President Biden and former president Donald Trump are on a path that could lead to a rematch in 2024 of their 2020 election contest. Some past polls have suggested that such a face-off could be close.
In 2022, however, the competition between the two politicians was anything but close. It was Biden over Trump decisively.
That result was hardly preordained when the year opened. In the early months of 2022, Biden and his party were facing substantial obstacles. The president’s approval ratings were among the lowest of any newly elected president, as bad as or worse than Trump’s at a similar point in the Trump presidency.
Historical trends were running against the Democrats. Inflation was rising. The southern border was facing a surge of migrants. Even through early November, Republicans talked about a wave election, and many Democrats feared one.
Within the Democratic Party, there were many doubters about the strategy that the president and his White House team were pursuing. Complaints about White House messaging were numerous. After legislative successes in 2021, the prospects for additional achievements seemed questionable. White House officials endured blunt criticism from seeming allies about the course they were pursuing.
Those early months offered Trump opportunities that could have affected future events. Instead, he squandered those opportunities with decisions that cost his party in the midterm elections and appear to have cost him politically as well.
Trump spent the year clinging to the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen and demanding that others in the Republican Party embrace those conspiracy theories. From his outpost at Mar-a-Lago in South Florida, he sought to show that he was the party’s kingmaker, offering endorsements to like-minded politicians. That saddled the Republicans with candidates not ready for general elections. Were it not for that, arguably, Republicans would now have a majority in the Senate rather than a net loss of one seat.
In the spring and summer, Biden made decisions that ultimately paid off. They included the steady pursuit of legislative victories that eventually resulted in the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (with only Democratic votes); bipartisan passage of a bill to invigorate domestic semiconductor manufacturing; a measure to care for veterans suffering from the effects of toxic burn pits; and a modest gun safety bill, the first such measure in a decade.
Biden also pursued a messaging strategy designed to brand much of the Republican Party in Trump’s image: the MAGA (Make American Great Again) Republicans, as he called them. With an assist from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden sought to make concerns about the state of U.S. democracy part of the midterm dialogue.
Some Democrats wondered whether that tactic was misplaced, given polls showing Americans most worried about inflation and the economy. Biden stuck to it. He said democracy was on the ballot in November, and many voters agreed, to the detriment of the former president and his party.
Trump unwittingly aided the president’s strategy, first by refusing to let go of 2020, and second by becoming the focus of two investigations by the Department of Justice. Both are ongoing.
One involves the role of the former president and those around him before and during the attack on the Capitol. In a few days, the Jan. 6 committee could cite Trump in criminal referrals to the Justice Department for his role in the attack on the Capitol. The other investigation involves his decision to retain classified documents that should have been in the hands of the government but instead were in boxes and elsewhere at Mar-a-Lago. A special counsel is overseeing the investigations.
One of Trump’s successes as president turned into a political liability for Republicans in 2022. In office, Trump added three conservatives to the Supreme Court (with the assistance of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who in 2016 had blocked one nominee by President Barack Obama and in 2020 rammed through another just ahead of Biden’s election). Last summer, the court’s conservative majority, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, ended the constitutional right to abortion, inflaming abortion rights supporters. The ruling changed the midterm election dynamic.
The election results speak for themselves. Republicans failed to take control of the Senate when they had an obvious path to the majority and barely won a majority in the House. The University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll found that nearly as many people said the election was a referendum on Trump (14 percent) as said it was a referendum on Biden (17 percent). Biden proved to be one of the most successful newly elected presidents, politically speaking, in generations.
In the weeks since the election, the pattern has continued. Trump announced his candidacy for 2024 as the midterm results were still solidifying. The reviews of that announcement were anything but positive. He appeared flat rather than energized and had little new to say. Since then, he has done nothing of note as a candidate, raising the question of why he felt the need to formally announce so soon, other than to hector the Justice Department as its investigations push forward.
Last month, he dined with an antisemite (Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West) and with a white supremacist also an antisemite (Nick Fuentes). He recently tweeted baseless claims that the “massive fraud” in 2020 “allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” saying the election either should be thrown out with him declared the winner or a new election should be held. He continues to cling to dangerous fantasies.
Instead of being serious, he has embraced frivolousness and greed. Just last week, he released digital trading cards, NFTs, of himself that he was offering for sale. For Trump, celebrity and commercialization remain his priorities, debasing the office he once held. Perhaps the new cards were supposed to be just a joke, a little fun ahead of the holidays. But there has been nothing to counter the impression that he has no second chapter, no future focus.
His standing within the party has taken a clear hit. A recent Wall Street Journal poll tested Republican preferences for the 2024 nomination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who scored a big reelection victory, ran first with 52 percent, followed by Trump at 38 percent.
A new USA Today poll showed DeSantis at 56 percent and Trump at 33 percent. The results are notable, if potentially transitory. After Trump announced his bid for president in 2016, he never trailed in any Washington Post-ABC News poll testing Republicans in a nomination contest — although those polls always involved a multicandidate field rather than head-to-head tests. The USA Today poll also showed Biden leading Trump by seven percentage points.
The 2024 nomination contest hasn’t begun; DeSantis has not even said he will run for president. Trump is a skilled and ruthless candidate; DeSantis is untested, as are most other potential challengers. Still, the success of Biden and the failures of Trump this year have colored the post-2022 election environment.
Biden is moving toward a reelection campaign, although he has not made an announcement. That’s likely to come sometime after the State of the Union address. A disastrous midterm election probably would have increased concerns about a second Biden campaign. Today, he is more secure within the Democratic Party than he was a few months ago.
Midterm elections are not good predictors of the subsequent presidential election campaign. Presidents whose parties have suffered significant midterm defeats — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — have rebounded and won reelection two years later. George W. Bush had a successful 2002 midterm. The impact of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provided him a boost. And he won reelection in 2004 but had to fight hard to do so.
There’s been no recent comparison to the current situation. Despite Biden’s good fortunes in 2022 and Trump’s failures, there’s nothing certain about how 2024 will play out. Biden’s age and capacity to handle the job remain issues to many voters. A campaign against a Republican other than Trump would be different from one against Trump.
The president faces continuing challenges: maintaining international support for supplying Ukraine in the war with Russia; dealing with a China that has become isolated and potentially more of an adversary because of the pandemic; an economy that has strengths and weaknesses and worries about a recession here and abroad; a southern border surge that remains a Democratic weak spot in terms of policy; an aggressive Republican majority in the House.
So nothing is certain about how events will unfold, judging by the past. But in 2022, there was one clear loser, and it wasn’t who most people thought it would be as the year began.