WASHINGTON — Midway through the third year of his first term as president, things were not looking good for Ronald Reagan.
His approval rating was consistently anemic as the nation struggled with high inflation. Voters gave him especially poor marks for his handling of the economy. And as he began his reelection campaign, people were openly questioning if he was too old for the job.
But four decades ago, Reagan went on to win a second term by running on a theme of economic renewal that his campaign famously branded as “Morning in America.” Now, noting the similarities to President Biden’s situation, some political experts said Reagan’s legendary turnaround offers a potential template for victory for the Democrat in 2024.
“The parallels are so striking,” said Allison Prasch, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who focuses on US presidential rhetoric and made the connection in a recent Newsweek opinion article. “Yes, they’re removed by 40 years and, yes, there are different issues that we are facing, but Biden has the ability to do it if he follows the Reagan script.”
But in comparing then to now, that 40-year difference seems like a chasm.
Like big hair and shoulder pads, the politics of the 1980s belong in a time capsule. The electorate today is much more polarized, the media landscape radically different and Biden faces a potential Republican challenger in Donald Trump who is a former president facing criminal charges for his handling of classified documents. On top of that, Reagan was a former Hollywood actor known as the “Great Communicator,” a label not even Biden’s most fervent supporters would attach to him.
But despite those significant caveats, there are valuable lessons for Biden in how Reagan tackled remarkably comparable circumstances, particularly his salesmanship on the economy and use of humor to defuse concerns about his age, said Brad Bannon, who heads a political polling and consulting firm that works for Democratic candidates. There already are signs Biden is taking a similar approach, with his new focus on “Bidenomics” and recent jokes about his age.
“I think there is a direct relationship between what Reagan did in ‘84 and what Biden will try to do in 2024,” Bannon said. “The ‘Morning in America’ thing was just brilliant, and the question is whether Biden and his campaign and the administration have the same ability in selling his accomplishments that Reagan did.”
James Rosebush, a former senior official in the Reagan White House, said there is no comparison between the communication skills of the two presidents. Reagan had a way of elevating his rhetoric that made it resonate more strongly and across party lines, he said.
“Biden is optimistic, as Reagan was,” said Rosebush, author of a 2016 book titled “True Reagan: What Made Ronald Reagan Great and Why It Matters.” “Somehow, Reagan linked it almost in a poetic way to America’s founding principles.”
Reagan needed all his political skills to avoid being a one-term president. At 43 percent, his approval rating in early June of his third year in office is identical to Biden’s at the same point in his presidency. And just as with Biden, the numbers had been roughly in that range for a while because of the economy. Although some indicators, such as inflation and unemployment were improving, Americans weren’t feeling it yet, said Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“While they each were coming out of economic troubles ... they were still being given low approval ratings,” she said, noting that in both 2023 and 1983 a high percentage of voters told pollsters the nation was on the wrong track. “Sometimes it takes a while for people to come out of that sour economic feeling and to say the president is making it better. They have to give the president credit for it, whether it’s Reaganomics or Bidenomics.”
Like Biden now, Reagan had a complicated sales job on the economy.
He inherited high inflation, and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to tame it by pushing interest rates close to about 20 percent triggered a downturn from mid 1981 to late 1982 that became known as the “Reagan Recession.” Although the unemployment rate had been edging down for six months, it still was 10.1 percent in June 1983 — nearly triple the current historically low level of 3.6 percent.
But in 1983, the economy had clearly turned the corner and growth had started roaring. Reagan’s campaign aired a video during the 1984 Republican convention declaring it was “Morning in America,” featuring people talking about how their lives were better amid patriotic images and music. The campaign carried that theme through the fall with a TV ad that is considered one of the greatest in US political history.
Biden has started a new effort to convince Americans the economy under his presidency is on the upswing as well, interestingly by criticizing the Reaganomics tax cutting approach that Democrats have derided as “trickle down economics.”
“Bidenomics is about building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down,” Biden said in a major speech on June 28. “Bidenomics is just another way of saying: Restore the American Dream because it worked before.”
Democratic strategists believe that Biden, like Reagan, has real economic improvements to sell.
“He has a record to run on,” said Abhi Rahman, a Democratic communications adviser who wrote an opinion article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram saying Biden was poised to replicate Reagan’s 1984 comeback. “Inflation has slowed down. We’re not seeing high gas prices ... and Biden could take that as victory for his economic approach.”
But although unemployment is low and inflation is coming down, overall economic growth has been slowing and the nation could be headed for a recession before the election. In addition, Biden presided over a sharp rise in inflation during his first year and a half in office that Republicans have blamed on his large pandemic relief spending. That makes selling economic improvements more difficult for Biden than it was for Reagan, Perry said.
“Even if Biden can say, ‘Oh look, inflation is going down’ or ‘Oh look, unemployment is the lowest in 50 years,’ I still think there’s an overlay pushing down on people to feel that things are not right,” she said. Perry noted that the American Farm Bureau Federation recently estimated the grocery cost for a typical July Fourth cookout this year was down 3 percent from 2022 — but still 14 percent higher than in 2021.
The polarized electorate further complicates hopes of a Reagan-like turnaround for Biden, said Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns. He pointed out that polls show people increasingly view the state of the economy through a partisan lens. In July 1984, there was a 19.4 point difference between Republicans and Democrats in the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment. In June of this year, the gap was nearly twice that.
“Given the level of cynicism that people have today, could Reagan do in 2023 and 2024 what he did in 1983 and 1984, even for all his talent?” Cook said. “I doubt if he would be able to do it with the success he did then.”
Reagan won 49 states in the largest Electoral College landslide ever. But Biden only needs to win 270 electoral votes. He can start by following Reagan’s lead in selling his economic accomplishments with images as well as words, Prasch said.
“Bidenomics is great, but unless people, for example, go on Instagram and see a story about what Bidenomics has actually done for real people, I don’t think it will stick,” she said. “It can’t just be a clever phrase, especially in today’s media world.”
Biden tried to do that Thursday, visiting a company in South Carolina that he said would be adding up to 600 clean energy manufacturing jobs in the state because of investments spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act, a key component of Bidenomics.
Reagan showed how a clever phrase could help him address worries about his age. He was 73 years old in the fall of 1984, the oldest person ever to hold the office. And when after he appeared tired and unfocused during a lackluster debate performance against 56-year-old Democrat Walter Mondale, Reagan had an answer ready when asked about it at the next debate.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” Reagan quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Biden was 78 years old when he was sworn in, already older than Reagan was when he left office after two terms amid rising concerns about his mental state. Reagan announced nearly six years later that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Rosebush said there were no signs of that in the 1984 campaign, allowing Reagan to joke about his age in a way that might not work for Biden.
“It worked for Reagan because he appeared to be vigorous and he was actually younger than Biden is now,” Rosebush said.
An NBC News poll released last month showed 68 percent of voters were concerned that Biden, now 80, doesn’t have the necessary mental and physical health to be president. A majority — 55 percent — had the same concern about Trump, 77.
Biden has recently been making more jokes about his age, including saying at a June event that “I know I don’t look that old. ... I’m a little under 103.”
Perry said humor can help Biden on the issue, as long he doesn’t go too far.
“He can’t just be completely lighthearted about it. People have to understand that he understands it’s an issue,” she said. “But if he can find that sweet spot that Ronald Reagan was able to find, I think he could do that.”