A president seen as not properly defending American security.
A president facing a revolt from within his own party.
While these attributes can be tied to President Joe Biden, they also can apply to one of his Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter. Could the end result be the same, with a weakened president losing not just support from within his own party but a bid for reelection?
Consider the issue of security. By the end of his first year in office, Carter was criticized for having canceled the B-1 heavy bomber, for seeking to remove U.S. troops from South Korea and for seeking to sign a major arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. His decision to cancel the neutron bomb in the spring of 1978 only added to the uproar. Not just Republicans but even fellow Democrats were among those who challenged these decisions.
Then there was domestic policy. Democrats in 1977 held solid majorities in both houses of Congress. Yet the party was not united. A good number of Democrats wanted to continue the liberal policies that dated to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and continued through to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. By the late 1960s, however, those programs had come under attack from an increasingly influential conservative movement. Indeed, between 1969 and 1977, two successive Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, attempted to roll back those liberal initiatives.
At the time of Carter’s election, the nation faced high levels of inflation and unemployment. The expectation among liberal Democrats was that Carter would fight unemployment through the traditional method of increasing spending to stimulate job-creation. Carter, though, was a fiscal conservative who resisted increasing the minimum wage as high as labor unions wanted, who angered farmers by not offering the price supports they requested, and who rejected the level of funding for cities that many mayors wanted.
What was the end result of Carter’s decision-making? By May 1978, his approval rating had fallen from 75 percent when he took office to 30 percent. Registered Democrats that same month declared that if given the choice between Carter and the more liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, they favored Kennedy by 13 points. Two years later, that same senator, Kennedy, launched a bid to wrest the Democratic nomination for the presidency from Carter. Although he failed, his challenge reflected the loss of faith in the incumbent from members of his own party. Then, in the general election, Carter lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, who succeeded in winning the support of some constituencies, including evangelicals and labor unions, who had voted for Carter four years earlier.
Could Biden find himself facing a similar situation? He already is under attack, even from members of his own party, for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The testimony from U.S. generals that they encouraged him to maintain an American military presence in that country but were ignored, and that al Qaeda could reconstitute itself as early as next year, have raised serious questions about Biden’s preparedness to defend U.S. security. Democrats again control both the White House and both houses of Congress – though they lack the solid majorities they had in 1977 – and, as was the case then, liberal (“progressive”) Democrats expect the president to push a domestic-policy agenda that others in the party oppose.
There are certainly differences between the Carter and Biden years. Carter hated playing the game of politics, while Biden relishes in it. The political polarization that grips the nation today was in its infancy in 1977. By the end of his term, Carter faced a country angered by high levels of inflation and unemployment, the president’s inability to secure the release of American hostages in Iran and a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
There is no telling what will happen in this country in year four of Biden’s term. But if history does indeed repeat itself, Biden could be in for some very rough going come the next presidential election. Should he seek a second term, will he, like Carter, face a challenge for the Democratic nomination from one or more people who represent elements of the party that have turned against him? And should he win the party’s nomination, will he be so weakened that he, like Carter, will lose in 2024?
Only time will tell.
Scott Kaufman is the chairman of the history department at Francis Marion University.