President Joe Biden is confronting a record-low job approval rating and a growing calls from within his own party to abandon a reelection campaign.
Last week, congressional Democrats from Minnesota and New York cast doubt on Biden’s political future, suggesting it was time for a new generation to step forward. Those public statements came on the heels of Gallup’s poll, which put Biden’s job approval rating at a personal low 38%.
History doesn’t bode well for incumbent presidents who face intraparty challenges, according to presidential historian Tevi Troy. His recent Washington Examiner cover story, “Biden faces a mutiny,” examined six examples of 20th-century presidents who faced intraparty challengers—all losers.
Troy, director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former senior White House aide, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about Biden’s future, frustrations plaguing his White House, and interesting tidbits about presidential history.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Rob Bluey: I am fascinated by your work as a presidential historian. You have a couple of recent articles, including one from The Wall Street Journal and another from the Washington Examiner that I want to delve into. They cover topics that are on the minds of a lot of Americans right now, particularly as we look at the White House and President Joe Biden’s leadership. Some big questions that have come up about what his future holds.
For The Wall Street Journal, you wrote a piece called “Biden’s Dithering Irks White House Staff,” and I’d like you to walk us through what some of the issues are there—why there’s this frustration, and how a lack of decision-making has impeded some of the administration’s agenda.
Tevi Troy: And let’s just say, as conservatives, maybe it’s not the worst thing if he’s indecisive, but as Americans, we want a president who can make good decisions for the country, even if we might disagree with where he is going politically.
But there have been some news media articles. And again, this is mainstream media complaining about decisions that are sitting in the White House, some of which, like student loans and something on climate change that have sat around for an entire year. And so the staff is concerned that these things go on and on, and that Biden has this habit of asking difficult, challenging questions, factual questions.
And then if a staffer says, “Well, I don’t know the answer to that, sir.” They say, “Well, let’s go back and get the answers before we make the decision.” And it becomes an excuse for not making decisions.
And I put out in The Wall Street Journal piece this famous rule from Colin Powell that you can’t make a decision before you have 40% of the information. But if you’re waiting until you have more than 70% of the information, you’re letting the fence define you instead of you defining events.
Bluey: One of the things that I thought was interesting is you take us back to something that Biden himself wrote about his experience of serving as vice president under President Barack Obama. And at a time, he was critical of Obama for having a lack of decision-making. What was that dynamic like?
Troy: It’s a good question. In the title of the piece, which I did not choose, the word dithering refers to a comment that former Vice President Dick Cheney made about Obama, who was sometimes slow to make decisions. And Biden in his memoir, which is very complimentary of Obama, as you would imagine, has one minor criticism, is about sometimes decisions wouldn’t get made in a timely manner.
Biden seemed to be saying, “You need to make decisions quickly in the White House,” and then he gets to the White House. … And to be fair, he was more decisive in the earlier months. And he seems, perhaps because of the weight of the presidency, to have slowed down his decision-making process, and I understand it.
With the weight of the world on you, sometimes think more deliberately about these things. But at the end of the day, you have to make decisions, that’s what a president does. And so it’s an interesting dynamic that he criticized Obama for not being decisive and now as president, he has some issues with decision-making himself.
Bluey: Do you think his indecisiveness is contributing to the historically low poll numbers that he’s experiencing?
Troy: Actually, I think it’s the historically low poll numbers that make him wonder about his decisions and slow down his ability to choose because he wonders about what the implications will be for him politically. So I wonder if it’s the poll numbers that drive the indecision rather the other way around.
In fact, I say in the Journal piece that he made a couple of early decisions, for example, on Afghanistan that did not turn out so well. And so now maybe he’s being a little more careful in his decisions, but you just can’t overdo it.
Bluey: I want to get into the future of Biden’s tenure in the White House. But before I do so, I’d like you to put on your presidential historian hat. You’ve written several books about past presidents. Who were some of the best presidents when it came to making decisions?
Troy: In this Wall Street Journal piece, I intentionally point to Democrats who were good at making decisions because I thought it would be more likely that Biden would listen to advice if it’s coming from previous Democrats.
