Was there a great cry of huzzahs? For Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, yes. The soft landing of 1993-1995 created the bipartisan myth of invincibility that clung to Greenspan until the Great Recession of 2007-2009. (Before Greenspan’s fall, Bob Woodward actually titled a book-length portrait of the Fed chief Maestro.) But while it’s certainly true that the Fed exercises greater control over inflation than any president can, Clinton’s contribution during this period to more general economic health, like Biden’s contribution today, went ignored by the American public. In late December 1993, when the Fed started tightening screws, Clinton’s approval rating was 54 percent. It then proceeded to drop through 1994, bottoming out in September at 39 percent before edging up to around 46 percent in April 1995, when the Fed stopped raising interest rates. Since Labor Day Biden’s approval rating has hovered around 40.
The good news is that Clinton’s rebound helped win him a second presidential term in 1996. The bad news is that the midterms took place while Clinton’s approval rating was closer to where Biden’s is today, with the result that Clinton lost majorities in both houses of Congress. In the House, it was the first time in four decades that Republicans won the majority. “On virtually every objective indicator of macroeconomic performance, the country has prospered,” marveled political scientists M. Stephen Weatherford and Lorraine M. McDonald, both of the University of California Santa Barbara, in the September 1996 Political Science Quarterly. “Yet the public impressions of Clinton’s performance, in the economy as much as in other areas, ranges from an image of well-intentioned haplessness to one of insensitive big-government liberalism.” Sound familiar?
It remains to be seen whether the 2024 election will echo Clinton’s loss in 1994 or his victory in 1996. An encouraging difference from 1994 is that it’s doubtful Republicans can keep the House. A disquieting difference from 1996 is that the age issue, which bedevils Biden, hurt Clinton’s unsuccessful challenger, Bob Dole, who was considered an old man at 73. Perhaps we might now consider that Dole lived another 25 years, most of them fairly active. Biden can’t will himself to be any younger, but he can continue to publicize the success of his economic policies. A soft landing doesn’t happen every day.