Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
We live in unstable times. Although most Americans were hoping for tranquility after the turmoil of the pandemic and the turbulence of the Trump presidency, life remains rocky and unpredictable.
President Joe Biden has faced some enormously difficult issues since he entered office. Russia unleashed a fierce war against Ukraine, with the US allocating substantial resources to support Kyiv. The economy has been struggling, with experts repeatedly warning of a potential recession. Although job growth remains robust, inflation has continued to be a problem, causing many Americans to feel the pinch on everything from the cost of buying groceries to heating their homes.
The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates to address inflation, which has in turn caused huge swings in the stock market and a slowdown in the housing market. It has also played a role in the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which rattled confidence around the world and led the US government to intervene to stem the spreading financial panic.
And then there is the chaos and vitriol generated by the ongoing culture war debates, particularly those over school curricula about race and identity and efforts to curtail transgender rights; these have raised the temperature (and for some, deep fear) in communities across the country.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Americans say they are pessimistic about the future. In January, a Gallup poll found that 90% of Americans expected 2023 to be a year of political conflict, 85% forecast discord overseas and roughly 80% predicted economic problems and higher taxes in the US.
Barring a dramatic shift, the 2024 presidential election will take place within this ominous context. While some Americans spend their days screaming at their screens out of political frustration, I’d wager that what most people want is to be able to avoid this kind of toxic focus and concentrate on their daily lives. And given what seem like numerous, overlapping crises, the promise of restoring stability will surely be a central issue in 2024.
It may be hard to fathom now, but there have been previous elections that were generally free from the sort of turmoil that we face today. In 2000, the federal budget was in surplus and the economy was booming. Despite the dot com bubble bursting, the 1990s, heading into 2000, marked the longest period of economic expansion in the US at the time. Confidence in the economy had reached historic highs and the United States was not involved in any major conflict overseas.
Although turmoil at home and abroad was around the corner, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush each ran campaigns positioning himself as the candidate best able to keep the good times rolling. Whether it was Gore’s promise to shore up Social Security or Bush floating his vision of compassionate conservatism as a way to deal with educational gaps, the campaign was relatively subdued (before election night, of course, and the ensuing fight over the results in Florida).
Then there are other elections, like in 1980, when challenge is the name of the game. When President Jimmy Carter ran for reelection, facing off against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, instability loomed large. The economy was in shambles, with an energy crisis, inflation and high unemployment hitting all at the same time. Meanwhile, Americans were being held hostage in Iran and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Many voters believed that Carter had been overwhelmed, while Reagan’s promise of a stronger and more secure future appealed to a large part of the electorate. The image of Carter holed up in the Oval Office pitomized the opposite of what many Americans were looking for in a president, even though he was secretly working to free the hostages.
Reagan, who blamed the economy on the president by calling it a “Carter Depression,” sparked a debate over his choice of words, and whether “recession” was more fitting. But the line of attack was a successful one, and Reagan doubled down on it when he said in September 1980, “Let it show on the record that when the American people cried out for economic help, Jimmy Carter took refuge behind a dictionary. Well if it’s a definition he wants, I’ll give him one. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
The 2024 presidential election will likely establish a similar dynamic. For Biden, it will be important to avoid looking like Carter. He, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, need to stay on top of the many unfolding crises, bringing solutions before situations spin out of control. As Carter learned (as have other Presidents before and after him), doing so is not easy since voters tend to connect the problems of the moment to the person inhabiting the White House, whether that is fair or not. It helps that Biden has established himself as a politician who is responsible, concerned with governing, and a moderate in American politics.
For Republicans, the challenge is different. While an ascendant Reagan promised a rightward agenda and the ability to lead more effectively than Carter, this will be a heavier lift for Republicans today, given that the party failed to introduce a new party platform in 2020 and has become better known for its disruptive approach to politics rather than its skill at governing. The appeal of the Trump era for many voters was electing officials who were willing to cause chaos on behalf of their supporters, many of whom felt abandoned by and suspicious of big government.
Former President Donald Trump epitomized this party brand. Trump is still dogged by multiple investigations, and if he is the 2024 Republican nominee, he will only remind Americans of the chaos of his first term and the potential fallout of a second. And while Gov. Ron DeSantis will certainly use his own record as the chief executive of Florida should he run for president, early signs suggest he will highlight his ventures into the explosive culture wars.
The candidate who can best convince Americans that they can handle whatever crisis comes their way and bring back stability will be the odds-on favorite to win. The search for stability is paramount at this moment in American history, and voters will be looking for the person who can bring about better times.