And Franklin Roosevelt was just a master at making decisions. In fact, his wife told the journalist John Gunther once, “The president doesn’t think he decides,” which I thought was a great encapsulation of FDR’s method.
And then Harry Truman, I argue in the piece, had to make more tough decisions per year of presidency perhaps than any other president, including about dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, which is a weapon he hadn’t even heard of when he was vice president; whether to recognize Israel in the face of disagreements from his advisers; whether to pursue the Berlin airlift, which was fraught with peril and a necessary decision, but a tough one.
And then what to do about Korea, whether defend Korea from the North Korean invasion, and then what to do about MacArthur, who was popular, but also unmanageable as a general. So he had some really tough decisions and he was willing to make them.
And I argue in the piece that Lyndon Johnson, who had his own decision-making problems with Vietnam, marveled at Truman’s ability to make decisions and then move on, which I think is the essence of decision-making with a great leader.
Bluey: One of the biggest decisions that President Biden will have to make is whether or not to pursue a second term. And as we’ve seen in recent days, there are members of his own party who suggest they need a new generation of leadership to step forward. You have a cover story in the Washington Examiner, “Biden faces a mutiny.”
Tell us about the decision that he needs to make in this particular case and some of the historical facts that you brought to light about what it might mean if he does face an intraparty challenge.
Troy: We’ve seen some Democrats making quiet moves, although in the case of Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, not so quiet moves that seem to suggest that they’re positioning themselves for a run in 2024. And so I looked at the history of people who challenged an incumbent president from within the party. And I found six major instances since the 20th century began.
And in all of those cases I found, and we could talk about the individual ones, but in all of those cases I found that the challenger did not win the nomination, and did not become president in that cycle. And the incumbent president, as a result of either the challenge itself or the fact that the challenge revealed weakness, the incumbent president in all six cases did not win election a second time. Two of them, Truman and Johnson, stepped down and four of them lost their reelection efforts.
Bluey: It would be helpful to walk through in some detail, maybe not all of the six, but pick a couple. Let’s start with the most recent in 1992. Tell us what happened there in the case of George H.W. Bush, who was the incumbent president, and Pat Buchanan.
Troy: I would just say people should get the print edition of the Washington Examiner because it has a terrific chart showing each one of these, who the challenger was, who the incumbent was, and what happened.
In this particular case, which interestingly is the last time it happened, Pat Buchanan challenges George H.W. Bush with a, I would say, kind of a Trumpy-type campaign talking about trade and immigration.
And Bush was kind of coming down off a high after the first Gulf War where his approval rating was in the high 80s, but then it dropped, there was a recession plaguing the country. And Buchanan challenges Bush with a bunch of hard-hitting ads and a lot of hard-hitting rhetoric in the New Hampshire primary, gets 38% of the vote, which was a shocking total. He did not win, but it revealed a weakness that Bush had within his own party. But the Bush people did push back with their own hard-hitting ads.
Buchanan gets a speaking spot at the Republican convention, which was a very well-known and long-remembered speech. And Bush loses his reelection effort to Bill Clinton. And Bill Clinton makes some of the same arguments against Bush that Buchanan had already tried out in his efforts against Bush.
Bluey: And then in 1980, of course, you have Jimmy Carter, who’s the incumbent president, facing a challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy. That also had high drama at the convention. Walk us through what happened in that particular case.
Troy: This one was a particularly nasty one. Ted Kennedy runs against Jimmy Carter from the left and Carter is besieged by all kinds of problems, including a recession and energy crisis, inflation, and then later the Iran hostage crisis. And Kennedy is unrelenting in his attacks on Carter.
And then even at the convention, once it’s clear that Kennedy has no shot to win, and that Carter will be the nominee, his people continue to press and hold up the convention plan, which is carefully, carefully planned out so that you get the maximum of the primetime TV minutes.
And there’s almost a fist fight on the floor over some of the Kennedy people’s efforts to slow down things. And then later Kennedy himself while on the stage carefully and obviously avoids Carter when Carter is trying to do the raised hand in the air gesture to show unity, and Kennedy pointedly will not do it, and it’s an awkward and embarrassing moment.
