(CNN)Everywhere you look on the 2022 political craps table, President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats keep rolling only snake eyes.
Polls show voters narrowly favor Republican control of Congress, buttressing history’s warning that the president’s party faces midterm election losses. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans have declined to run again for their House seats.
Weighed down by the coronavirus pandemic, surging inflation and a stalled legislative agenda, Biden’s approval rating has long since dropped into the low 40s danger zone. That leaves him below the level of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at similar points before midterm contests that dealt them staggering setbacks.
Their predicament leaves White House aides and political advisers reaching for recovery scenarios like this one: Maybe Biden’s faster-than-normal decline will give way to a faster-than-normal comeback.
Fanciful as it sounds now, their hope is rooted in the unique political dynamics of a once-in-a-century pandemic. As quickly as Covid-19’s persistence has soured the mood of voters, they reason, replacing its disruptions with something approaching normalcy later this year could lift spirits faster than Biden’s predecessors experienced.
“None of them had a two-year change in how people lived their lives,” observed Biden pollster John Anzalone. “When it’s finally over, the trajectory up may well be accelerated.”
No one can deny Biden’s accelerated decline. After remaining at or above 50% approval for his first six months in office, he has suffered serious erosion over the last six. As he completes his first year, the most recent CNN poll of polls shows just 42% of Americans approve of his job performance, while 53% disapprove.
Reagan, Clinton and Obama all remained around the 50% mark after their first years, according to Gallup polling data. They had fallen to Biden’s current levels by Labor Day of their second years. Each rebounded to win second terms, but only after voters had punished their parties in midterm elections. Reagan’s fellow Republicans lost 26 House seats, while Clinton and Obama saw fellow Democrats lose control of one or both chambers of Congress.
This year, the Republican Party’s turn toward extremism lends unusual urgency to Democrats’ attempts to preserve their slim House and Senate majorities. To have a fighting chance, strategists inside and outside the White House think, Biden’s approval rating needs to return to at least 50% by the campaign’s home stretch.
That appears a forbiddingly difficult hill to climb fewer than 10 months before Election Day. Holdout Democratic senators have scuttled his voting rights and economic policy ambitions, inflation has hit four-decade highs and the Omicron wildfire has burned so much hospital capacity that Biden has dispatched military personnel to help.
Yet potential elements of a comeback remain plausible, if distant and unlikely at the moment.
Some public health experts see Omicron — with its high transmissibility but generally less severe health consequences — as the leading edge of a transition from emergency pandemic to more manageable endemic conditions. The advent of new Covid treatment pills, expected to become more widely available by midyear, carries the promise of dramatically reducing deaths from the virus.
Some economists expect a receding pandemic to shift patterns of consumer demand and smooth kinks in supply chains in ways that would alleviate price spikes. Forecasters already expect inflation, recently measured at a 7% annual rate, to fall to 3% or 4% in 2022. Other measures of economic well-being, such as output growth and the unemployment rate, are already strong.
The White House and Democratic leaders still see a path toward retooling Build Back Better in a way that all 50 Senate Democrats could support and turn into law. If they can, Democratic candidates next fall can tout delivery of a broad array of concrete economic benefits.
In their winning reelection campaigns, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all profited by homing in on the vulnerabilities of opposing party nominees once they emerged. Biden already has a ready-made foil in former President Donald Trump, who remains highly divisive even as he tightens his grip on the Republican base.
Clinton used major speeches to signal crowd-pleasing course corrections after Democrats’ 1994 midterm catastrophe.
“I have made my mistakes and learned again the importance of humility,” he acknowledged in his 1995 State of the Union address. In 1996 he declared, “The era of big government is over.”
Some Clinton White House veterans want Biden to do the same thing, only before the midterm elections rather than afterward. They suggest everything from altering his rhetoric to revising his legislative agenda to disengaging from Congress altogether in favor of executive action and foreign policy.
There’s no indication Biden plans to adopt any of those suggestions yet. He’s scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address on March 1.