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CLARENCE PAGE: An old Joe Biden foe is back: the enthusiasm gap

Every presidential campaign raises nagging questions of various sorts.

With the 2024 election barely more than a year away, one overarching question haunts Democrats: Why the heck isn’t President Joe Biden doing better in the polls?

The fear and the hand-wringing from my friends and colleagues — and not just the liberals — have begun to remind me of the classic Yuletide “Dennis the Menace” cartoon.

Dennis is seen on Christmas morning awash in toys and wrapping paper as he turns to his parents to ask, “Is this all?”

I hear that question a lot from Democrats and others who are frustrated not by a lack of gifts but by the lack of movement in Biden’s poll numbers.

It’s not like he hasn’t had significant accomplishments to cite, and we’ll be hearing more about them, although his own allies complain — with good reason, in my view — that he doesn’t toot his own horn enough about them. Part of the malaise seems to be leftover exhaustion from the last campaign’s drama, which ended with victory, followed by an assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.

In the current campaign, the economy is seen as a liability for Biden. Inflation soared in 2021 and 2022 to peak at a rate of 9.1 percent in June 2022, the largest 12-month increase since the 12-month period that ended in November 1981. Those figures have improved, but judging by the polls, voters aren’t feeling it.

Accordingly, Biden’s most recent Gallup approval rating from his fellow Democrats was 75 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His 37 percent overall approval rating, down from 41 percent in September, matches his personal low.

At the same time, Biden’s approval among independents declined four points, to 35 percent, while just 5 percent of Republicans approved of his performance, unchanged from the previous poll.

The economy isn’t Biden’s only issue with voters. There, too, are the crises in Israel and Ukraine.

Perhaps as concerning as these issues of the day that would vex any incumbent is a challenge Biden has faced before — low enthusiasm.

You may remember that narrative in 2020. Back then his age and old-school style seemed anachronistic following the era of charismatic Barack Obama. Biden’s narrow victory relied heavily on fear and dislike of Trump.

Now he is even older. So, too, is Trump, his former and quite likely future opponent, assuming Trump can stay out of prison long enough to campaign.

Attention is turning once again to Biden’s weaknesses among key voting blocs, particularly Black and Hispanic Americans.

New data from the 2022 midterm elections suggests that turnout was down among Black people and Hispanics compared with the 2018 midterms. That has raised concerns among Democrats, who seem to seek something to worry about in the happiest of times, that Biden’s support among voters of color may be slipping.

That’s worrisome for Biden’s campaign but unsurprising to those of us who remember the same concerns in the 2020 race when Biden emerged from the primaries to face Trump. He relieved a lot of that angst by picking Kamala Harris to be the first woman of color to be nominated by a major party for vice president.

Unfortunately, Harris, then a senator from California, proved to need what turned out to be a lot of on-the-job training, which, with Biden’s age, has raised more anxieties among Democrats and everyone else who would rather not see Trump get anywhere near the White House.

What to do next? Any strategizing about the future of campaign 2024 is clouded by its having so many “what ifs”’ as well as “now whats.” So expect the unexpected — and try to plan for it.

Democrats will make a big mistake if they take their currently robust coalition of diverse demographic groups for granted. The rise of Trump’s MAGA movement into a cultlike political tribe shows what can happen when people don’t think the establishment takes them seriously. Biden knows that. Now he needs to show it.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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