Why Biden should be thankful it's not 2024 yet

And what some other politicians might be feeling grateful for this week.

November 21, 2023, 5:01 PM

Welcome to 538’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

tia.yang (Tia Yang, editor/reporter): It’s Thanksgiving week, and the presidential turkeys have already been pardoned. Liberty and Bell, this year’s lucky birds from Minnesota, are surely thankful to be heading back home this holiday season. And with most politicians doing the same, here at 538, we thought we’d chat about what we think some of them might be feeling thankful for.

We’ll start at the top with President Joe Biden, who just turned 81 on Monday. Maybe his birthday wish was for some better polling heading into 2024. But what does the president have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

leah.askarinam (Leah Askarinam, politics reporter): That current horse-race polling isn't predictive.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior editor and elections analyst): Hahaha.

leah.askarinam: Did I steal yours?

nrakich: You didn't steal mine, but I was going to say, it's an awkward time to be asking what Biden should be thankful for, given the polling slump he’s in!

His average approval rating has fallen below 40 percent in 538's tracker. There's a lot of dissatisfaction among his base about his handling of issues like the economy and the war in Israel-Gaza. And he trails former President Donald Trump in most general-election polls.

leah.askarinam: Right. Recent polls have yielded some bad news for Biden — for example, his approval rating declined to his lowest ever in the latest NBC poll, which is widely respected among politicos. But even more interesting to me was how NBC summed up a slew of other record-breaking bad numbers that poll included for Biden. For example, it's the first time the poll found Biden behind Trump in a hypothetical general-election matchup. And one of the pollsters, Republican Bill McInturff, told NBC that the impact the Israel-Hamas war has had was unprecedented, because foreign affairs don't usually hit American presidents quite this hard.

Perhaps Biden could be thankful that outlier polls exist and could potentially account for some of the bad numbers, although it seems unlikely given recent trends.

nrakich: Yeah. But I think your first point is absolutely right, Leah — Biden can be thankful that this is November 2023, not November 2024. I'm skeptical that the Israel-Hamas war is going to stay in the headlines long enough to be one of the deciding issues of the 2024 general election.

It's a long campaign. We're in a bad news cycle for Biden right now. But there is time for several more news cycles to come and go before Election Day.

Including some news cycles that will probably be bad for Trump! And that's what I think Biden should be thankful for: the fact that he is very likely going to be running against Trump, who is almost as unpopular as he is, who may very well be convicted of multiple crimes in the next year, and who has a unique ability to energize the Democratic base.

If you think the polls are bad for Biden against Trump, take a look at his polls against former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. A Fox News poll that put Biden 4 points behind Trump nationally put him 11 points behind Haley. A Marquette Law School poll that put Biden 2 points behind Trump nationally (among likely voters) put him 12 points behind Haley.

Now, I don't think Haley would win by that much (no one has won the popular vote by more than 9 points since 1984). But I think if Republicans nominated anyone but Trump, they would be favorites to win back the White House in 2024.

tia.yang: Plus the fact that Biden’s silver lining is that he’s running against someone almost as unpopular as he is only underlines the fact that he's less popular than Trump. Heading into the 2020 election, Trump was nearly as unpopular as he is now, but Biden's favorability was in positive territory. Now Biden is the unpopular incumbent. That could be bad news for him when it comes to turning out his base.

leah.askarinam: Right, they're both quite unpopular. But I still think Trump has a harder ceiling than Biden, and the biggest threat to a Biden victory is voters staying at home or voting third-party.

But to that point, I'd add to Biden's list of things to be thankful for that the off-year elections indicate that voters are still responding to messaging on protecting abortion rights. A new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll found a record-breaking share of Americans — 55 percent — say women should be able to get an abortion for any reason.

tia.yang: Good point, Leah. A September NBC poll found that voters trust Democrats over Republicans on abortion (and health care) more than on any other issue, and we can expect them to continue emphasizing that issue to drive turnout.