Bluey: You also note that many of these intraparty challenges happened between the years of 1968 and 1992. And over the course of the last three decades, there hasn’t been nearly the appetite to do so. Do you think that might change in 2024?
Troy: Yeah. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I wrote this piece for the Examiner. Look, that period of ’68 to ’92, especially the first 12 years, was a period of great tumult, there was economic uncertainty. We weren’t sure where things were going in the Cold War. We’d had a rash of assassinations in the 1960s. America seemed to have been knocked off its moorings. And I think that period of tumult is what contributed to some of the intraparty challenges. Now, things did calm down in the country, especially in the period from, let’s say, for the ’90s, for example.
And also, I think this message got absorbed that if you’re going to challenge your incumbent president from the flank of the party, the party is probably going to lose in the next presidential election, and you will be blamed for it. And you probably won’t even win the nomination to begin with. So it’s a very low-reward, high-risk strategy and smart politicians try to avoid it.
So I think that’s why we’ve seen fewer of these intraparty challenges over the last three decades. But I think the combination of Biden’s low approval ratings, the many challenges the country is facing, and the fact that people don’t always remember the lessons of history may make this year ripe for one of those intraparty challenges.
Bluey: It’s also interesting that it’s not just Biden’s approval ratings with independents or Republicans, which obviously are low, but Democrats themselves are lower than, say, in comparison to where George W. Bush was heading into 2004 or where Donald Trump was heading into 2020. What do you make of this phenomenon? In recent history, those incumbent presidents were able to solidify a lot of support within their party, and Biden has not.
Troy: These days when presidents seem to be going for the 50.1% strategy, meaning shore up your base and get enough of the middle to get over the top, you really need to keep your party’s base. And the polls reveal that a large percentage of Democrats, even a majority, do not want Biden to run again, which is worrisome.
Now, that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t get the majority of Democratic support if he did become the nominee, but it does indicate that there’s some weakness in the base.
Bluey: I’d like to ask about some of the previous work you’ve done. Your most recent book is “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.” Is this White House as tumultuous as the Trump White House was? Are we just not hearing about it or is it a well-oiled machine that does not necessarily have the types of rivalries you’ve studied in the past?
Troy: It is true that it is a less tumultuous White House than the Trump White House, but that’s kind of a low bar. We also, we don’t hear about it quite as much because I think the media kind of reveled in reporting every infight and every disagreement within the Trump White House.
But I also think that the Biden team has a plan for really narrowly controlling information, and controlling the flow of decisions, and keeping it within a very, very tight group that does lead to less infighting in cases. But it also sometimes leads to a bubble mentality where you’re not getting outside information.
And then the other thing I would say is that there’s clearly tumult within the Vice President [Kamala] Harris staff, both within her staff and with her, and the rest of the White House. So it’s not like this White House is completely devoid of infighting, but there is probably less of it than, and we’re hearing about it last.
Bluey: One of the interesting things that happened recently was that White House communications director Kate Bedingfield announced that she was leaving and then at the 11th hour decided to stay, which is something that’s quite rare in our day and age. Any insight as to what might have happened there and what that might signal for Biden’s presidency?
Troy: I thought that story was fascinating and I did look into it. It is incredibly rare that you have someone announce that they’re leaving and then stay on.
I think there’s a combination of factors. One, from her perspective, you don’t get that many chances to be at this senior level in the White House, and you don’t give it up lightly. So maybe she was having some buyer’s remorse about moving on. And then I think that the Biden administration didn’t necessarily want to lose a prominent woman in a spot as valued as the communications director.
And so I think there are a couple of factors leading to her kind of change decision, but I completely agree with you that you don’t see this happen often.
In fact, more likely is, there was this situation in the Obama White House, I love this story where Christina Romer, who was the chairman of the economic advisers, kind of expressed some concerns about maybe she wasn’t happy in her job, maybe people weren’t listening to her.
And within a day, the Obama communications team had prepared the press release announcing her departure, which is not exactly what she intended. I think she kind of wanted to be shored up and told that things were going great, and instead she was kind of ushered out the door.
So I think once you start to signal you’re heading out the door, I think there’s often an effort to push you the rest of the way.
