George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton at a 1992 debate in Michigan.
In 1992, people felt that George H.W. Bush did not fully grasp the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. Doug Mills/AP

Is Biden in 2024 a Replay of Bush in 1992?

Unpopular incumbents. Third-party spoilers. Economic anxiety. There are enough parallels to worry some Democrats.

If you’re a Democrat and looking for reassurance — as poll after poll shows warning signs for Joe Biden — you might be tempted to compare 2024 to 2012, when Barack Obama also faced rocky terrain in his bid for reelection, then ended up winning rather convincingly.

But some Democrats now worry that 2024 may actually be more like 1992 — a year in which an incumbent president, who had previously served two terms as vice president, was damaged by pocketbook concerns, entrenched economic pessimism, deep distrust in government institutions, a powerful third-party campaign and a sense that he was old and failed to understand the nation’s problems.

Three top Democrats recently told me they have heard other Democrats making the comparison to 1992 at meetings and party gatherings. Several others told me they agreed with aspects of the comparison.

“I have heard people wanting to compare the two,” said Maria Cardona, a longtime Democratic strategist who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. “I don’t think it is an apples-to-apples comparison,” she added but conceded there were echoes in voters’ economic negativity and the third-party threat.

Arguably, the comparison to 1992 boils down to a key lesson: In times of economic apprehension, an incumbent president needs to show empathy.

In 1992, people felt that George H.W. Bush did not fully grasp the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. “The reason that the 1992 analogy is invoked is [that election] was about who feels the pain,” which is once again a central question in 2024, said a former aide to President Obama. “Especially when it comes to price, people just want to have a sense that their president understands that it is tough out there right now.”

Democrats are anxious for Biden to avoid falling into the same trap as Bush. “We need to layer in more humanity,” said a top Democratic operative close to the Biden campaign. “We have to rehumanize him. He can’t be just the old man behind the podium.”

Under Bush, the economy had begun to improve well before the election — climbing out of an early 1990s recession — but voters were not necessarily feeling the effects. Jobless rates remained stubbornly high as millions of Americans eager to find work were unable to do so. A Pew Research Center survey in March 1992 found 76% of Americans believed Bush “could be doing more” to fix the economy.

Similar pessimism prevails today: While Biden has overseen an economic boom — job growth has surpassed expectations, the unemployment rate has been under 4% since February 2022 and the nation’s gross domestic product grew by 3.3% in the final quarter of 2023 — voters remain skeptical of his handling of the economy. A late January survey from NBC News found 55% of registered voters believe Trump would handle the economy better than Biden, while only 33% believe the reverse.

Bush’s time in office also corresponded with deepening distrust in American institutions: According to Gallup, just 36% of Americans in 1991 had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence” in major institutions, a 10-point decrease from two years earlier. In 2023, meanwhile, just 26% of Americans had that level of confidence — down 10 points from 2020, and a low point for the poll.

Biden in Las Vegas in February.
Biden in Las Vegas this month. To avoid the fate of Bush in 1992, he will need to create small moments with voters that show he understands their economic worries. Stephanie Scarbrough/AP

The parallels between 1992 and 2024 don’t end there. The alienation voters felt in 1992 was put into relief by one man: Ross Perot, the business magnate turned presidential candidate who mounted a third-party bid by focusing on balancing the federal budget and improving the economy. The impact on Republican voters was dramatic, with a Pew analysis days before the election finding nearly half of Republican voters believed Perot, not Bush, would be better at protecting jobs and half thought he would be better at bringing down the deficit. Perot went on to win just under 19% of the vote, the best showing for a third-party candidate since 1912.

Biden also faces the threat of multiple third-party candidates cutting into his support: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer with a conspiratorial bent; progressive scholar Cornel West; and any candidate eventually put up by No Labels, which is actively recruiting a bipartisan “unity ticket.” While it is unlikely these options could perform as well as Perot did, this cycle has featured some of the strongest polling numbers for third-party politicians since 1992.

“Both parties have lost their connection with everyday Americans and abandoned the middle class,” said Mary Matalin, who was deputy campaign manager for Bush in 1992. Kennedy, she argued, “is Dems’ Perot.”

Of course, no presidential election is directly analogous to another, and the 1992-2024 comparison is far from perfect. Biden is facing a uniquely unpopular challenger in Donald Trump, while Bush ran against a young up-and-comer in Clinton. The economy in 2024 is further along in its recovery than it was in 1992. And Biden, unlike Bush, will be harder to paint as an aloof elitist given his middle-class roots and Trump’s opulent lifestyle.

No moment better captured the perception that the patrician Bush was out of touch than a February 1992 visit he made to a Florida grocery store, where he was reportedly bewildered by a barcode scanner. The scanner did have new technology, like a scale, but the symbolism stuck: “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed,” a New York Times headline subsequently blared.

Biden will have to do the opposite: create small moments with voters that show he understands their economic worries and is working to assuage them. Many of Biden’s recent stops have focused on small businesses that are hiring workers. And during a recent trip to North Carolina, Biden brought fast food to a local home to have lunch with a family and hear about their concerns, on everything from the economy to student loans.

It’s a strategy that is reminiscent of the one Clinton used to defeat Bush. “You got to take it down to the micro level,” Skip Rutherford, an adviser to Clinton in 1992, said of Biden’s economic messaging. “How does that impact [average Americans] when they go to the grocery store? How does that impact a 20-year-old college student when she fills up her gas tank?”

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This kind of politicking has traditionally been one of Biden’s strengths — and may represent his best chance to ensure that, despite all the similarities between 2024 and 1992, the outcome proves different.

“Of all the elected officials I have seen, of all presidents I have seen, [Biden] has demonstrated time and again more empathy than anyone else,” said former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s closest friends and advisers, noting that Biden has been referred to as “middle-class Joe” for much of his career. “It’s going to be hard to paint him as someone who doesn’t have empathy in this race.”

Dan Merica is a national political reporter who was most recently at The Messenger, where he covered campaigns and Democratic politics. He reported on elections for over a decade at CNN, where he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for his work covering the Trump team’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.