Let's move on to the other side of the horse race. Nathaniel, what do you think Trump's feeling thankful for?

nrakich: Haha, my snarky answer is that Trump should be thankful for the fact that he'll probably run against Biden!

The same things I said above for Biden go for Trump too: If Democrats had a younger, less unpopular nominee like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Sen. Raphael Warnock, Trump would be a serious underdog. But instead, Trump will probably run against one of the only politicians in America who’s more unpopular than he is.

leah.askarinam: I think there's a slight unknown there though, Nathaniel. We know that Biden versus Trump is basically a dead heat at this point, because Biden's weaknesses are, theoretically, manageable for Democrats. He can still run on abortion rights and preserving democracy, even if voters think that as a human being he is simply too old to be president. He won't win a landslide, but he can certainly win the presidency anyway.

To compare this to Biden’s odds against a more popular Republican, the only reason we know Haley fares well on a national stage is because ... she is running for president and is faring decently on a national stage. But we don't know how Whitmer or Warnock would fare on a national stage until we see one of them on it.

nrakich: That's fair!

tia.yang: That same Fox News poll that had Biden trailing Haley also found Trump leading Democratic alternatives like Whitmer and Vice President Kamala Harris in a theoretical matchup. But as Leah said, these matchups are more hypothetical than, say, Haley versus Biden.

Leah, what about you? What else should Trump be thankful for?

leah.askarinam: Trump should be thankful that the latest round of polling that declares Nikki Haley is "surging" in New Hampshire also means that she finally made it into the double digits.

In other words, Trump should be thankful that he's so far ahead in the GOP primary polls!

tia.yang: Right. While Haley's polling looks good in a theoretical matchup against Biden, it's not looking so good against Trump. A recent Harvard CAPS-Harris poll of registered Republican voters found her at 19 percent to Trump's 81 percent in a head-to-head primary race.

nrakich: Yeah, my alternative answer was going to be that Trump should be thankful that Republican voters are still so loyal to him, even after he lost in 2020. Historically, parties usually want nothing to do with their losing presidential nominees — Democrats moved on quickly from Hillary Clinton after 2016, Republicans from Mitt Romney after 2012. But not Trump after 2020.

Of course, maybe that's not too surprising when you consider that 69 percent of Republicans believe Biden was not the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

tia.yang: Trump does hate losing, so he’s definitely thankful for that!

Let’s pivot to the legislative branch. In the wake of a House speakership crisis and amid a looming government shutdown, public approval for Congress has been as low as 13 percent in recent polls — 538’s approval tracker had it at its lowest point all year at the end of October. But after 10 straight weeks in session, Speaker Mike Johnson’s House managed to avoid (or at least delay) a holiday season shutdown by punting the next federal funding deadline to January. What does Johnson have to be thankful for?

leah.askarinam: I would say that Johnson should be thankful that he won enough votes to become speaker, which should indicate that it's not impossible to unite the GOP conference around a single issue.

nrakich: Johnson should be thankful that everyone in Congress is tired and just wants to go home, haha.

In order to keep the government open, Johnson had to compromise with Democrats and pass a continuing resolution. In other words, he had to do exactly what former Speaker Kevin McCarthy did. In both cases, the House Freedom Caucus was outraged — but while McCarthy famously lost his job for his transgressions, Johnson still has his.

Someone could have very easily tried to file a motion to vacate the chair against Johnson too. But I think, after all the chaos in the House in October after McCarthy was ousted, the appetite just wasn't there for that.

leah.askarinam: So, should Johnson be thankful that the right wing of the Republican Party ousted McCarthy?

nrakich: I guess so, Leah? Assuming that being speaker of the House is actually something to be thankful for ...

leah.askarinam: That is a leap indeed, Nathaniel.