Bluey: Very interesting, indeed. You’ve also studied popular culture in the White House. You have a previous book, “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.” Do you have any sense of how this particular White House views popular culture, and maybe how it has shaped President Biden’s opinions on certain issues?
Troy: I just find presidents fascinating. I’ve loved them since I was a kid. I got a Ph.D. in presidential history, then I have the pleasure and honor of a lifetime to work in the White House. So I just like sharing all these great stories about the White House.
With each of my books, and I appreciate you mentioning them, I try to find an aspect of White House life that nobody has written about previously and then really dive into that. So that’s why I did the pop culture thing. That’s why I did the infighting. I also did a book on disasters and how presidents have handled them and then one on intellectuals who’ve served in the White House.
And then in terms of pop culture, look, the White House, when it’s a Democratic White House, obviously gets a big boost from Democratic entertainers. But it’s really hard to see what Biden’s interests are in terms of pop culture. I’ve looked into this issue. I mean, he does seem to like Irish poetry.
I don’t really have a good sense of what songs he likes or certainly not popular songs. Movies, he’s kind of quiet about it. It’s a little strange how little we know about Biden’s pop culture interests.
Bluey: Particularly for somebody who spent so much of his life in the public spotlight, being elected as a U.S. senator at the age of 29, it is truly fascinating that it’s not discussed or talked about nearly as much as previous presidents.
Tevi, as we wrap-up here, I’d like you to tell our listeners about the Presidential Leadership Initiative that you direct at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and some of the work that you do there.
Troy: I do this, as you know, I’m a conservative, I’ve worked for Republican administrations, but I’m interested in this issue of presidential leadership. And I thought that from the Bipartisan Policy Center, I can talk to both parties and across the spectrum about this important issue of the presidency, and maintaining the power and majesty of the presidency because the presidency is one of our few shared institutions.
Now, you talk about pop culture, Rob, and we’re now in this world of narrowcasting where there’s no one show that everybody watches, there’s no one type of music that everybody listens to, but everybody knows who the president is.
And I think the president can be a beacon for freedom and help pushing against either authoritarianism on the right or socialism on the left. And is also a beacon for people around the world who look to America as a place that promotes freedom.
So I really want to promote the presidency as the appropriate institution that really promotes American democracy and American freedom, and I want to maintain those things. So that’s what I write about from that perch.
And I’ve written a number of pieces, including the one you mentioned in The Wall Street Journal, on presidential leadership. And leadership, I think, is an essential thing to study when it comes to the president and I think it has applicability in many other fields, including in business and the nonprofit world. I think many people can learn leadership lessons from what has happened, and what has gone right at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and also what has gone wrong.
Bluey: I can’t let you go without asking a baseball question. You and I are both big baseball fans. I, of course, a long-struggling Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but we just to have the, this huge seismic trade deadline in which Juan Soto left the Washington Nationals for the San Diego Padres, really shaping up for a strong pennant race. Obviously, the playoffs are expanded this year. Any predictions on what to see here as we head down to the home stretch of the baseball season?
Troy: Yeah. I think the Padres now have a very dangerous lineup going into October. I think it’s a little top-heavy. I don’t know where they go after four and five in the lineup, but that first couple of people in it. And remember they did also get Josh Bell from the Nationals. There’s a bit of a Murderers’ Row in the first half of the lineup. I think the Yankees improved themselves a little bit. I think they made marginal improvements.
I think the Dodgers have been on such a tear they didn’t feel like they needed to do much at all. And I’m just not sure about the Astros. They’re obviously a very good team, but bringing in a new catcher at this point I’m not sure was the best move with Christian Vazquez. But I think it’s set up for a real interesting October.
I just think the way that baseball is set up, but you’ve got some real super teams, and then you’ve got a lot of teams on the outside looking in, makes for a strange October. But there’s definitely three or four teams to watch, including now the Padres, but also the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, and Mets I think would be the five teams to look at.
Bluey: It’s certainly going to make for an exciting fall. And you wrote an excellent piece at the start of the season, “Welcome to Baseball’s Gold Age.”
Tevi Troy, thank you so much for being with “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Troy: Thanks so much. I always love the show.
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