Power  /  Antecedent

What Being Unpopular Does to a First-Term President

Some lessons for Joe Biden from the ’70s presidents who lived it.

Vice presidents who ascend to the highest office inherit a powerful tool: nostalgia.In January 2021, 56 percent of Americans thought Biden, whom they remembered for his close relationship with Barack Obama, was doing a good job. Unelected presidents have fared even better. Harry Truman enjoyed an 87 percent approval rating after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office; Lyndon B. Johnson polled at 78 percent after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But Ford’s high 71 percent approval rating in August 1974 was only possible because Richard Nixon became the first president in American history to resign. Ford made history when he was promoted, too; he’d never been elected to either office. The monthlong honeymoon ended abruptly when, in September, in the name of national unity, Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon.

By 1976, Ford entered primary season with a 46 percent approval rating, and he couldn’t blame it all on Nixon. He oversaw the worst economy since the Great Depression—an energy crisis, high unemployment, and inflation—and didn’t offer much relief. Ford, an establishment Republican who believed in small government and fiscal conservatism, was sidelined by a Democrat-controlled Congress—and he returned the favor. During his 29 months in office, he vetoed 66 Democratic bills. His foreign policy didn’t fare much better. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell. Americans had lost 58,000 lives in a war they could, for the first time, watch from home, and the end of that war was no less traumatic. They saw Vietnamese allies grasping at the tracks of fleeing helicopters and packing into the U.S. Embassy courtyard like sardines.

Still, the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, in the summer of 1976 should have been Ford’s coronation. A sitting president is the de facto leader of his party, a position that should be sacred in a fraught election year, but Reagan, a glamourous outsider, pounced. The Boca Raton News recognized his strategy: When Reagan, “the Trumpet of law and order,” was asked whether Nixon, on whom he had been “strangely mute,” had cast a shadow over the primaries, he issued a damning redirect: “You have to ask the man who pardoned him.” Ford’s defense was comparatively milquetoast. “I was approved by a Democratic Congress overwhelmingly, in the House and Senate, which clearly indicates on the record I have no connection whatsoever with Watergate,” he explained in the kind of flat language destined for the pages of an uninspired high school textbook.