But I do think Johnson ended up being the right person at the right time, and that's something to be thankful for.

nrakich: In all seriousness, though, the speakership seems to me like a thankless, nearly impossible job right now, given the slim majority Republicans are working with. Honestly, I think McCarthy should be thankful that he doesn't have to worry about it anymore.

tia.yang: Yeah, to address Leah's first point about GOP unity, I'm skeptical anyone could unite the GOP conference around spending issues. It’s going to be an uphill battle for Johnson. Even before he got the funding extension passed, many were noting that the new speaker’s honeymoon period with conservatives seemed to have ended — and that seems even more true after he passed it.

leah.askarinam: Right. Maybe Johnson should just be thankful for his friends and family, because work is going to be tough.

tia.yang: To that point, I think all members of Congress are probably pretty thankful not only to be home for Thanksgiving, but for the absence of a government funding deadline right before Christmas or New Year’s, thanks to Johnson’s CR that extended current funding through Jan. 19 or Feb. 2. This is the first time in over a decade (since 2012) that Congress doesn’t have at least one government funding deadline in the month of December. Last year it passed an omnibus spending bill on Dec. 23, and in 2021, it set five different funding deadlines in December alone.

So while he may have run out his rope with hardline conservatives, the fact that Johnson got this funding extension passed at all could do a lot to cool things down after a particularly testy November in Congress. He’s the speaker who saved Christmas! On brand for him.

nrakich: Yeah, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is not a Christmas movie!

leah.askarinam: So, if Johnson saves Christmas, who's the grinch?

tia.yang: Chip Roy would love to declare himself the grinch.

But seriously, the Freedom Caucus and anti-establishment wing that ousted McCarthy over cutting that initial spending deal stands ready to be the grinch in this scenario. As Nathaniel noted, they gave Johnson a pass this time, but they’re not happy that he extended funding at fiscal 2023 levels, which were set by Democrats back in 2022.

What about elsewhere in Congress? What other Thanksgiving hot takes do you guys have?

leah.askarinam: Well, since you asked: I think the first-term Republican congressmen from New York who are facing tough elections in November 2024 are thankful for the House Ethics Committee report that alleged “substantial evidence” that Rep. George Santos paid for personal expenses with campaign funds. Santos announced he won't seek reelection, but he faces a major threat before that, with a resolution to expel him from Congress expected to come to the floor after Thanksgiving.

I think some Suffolk County and New York Republican Party leaders will be thankful, too. Santos's antics in Congress just weren't a good look while other New York Republicans are making the case to voters that, despite the "R" next to their name, they're common-sense politicians who can represent Biden voters' interests. Santos, meanwhile, will still allegedly have some things to be thankful for, including, according to the House Ethics report, what should be truly fantastic skin, made possible by spa visits and Botox.

nrakich: Haha. Santos should be thankful that he still has his job — at least for now. Ahead of the expected vote on whether to expel him next week, I guess Santos should also be thankful that it requires a two-thirds vote to expel a member and that only five representatives in history have ever been expelled.

leah.askarinam: And he already survived another resolution to expel him recently! It's not over!

tia.yang: It says a lot about how bad a look Santos has been for New York Republicans that they were the ones leading that initial charge to oust him — right after the GOP speaker battle emphasized how much every Republican vote counts with such a small majority.

Nathaniel, what's your parting Thanksgiving hot take?

nrakich: I think this is a pretty cold take, but Mitch McConnell should be thankful for the 2024 Senate map. Needing just one or two flips to take control of the Senate (depending on who wins the vice presidency), Republicans have three great pickup opportunities in states that Trump carried by at least 8 points in 2020: West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. McConnell should be extra thankful that Joe Manchin, the Democratic incumbent in West Virginia, decided not to run for reelection, which virtually assures that Republicans will pick up that seat.

Sorry, that was not nearly as fun as Leah's.

leah.askarinam: I think McConnell should be thankful for his position in general — he gets to be the grown-up in the room next door to a chaotic House conference, and he doesn’t have run for reelection himself in 2024, since his term ends in 2026.

And, I think there might be a long list of Republicans who would be thankful for a Joe Manchin presidential run! He’s openly considering one, lamenting that Biden has gone “too far left.”

tia.yang: Manchin going from Senate kingmaker to presidential election spoiler would be a maximally chaotic power move from him.