A Recession Before the Midterms: History is Not on Biden's Side

There are plenty of ways to measure political fortunes for U.S. presidents, but one factor that comes up almost every time is the economy.

In which case, the timing of the 2022 recession could hardly be worse for President Joe Biden.

With the second quarter of consecutive negative GDP growth marking what most economists and pundits consider a recession, Biden has only one more GDP reading before voters go to the polls on Tuesday, November 8. On July 28, GDP for the second quarter was given as -0.9 percent, following the previous quarter's reading of -1.6 percent. Two quarters in a row is bad news, and widely considered a recession.

U.S. GDP for the third quarter is announced on October 27, just under two weeks before the Midterms. If that reading also comes in negative, the narrative of economic decline under the Democrats will be impossible to avoid. If it is positive, Biden's recession will be over—just—and maybe the case can be made for turning the corner. Either way, there's little time to show that the economy has turned the corner by November.

History doesn't bode well for Biden.

Going back president by president, recession by recession, the lessons are clear.

Donald Trump's recession was made inevitable by COVID, as the U.S. and most of the world entered a period of lockdown. It came after the midterms. He lost the election.

Barack Obama entered office during the recession caused by the Global Financial Crisis. But after that initial quarter, he faced only three other quarters of negative GDP numbers, and none that constituted a recession.

George W. Bush had a major recession at the end of his second term. He had one negative quarter near the start of his presidency.

Bill Clinton had no recession in terms of quarter-by-quarter growth, although by other definitions he did have one in his presidency, but right at the end.

George H. W. Bush faced a recession right in the middle of his presidency, in 1990-91. The second quarter of negative growth, confirming a recession, happened after the Midterm elections. However, the economy was starting to show warning signs with inflation and employment, despite Bush seeing high approval ratings over the war in the Gulf. In the Midterms, there was a minor swing to Democrats, but both chambers were majority Democrat throughout Bush's presidency. Largely due to the recession, he lost in 1992 to Clinton, whose campaign was underpinned by his strategist James Carville's phrase "It's the economy, stupid", underlining its relentless focus on the economy.

Ronald Reagan faced a recession in late 1981, around a year before the Midterms of 1982. Although high inflation and interest rates were causing high unemployment, the president was not punished at the Midterm polls—both the House of Representatives and the Senate were retained by the Democrats and Republicans, respectively. Reagan's tax plan eventually sparked an economic recovery that saw him win a landslide second term.

Jimmy Carter faced a recession towards the end of his only term in office. It helped sweep Reagan to the White House.

The recession at the start of Richard Nixon's presidency saw him make little headway at the Midterms, as both houses of Congress were both Democrat-controlled and stayed that way, but he won a second term with a landslide victory in 1972. His presidency was ended by the Watergate scandal.

In terms of timing, the Biden recession is clearly the worst-timed in recent history. No president has faced a recession at this point in the electoral cycle and won seats at the Midterms. Reagan was the only president who managed to ride out an early recession; others, such as Bush (I) and Carter lost at first chance of re-election. Trump's recession was not the only issue, given that he had lost the popular vote when winning in 2016, and COVID was about more than just a recession, but his presidency was one-term only as well.

Most tellingly, recessions seem to either cause one-term presidencies, or at the end of a second term (Clinton, Bush II), help change the presidential colors in the White House. For the Democrats in 2024, it could mean both.

Biden July 2022
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 27, 2022 in Washington, DC. The U.S. had two consecutive quarters of negative GDP. Getty Images