President Biden’s approval ratings are as low as ever. An NBC poll this weekend was only the latest example, showing him trailing Donald J. Trump by five percentage points nationwide, with his approval down to 37 percent.
But over the last few months, the conditions for a Biden comeback have gradually come into place. It hasn’t shown up in the polls, at least not yet. But for the first time since the 2022 midterms, Mr. Biden has an unmistakable political opening. If he can’t capitalize in the months ahead, it will heighten doubts about his political viability.
The two big developments have come on what voters say are Mr. Biden’s biggest weaknesses on the issues: the economy and the border.
First, the economy. Over the last three months, consumer confidence has surged to the highest level since July 2021. Lower inflation, sustained growth and Fed statements have brought the realization that a soft landing is at hand. The stock market has also made huge gains — the S&P 500 is now around 20 percent higher than during the last wave of New York Times/Siena College battleground state polls in late October.
It might be too soon to expect the improving economic picture to help Mr. Biden in the polls. Even now, most voters still don’t say the economy is good or excellent. They just believe it isn’t so bad and isn’t getting worse. And in today’s polarized era, presidential approval ratings have tended to move very slowly — usually no more than a few percentage points per month, even when political conditions are favorable. But in time, those conditions would be expected to begin to lift Mr. Biden’s ratings, at least among Democrats and independents.
Second, there’s immigration. Even Mr. Trump and his former advisers increasingly acknowledge the country’s growing economic strength, so the border seems poised to be the central Republican issue-based message. It’s a politically powerful argument. Voters increasingly rate immigration as a top problem facing the country and overwhelmingly say Mr. Trump would do a better job handling it. The issue is so challenging for Mr. Biden that it has been hard to see how he might defend himself.
Now, his defense is clear. On Sunday, a bipartisan group of Senate Democrats and Republicans announced a deal on legislation to address the border and aid to Ukraine. The deal appears to be dead in the House, in no small part because it’s opposed by Mr. Trump. As a consequence, it might just be dead in the Senate as well.
Congressional politics don’t usually play a role in presidential campaigns, but it’s easy to see how this could be an exception. If Republicans scuttle a bipartisan bill addressing the border, Mr. Biden will have a plausible path to blame Republicans — and by extension Mr. Trump — on the issue that ought to be best for Republicans. In the hands of a deft campaign, Republicans could be made to pay a political cost for blocking the deal.
I don’t want to compare everything about 2024 to 1948, but, well, the analogy keeps getting better. In that election, President Truman campaigned against the “Do Nothing Congress,” which had not acted to reduce spiking prices and ameliorate a housing crisis. Truman’s strategy wasn’t powerful merely because his proposed legislation was popular, which it was. It was also powerful because his Republican opponents said they too wanted action on the same issues.
At the Democratic convention, Truman called their bluff by calling a special session of Congress. It put Republicans in the same bind they find themselves in today: choosing between allowing the president to get credit for congressional action, or risk accepting the blame for inaction. Republicans ultimately chose to pass bills on housing and prices, but Truman attacked those bills as inadequate. Republicans were in a no-win situation, and perhaps in part Truman won a close election.
Could Mr. Biden use the Truman playbook and call a special session to pass the immigration bill in a few months? It seems worth watching because there appears to be room to hold Republicans to account. There’s also clearly room for Mr. Biden to campaign on the improving economic picture. Put it together with longtime Democratic strengths on abortion rights and protecting democracy, and suddenly the Biden re-election playbook starts to come into focus.
Whether that playbook is enough to lift Mr. Biden to victory is another question. On paper, it looks strong: Incumbent presidents with a good economy tend to win re-election. It’s not always so simple, of course — his Israel policy is an example of an issue that could cost him some support among young and left-leaning voters who would ordinarily be in his camp. Even so, he can reasonably hope these developments will help lift his ratings and his head-to-head poll numbers against Mr. Trump over the next several months.
If Mr. Biden doesn’t see gains, it will raise questions about whether age is actually the source of his weakness.
The NBC poll this weekend found that only 23 percent of voters said Mr. Biden was better than Mr. Trump on “having the necessary mental and physical health to be president.” The economy can improve, but it’s hard to see what he would do to address doubts about his physical health. And if concerns about his age are so great that it prevents Mr. Biden from gaining in the polls in the next few months, it will renew questions about his political viability yet again.