, LGBTQ rights, gun control and policing.
Biden’s complicated choices
The Clinton and Obama experiences during their difficult first summers offer complex lessons for Biden today. Clinton ultimately passed his economic agenda through the special budget reconciliation process without any Republican support by unifying just enough Democrats in each chamber. Obama initially chose the opposite route on his health care plan: He let Senate Democrats spend months in negotiations seeking agreement with Republicans, while the bill lost momentum and opponents mobilized. Eventually, Obama was also forced to pass his Affordable Care Act without support from a single Republican in either chamber.
Biden now stands at the crossroads between those two precedents. In an echo of Obama’s experience on health care, Biden has spent weeks trying to negotiate an agreement on his physical infrastructure plan with Republicans. But he’s facing rising calls from congressional Democrats to truncate those talks and seek to pass the bill on a party-line basis through reconciliation, as Clinton did.
Cutting a deal offers Biden the chance to notch a legislative victory and show progress on one of his core campaign promises — proving he can bring the parties together — but at the cost of what would likely be a significant retrenchment of his plans. Trying to pass a bill with support only from Democrats might eventually allow Biden to achieve much more of his policy goals, but at the cost of a summer of heightened partisan conflict and weeks of precarious congressional wrangling — the formula that has damaged so many previous presidents.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the deputy assistant for domestic policy during Clinton’s first year, believes Biden and Democrats would be best served by taking a deal, even if it substantially retrenches his plan. “If he could get agreement on a $1 trillion or $1.1 trillion traditional infrastructure bill that would be what he called on another occasion ‘a big f-ing deal,’ ” Galston says. While that might mean postponing or downscaling some of the priorities Biden has identified, Galston adds, it would allow him to say that “after decades” of partisan conflict, “I have put together what people said couldn’t be done, a coalition spanning the parties.”
Besides, Galston continues, even if Biden chooses to pursue a Democrats-only strategy it’s not clear that he can secure support from all 50 Senate Democrats — particularly Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — for an infrastructure package nearly as expansive as he proposed.
Biden also faces the issue of how often he can pressure Manchin, Sinema and perhaps other Democratic Senate moderates to provide him with decisive votes on legislation opposed by every Senate Republican. The two already enabled him to pass his $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan on an entirely party-line Senate vote. The fear among some Democrats is that if Biden also asks them to pass his infrastructure plan on a purely party-line vote, he might not be able to go back to that well on other issues for which bipartisan agreement is considerably less likely, particularly legislation to establish a national floor of voting rights that would override some of the restrictions on ballot access that red states are passing.
Axelrod agrees that on balance those considerations should push Biden toward accepting an infrastructure deal with Senate Republicans, if at all possible.
“That would be important for Manchin because then he can point to it and say we did find common ground, the administration did stay at the table, they did show their good faith,” Axelrod told me.
If Manchin can tout such a deal, Axelrod adds, that might it easier for him to differentiate Republican resistance to voting rights as unreasonable partisanship — and thus make it easier for him to support such legislation, even if that requires exempting it from a certain GOP filibuster.
“If you get this infrastructure deal you may then be able to get Manchin to vote for a carve-out on issues that relate to issues on voting and elections,” says Axelrod.
However the legislative fights unfold this summer, public attitudes about each new president are so polarized along party lines that Biden’s approval rating, which has remained quite steady at slightly more than 50%, may not oscillate as much as previous presidents’ did.
“That variability has definitely declined,” says Newman.
But the serious possibility that Republicans could regain at least the House in 2022 — the GOP needs only five seats to regain the majority and the president’s party has lost at least that many in almost all midterm elections since 1870 — adds an enormous sense of urgency to the administration’s choices. Adding even more urgency are the signs proliferating in red states and in Washington that much of the GOP coalition is willing to weaken the core pillars of American democracy to obtain power, where and when it has the leverage to do so.
The Trump-inspired retreat from democracy spreading in the GOP leaves Biden facing complex decisions few presidents have confronted. On one hand, polls show a clear public desire for greater bipartisan cooperation; on the other, civil rights and voting rights groups are raising unprecedented alarms about the threat to democracy that’s spreading in Republican-controlled states. To the frustration of many activists, Biden so far has put much more emphasis on negotiating with Republicans over his economic plans than condemning their actions on voting. That approach could prove successful on both fronts, if Biden achieves a bipartisan infrastructure deal that also encourages Manchin and Sinema to act on a party-line basis to protect voting rights. But his outreach just as easily could yield a stalemate or disappointing results on both issues.
Either way, like his predecessors, Biden will likely find the steamy months of his first White House summer to be the blazing crucible that shapes his first term.