Ron Klain: If Macron can get reelected with a 36% approval rating, Biden can too

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Imagine the look on Klain’s face in January 2021 if you told him that his idea of a pep talk to Democrats in year two of Biden’s presidency would be celebrating the fact that deeply unpopular leaders can still — sometimes — win.

It’s like your team being down four touchdowns at halftime of the Super Bowl and trying to cheer yourself up by remembering that bigger deficits have been overcome en route to victory.

It’s true, they have. But which way would you bet?

I guess when you’re in as bad a spot as Democrats are, every glimmer of hope is precious.

It’s true that Macron won easily despite his unpopularity. It’s also true that he was clearly the lesser of two evils in the minds of most of the French electorate, as happens when the alternative is the soft fascist Le Pen. Plenty of anti-Trumpers will tell you that Trump should be regarded by Americans the same way here as she is in France. But he isn’t. He got just shy of 47 percent of the vote in 2020 and would have won the electoral college again if 50,000 votes or so in key states had gone the other way. Whether because he enjoys the support of a major mainstream party, because he spent decades as a mainstream figure in entertainment before politics, or because Americans are a bit further down the path towards authoritarianism than the French are, Trump doesn’t alarm his country’s swing voters as much as Le Pen alarms hers.

One would have thought that might change after the insurrection, but no. Which is a point in favor of the “further down the path towards authoritarianism” theory.

Klain is right that an unpopular president can win reelection. Obama, for instance, was rocking a 44/47 approval rating as late as September 1, 2012. But he’s wrong that someone as unpopular as Biden currently is can win and he surely knows it. My guess is that ~45 percent is about as low as a president can plausibly go and still stand a chance of winning, and even then he’d need the good fortune to face a deeply unpopular opponent. To win with an approval rating in the 30s, he’d need the phenomenal good luck to face someone widely seen as grossly unfit for the presidency. If the GOP nominated Marjorie Taylor Greene, say, Biden might get the job done with 39 percent approval. Against Trump? No.

Most Democrats aren’t as optimistic as Klain is.

“Are you calling to ask me about our impending doom?” one Democratic strategist quipped at the outset of a recent phone call…

Others use words like “horrible” and “debacle” to describe a political environment that has gone from bad to worse over the last three months. Many fault the White House for steering President Biden too far to the left as he sought to pass social spending legislation stuffed with progressive priorities. Some see the president as a wounded figure who has failed to establish himself as the unequivocal leader of his fractious party.

“It’s going to be a terrible cycle for Democrats,” said Doug Sosnik, a former political adviser to Bill Clinton. Democrats have only a matter of weeks, he said, to try to alter the contours of a race that will largely be determined by factors beyond their control.

One think-tanker told the Times that he suspects every district that went for Biden by 12 points or less in 2020 is in play potentially this fall. Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton’s former pollster, summarized the problem for his party in an op-ed today with a single word: Fear. Americans fear spiraling inflation, they fear rising crime, they fear brinksmanship with Russia, they fear a resurgence of the virus, and they fear a huge flood of migrants at the border. Apart from the last of those, there’s only so much Biden can do to reduce the threats of any of them. Even Penn’s advice is lackluster. Some of his suggestions are no-brainers (i.e. commit to an all-of-the-above energy policy with new drilling) but one of his is balancing the budget. Huh? What year is it?

If Klain and his party had a popular VP waiting in the wings, their Biden problem would be solved — somewhat. No one wants to inherit their party’s nomination from an unpopular president, but if Kamala Harris had wowed voters during her first 15 months in office there’d be chatter among Dems about switching from the tired old horse whom no one likes in 2024 for the younger, more dynamic filly. According to a new book, however, Klain’s about the only person left in Washington who still has high regard for Harris:

A senator close to Vice President Harris lamented her political decline as a “slow-rolling Greek tragedy,” New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns write in “This Will Not Pass,” their book out May 3…

“The vice president had one vocal and unyielding defender in the West Wing: the president’s chief of staff,” the authors write. But even Ron Klain knew something wasn’t working.

The book says he told Harris in the fall of 2021 “that she had erred by holding her Latin American assignment at arm’s length: Yes, he acknowledged, it was a politically delicate portfolio, but there had been an opportunity there for her to take full ownership of something, sink into the policy details and produce results.

That’s another way to look at Klain’s tweet. He’s eyeballing Macron’s 36 percent rating, forecasting (not unrealistically) that Biden may yet descend to those depths, and imagining Biden running anyway in 2024 as an 82-year-old to spare Democrats the comparative burden of having Harris at the top of the ticket. Talk about a vote of no confidence.