When the 1996 presidential campaign approached, Bill Clinton faced an uphill struggle to win a second term. His biggest legislative proposal, a sweeping healthcare bill, had failed. His party had lost the House of Representatives to Republicans led by a fiery conservative, Newt Gingrich. Clinton’s poll ratings were sagging.
So he tacked toward the center. He battled Gingrich to a standstill over GOP plans to cut spending on Medicare. He championed modest but popular proposals such as the V-chip, a device to help parents control what their children watch on television. And on election day, he defeated Republican candidate Bob Dole by a whopping 8% margin.
In 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign for a second term started out in deep trouble, too. Voters were unhappy about the economy’s way-too-slow recovery from the Great Recession. The president’s healthcare law, derisively called “Obamacare,” was deeply unpopular. The House was back in Republican hands, with radical tea party members demanding big budget cuts.
Obama tried for a bipartisan deal on taxes and spending. But when that effort collapsed, he went on the offensive, attacking the GOP for demanding cuts in Medicare spending. On election day, he defeated Mitt Romney by 4%.
Now, at the dawn of the 2024 presidential campaign, history isn’t repeating itself precisely, but it’s rhyming.
Joe Biden is presiding over an economic recovery, but voters are too squeezed by rising costs to give him credit.
His approval rating, 43% in one recent average of polls, is even lower than Clinton’s or Obama’s when their reelection drives began.
Biden faces a pugnacious Republican House majority that wants to undo the legislative achievements of his first two years by forcing a crisis over the debt ceiling.
Not surprisingly, he’s borrowing strategies that worked for Clinton and Obama, a gambit that combines nostalgia and practical politics.
He has attacked Republicans for proposing to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare by requiring Congress to renew the programs every few years.
“If anyone tries to get rid of Social Security or Medicare, I will veto it,” he said at a union hall in Maryland last week.
That was old-fashioned scaremongering. Republicans aren’t proposing the abolition of those popular programs.
But Biden was right on one count: Several GOP legislators, including the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee, had argued strenuously for a sunset rule. After Biden’s attacks hit home, they dropped the idea.
Meanwhile, Biden imitated another Clinton move by proposing a list of modest, consumer-friendly measures, including a law to crack down on “junk fees” such as Ticketmaster service charges and hotel resort fees.
Critics deride ideas like that as small ball — minor measures beneath the dignity of a president. But they often turn out to be wildly popular.
When Clinton ran in 1996, two of his most popular actions were the Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed workers up to 12 days of unpaid leave, and the V-chip.
Biden won two such consumer-friendly measures for Medicare users in the blizzard of legislation Congress passed last year: a $35 cap on the price of insulin and a $2,000 cap on drug expenses. Republicans will mess with those at their peril.
If the president stops cable and internet providers from tacking junk fees on to consumers’ bills, he might just cruise to reelection. And if Republicans oppose the idea, that will just give Biden another issue to campaign on.
With a bellicose Republican majority in command of the House, the chances for ambitious bipartisan legislation have pretty much evaporated.
“While resort fees might be small-ball, this is a time that calls for small-ball,” economic columnist Josh Barro wrote earlier this month.
One more dip into nostalgia: Biden is asking voters to let him “finish the job,” a phrase Obama used in 2012. It’s another sign that he plans to run.
Then again, nostalgia was one of Biden’s main themes when he ran for president four years ago. He promised voters a return to normalcy — to the quieter, less disruptive politics of the pre-Trump era.
It shouldn’t be surprising that an 80-year-old president is drawing on the lessons of a lifetime in politics. He had a front-row seat to both the Clinton reelection campaign of 1996, when he ran for his fifth term in the Senate, and the Obama campaign of 2012, when Biden was vice president.
This may be one case in which Biden’s age is not a handicap; he comes by his nostalgia honestly.
Besides, those tactics worked for Clinton in 1996 and Obama in 2012. Who’s to say they can’t work again?