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Biden parallels? How Carter fared against Reagan in this stage of election cycle

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When President Biden and former President Donald Trump face off in an election rematch this November, one man will remain a one-term president. 

Trump, a Republican whom Biden unseated in 2020, seeks to return the favor in 2024 as the incumbent Democratic president struggles with lackluster approval ratings reminiscent of infamous one-term president Jimmy Carter. As of February, Biden’s job approval rating stood at 38% in a Gallup poll — less than one point above President Carter’s record-low Gallup rating of 37.4% after his third year in office. 

There is reason to believe that Biden today is in a weaker position than Carter was in 1980, when the Democratic incumbent lost re-election to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. In March 1980, a Gallup head-to-head poll showed Carter at 58% to Reagan’s 33% — but the gap would narrow in the ensuing months, and Reagan ultimately defeated Carter in a 44-state landslide with 50.8% of the popular vote to Carter’s 41%. 

There is no comparable Gallup survey for Biden and Trump in 2024, but other recent polls show a much closer race, with Trump maintaining a slight 2.1 point lead over Biden in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. A Fox News Poll released Sunday found Trump at 49% support, while Biden registered at 47%, a statistical tie within the margin of sampling error.

Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer who wrote about the 1980 campaign in his book ‘Rendezvous with Destiny,’ attributed Carter’s early lead over Reagan to ‘public sympathy and an outpouring of support for the Iranian hostage crisis.’ 

The Iran hostage crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979, when radicalized students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran to protest Carter’s decision to allow the deposed Shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment. Fifty-two Americans — mostly State Department employees and Marines — were held captive for 444 days while Ayatollah Khomeini spurned Carter’s attempts to free the captives. 

‘Public attitudes turned about the hostage crisis, because I think people were starting to realize that Carter was using it to his political advantage,’ Shirley told Fox News Digital in an interview. ‘The goal was to get the hostages released in October. And Americans, in an outpouring of gratitude, would vote for Carter for his re-election. That’s what the Carter campaign really wanted, was to get the hostages out right at the crest of the election. Didn’t happen, of course.’ 

Carter’s re-election effort faced economic challenges as well, with inflation and unemployment both in double digits, a phenomenon economists have dubbed ‘stagflation.’ The crisis in Iran intersected with the U.S. economy when Iranian oil workers went on strike, triggering a supply shock that led to notorious lines at the gas station and incidents of gas theft. 

The final years of Carter’s presidency saw inflation rise by an average 11% in 1979 and nearly 14% in 1980. 

Biden faces similar foreign and domestic crises. While the president proclaimed an economic ‘comeback’ in his State of the Union address last week, inflation remains persistent at 3.2% year-over-year, according to the Labor Department’s February consumer price index (CPI) report. 

Under Biden’s watch, inflation surged to 9.1% in 2022 after a series of coronavirus spending packages that began under Trump and culminated in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by Biden. Inflation has since come down but remains higher than the Federal Reserve’s target 2% rate. Compared with January 2021, shortly before the inflation crisis began, prices are up a dramatic 18.49%. 

High inflation has created severe financial pressures for most U.S. households, which are forced to pay more for everyday necessities like food and rent. The burden is disproportionately borne by low-income Americans, whose already-stretched paychecks are heavily affected by price fluctuations.

Progress on inflation has largely flatlined since June, with the CPI hovering at or above 3% for the past nine months, stoking concerns on Wall Street over the possibility of renewed ‘stagflation.’ 

On the foreign policy front, President Biden lost public support, and his poll numbers never recovered after 13 U.S. service members died during the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. His term in office has also seen war erupt in Ukraine and Israel with no end in sight. Repeated military aid packages to Ukraine have failed to stop the Russian offensive or turn the tide in the war. And despite efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, war rages on in Gaza.

Biden also faces his own hostage crisis as at least five Americans are still held in captivity by Hamas. Israeli authorities say the terrorist group took at least 250 hostages during the Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel, during which Hamas killed 1,200 people, including 32 Americans. 

But Trump must overcome his own challenges to make Biden a one-term president. He made history last year as the first president or former president to face criminal charges and now faces four major trials and a total of 91 indictments — including federal cases on his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and on handling classified documents. He must also juggle an appeal of a $355 million civil fraud judgment as he splits time between courtrooms and campaign stops before the November election. 

Shirley said that for Trump to repeat Reagan’s success, he must make Biden the issue in this campaign. 

‘Now, Trump’s already proved that he can be an acceptable alternative,’ he explained, noting that he has already been president and is ready to ‘step into the job and replace the other guy.’ 

In Shirley’s estimation, Trump has done a good job attacking Biden on the illegal immigration crisis and on inflation. He said that immigration is Trump’s ‘signature issue, just as anti-communism was Reagan’s signature issue.’ 

‘The issue cluster that Reagan ran on in 1980, the winning issue cluster was strong national defense, federalism, tax cuts, individual rights. All those issues are still the issues of the Republican Party, still the winning issues,’ Shirley said. 

‘That was Reagan’s gift, to bequeath the party a firm set of values on which the party stood for all, emanating from Reagan’s bedrock belief in personal freedom.’ 

Fox News Digital’s Rémy Numa, Paul Steinhauser, Taylor Penley, Megan Henney and Ronn Blitzer contributed to this report. 

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