The end-of-year holiday season is usually a retrospective time in Washington. But at the end of 2022, Americans appear tired of the rearview mirror and ready to look forward. Eyes are therefore starting to focus on 2024, and whether US President Joe Biden will run for re-election.
Mr Biden is, thus far at least, easily the most impressive American president since I moved to the US in 1980. His almost exactly two-year-old tenure has been extraordinary. He has quickly accumulated a small mountain of very significant and highly progressive domestic legislation affecting sectors ranging from child and health care to the tax code, to hard infrastructure and manufacturing investment, and, perhaps most significantly, climate change. It is the most masterful legislative performance since Lyndon Johnson in 1964-1965. Mr Biden did it all with a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives and none at all in the 50-50 Senate (although Vice President Kamala Harris was empowered to break ties).
On foreign affairs, he aced by far the biggest test of his, and any recent, administration: the macro-historic crisis posed to the international system by Russia's calamitous invasion of Ukraine. He united the western alliance confronting Moscow and working with Kyiv to ensure that Russia's initial aim to eliminate Ukraine as an independent nation and distinct society was roundly thwarted.
The stated and correct goal is ensuring that Russia does not benefit from what President Vladimir Putin finally admits is a war without being able to launch another aggression against any of its neighbours in the foreseeable future. Nato is now stronger than in many decades, and is expanding to include two key new members, Sweden and Finland. Mr Biden impressively walked the fine line between mobilising the western alliance to defeat Russia's aims in Ukraine without intervening directly.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a joint session of Congress in Washington last week, this support for Ukraine “is not charity. It's an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way". Even some of the most sceptical Republican right wing and Democratic leftist isolationists were eventually forced to their feet by the emotive intensity of Mr Zelenskyy's words. The Biden administration's framing of the war as a historic turning point for the global order is what prepared so many Americans and other westerners to acknowledge, however reluctantly, that the Ukrainian President's narrative about the war is essentially correct.
Mr Biden has had his share of significant, sometimes embarrassing, failures. His legislation, however impressive, fell far short of his grandiose vision and promises from the campaign. Many liberals feel left out or abandoned.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an utter shambles. Although any US withdrawal was bound to be chaotic, the Biden administration erred in believing the Afghan government and military could hold on for months, or at least weeks, when they could not hold on for more than a few hours. This led to terrible failures like deserving Afghans being left behind.
Another serious flunk involves ongoing chaos at the US southern border. Like all his recent predecessors, Mr Biden has failed to find any solution, in part because Republicans don't really want one, preferring to blame liberals for supposedly wanting "open borders". But he has not done anything dramatic to even appear to be tackling the issue, thereby ceding ground to shameless Republican governors who grandstand, most recently by apparently bussing confused migrants to the Vice President's residence in the middle of the night and the freezing dead of winter.
The President's messaging has often been abysmal, featuring constant underselling, and literally as well as figuratively mumbling through key teachable moments. In his "major speech” on September 1, Mr Biden bungled dreadfully by conflating urgent efforts to preserve the US constitutional order with his own specific policies. And while he pulled his party very much to the centre, and therefore to a historic triumph in the midterms, many Americans have been allowed to remain convinced that the Democratic Party is much more liberal than it actually is.
Finally, the President is definitely showing his age. So is the 76-year-old Donald Trump. But even though Mr Biden appears impressively fit, he looks and sounds every bit of his 80 years. I just made the case that he should definitely run again, given his remarkable record of success. But he will be on the verge of 82 in early November 2024, meaning he will be asking voters to trust him to lead the country until he is 86. A few countries have had chief executives that old, but for Americans, it would be a new watershed and one many, including plenty of Democrats, will not welcome.
Most importantly, he will have to be completely confident in his Vice President, absolutely certain this individual is ready to step into power with no notice whatsoever. Does Ms Harris fit the bill? Most of the country does not appear convinced yet. This may be another of Mr Biden's most striking failures. He certainly has not given her a starring role, to say the least, except as the public face of the administration’s underwhelming border policies, the ultimate US political crown of thorns.
Her supporters think she had an excellent 2022, pointing to her role at the Munich Security Conference on the eve of the Ukraine invasion, barnstorming national condemnation of the Supreme Court's repeal of abortion rights, and diplomacy in Asia. But it has not been enough to elevate her sufficiently to stand next to an 82-year-old running mate and say, “re-elect us with confidence".
Jill Biden is reportedly convinced her husband should run for re-election. She's right. No other Democrat, or Republican for that matter, is remotely as well positioned for victory. His more complex decision will be about Ms Harris. If he's not convinced she's completely ready, it is time to look for somebody else, such as governors Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Jared Polis of Colorado.
Mr Biden should run again, but he needs to think very carefully about his confidence in Ms Harris. He can almost certainly win, even if he were to rile some Democrats by replacing her. But, if he thinks she's up to the job, he must now invest far more attention and planning in preparing her to serve as president and the public to see her as ready for the White House.